Fernand Léger

(1881—1955) French painter

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French painter, who was one of the leading cubists.

The son of a prosperous Normandy farmer, Léger arrived in Paris in 1900 having served an apprenticeship to an architect in Caen. In Paris he worked in an architect's office and as a photographic retoucher, while studying art in his spare time. From 1909 he was in close touch with cubist painters but, unlike Picasso and Braque, who broke down objects into rectilinear forms, Léger favoured cylindrical forms. He became the first of the cubists to experiment with abstraction, which resulted in his Contrast of Forms series (1913). In these brightly coloured pictures the contrast is between flat and tubular forms.

On the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the engineers. Léger shared the enthusiasm of the futurists for mechanization and for modern industrial society and his war experiences strengthened that enthusiasm. They also opened his eyes to life outside his own social class, and the paintings that followed his discharge as a result of gas poisoning often had proletarian subjects, such as The Mechanic (1920). As well as figure compositions he painted still lifes and semi-abstract brightly coloured cityscapes. In 1924 he made an experimental film, Ballet mécanique. The 1930s saw a looser and more curvilinear style of painting with elements of surrealism.

Léger spent World War II in the USA, where he taught at Yale and in California and painted figure compositions, mainly of acrobats and cyclists. On his return to France in 1945, he joined the French Communist Party, and monumental working-class subjects became still more prominent in his painting. This characteristic of Léger's art made him especially suited to public commissions, such as the stained-glass windows for the church at Audincourt (1951).

The final development in Léger's style occurred in the 1950s, when he began to separate colour from outline. In Two Women with Flowers (1954), for example, the robust black outlines define the figures but no longer act as boundaries for the areas of pure flat colour. In 1955, the year of his death, Léger won the Grand Prix at the São Paolo Biennale.

Subjects: Art.

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