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Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis


It was the dawn of a new century. Paris was undergoing a dizzying transformation. Trains puffing white smoke streaked across the French countryside. Automobiles zipped along rutted roads hurrying to the next destination. The dynamic center of arts and culture, Paris was where Fernand Léger and other avant-garde artists experimented in new ways with cinema, ballet, theater, commercial art, and mass media.

“It was the artist’s job to depict this new myriad of sensory impressions,” Léger wrote. “When one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train it becomes fragmented, it loses descriptive value but gains in synthetic value. The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.”

A new multimedia exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” explores Léger’s career, the European avant-garde, and their fascination with the relationship between technology and the individual. The show runs through January 5, 2014.

Comprising 180 works, many on loan from public and private collections in Europe and the United States, the exhibit includes numerous media: paintings, film, stage design, posters, graphic and advertising design, and architecture by Léger (1881-1955) and his European colleagues who sought to participate in the complexity and excitement of the metropolis.

The exhibition was inspired by one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s premier holdings, Léger’s post-cubist masterpiece, “The City.”  The painting is a cornerstone of the museum’s collection and provokes discussion about urban art and the culture of modernity. A mural-sized (almost 8-by-10 feet) ode to the Metropolis of 1919, the painting depicts modernity and urban culture: images of bridges, radio towers, lampposts, street signs, bits of graphic art and typography, and robot-like figures climbing a stairway into a densely packed city landscape.

It is a montage interplay of rectangles, squares, circles, cylinders, and triangles in strong primary colors throbbing with life. Those bold colors and shapes became a familiar Léger hallmark.  The painting was donated to the Museum by artist and collector A.E. Gallatin.

“It is one of the greatest works in our collection and a landmark in the history of modern art,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “This exhibition examines the painting in context and marks the first time that the culture of the modern metropolis is explored as a catalyst for Léger’s pursuits in a variety of media.”

The son of a cattle farmer, Léger was born in Argentan, Orne, Basse-Normandie, in 1881. He came to Paris in 1900 to become an architectural draftsman. In 1908, Léger rented a studio at an artists’ settlement on the edge of Montparnasse where he eventually met the avant-garde painters Robert Delauney and Marc Chagall. Léger also gained connections with the Cubist movement; many of them were close friends with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the painters who had defined Cubism in 1907.

The Philadelphia exhibit offers a broad approach to a narrow slice of Léger’s art, spotlighting the decade after 1918 when the gregarious painter, returning to his beloved Paris from fighting in World War I, found artists experimenting with all kinds of innovative forms and concepts. Léger encountered a changed place energized by the city’s modernity–played out in everything from street life to architecture to advertising, and most of all machines.

This multimedia show features Léger’s city paintings, together with film projections, theater designs, architectural models, and print and advertising designs by Léger and his contemporaries. Many were also friends–Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Le Corbusier, Gerald Murphy, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray–who often collaborated with him on various projects.

“For all of these artists, I think ‘The City’ was this tremendous source of energy, this lightning rod,” says exhibition curator Anna Vallye. “For many artists, the metropolis imposed a new way of seeing and demanded new practices of art-making and inspired Léger to probe the boundaries between the arts, and between fine art and common culture.”

For more information about this exhibit, visit philamuseum.org.