14 MARCH 1998, Page 46

Exhibitions 1

Fernand Leger (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, till 12 May)

Tres dr 'Ole

Roger Kimball

The motor-car,' Edith Wharton declared in 1908, 'has restored the romance of travel.' How things change! I thought of Wharton's comment — redolent with plea- sures lost to us — as I made my way through this invigorating exhibition of paintings and drawings by Fernand Leger at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Leger's best work, executed from 1910 to the early 1940s, is full of the optimistic energy of high modernism. The critic and painter John Golding captured this quality in the title of his fine essay Teger and the Heroism of Modern Life'. 'Never,' Golding wrote, 'has the poetry of the first machine age been so grandly and proudly exalted.'

It was still all right for left-wing artists, like Leger, to regard science and technolo- gy as friends of mankind. Modern life may have been bright, noisy, vulgar, but it was unaccountably vital, which was unanswer- able. 'Beauty is everywhere,' Leger observed in the 1920s, 'in the arrangement of your pots and pans, on the white wall of your kitchen, more perhaps than in your 18th-century salon or in the official muse- urn.' One inhaled the smoke of a thousand cigarettes and felt nothing but cheerful- ness: the health police had yet to blight that indulgence. The airplane was marvel- lous, likewise the skyscraper and the elec- tric light. At the touch of a finger, an elegant cut-glass syphon delivered sparkling water into a tumbler of Campari: happiness. Like Wharton's motor-car, these things infused everyday life with heady romance. It couldn't last. But while it did, it was as new and careless and intoxi- cating as youth itself. Leger was one of its chroniclers.

The last few decades have not been kind to Leger. There was a time, from the 1920s to the early 1940s, when he was regularly counted among the giants of French mod- ernism, spoken of not perhaps as an equal of but nevertheless in the same breath as Picasso, Braque, Matisse and the rest. Since his death in 1955, however, and espe- cially in the last few decades, neglect has been slowly eating away at Leger's stature. Enthusiasm retreated to respect and then, occasionally, to unconcern. This exhibition, a larger version of which was seen last year in Paris and Madrid, refocuses attention on Leger's achievement and allows one to reconsider his place in the pantheon of modernist masters.

Although Leger began painting seriously in 1903 when he was 22, he first emerges as Leger around 1910. (The artist helped to designate his own beginning by destroying most of his juvenilia in 1908.) Leger's early works, well represented in this exhibition, are a cross between Cubism and a Boccioni- like Futurism. In paintings like 'Nudes in a Forest' (1909-10), 'The Wedding' (1911), and 'The Smokers' (1911-12), Leger ani- mates what are essentially Cubist composi- tions with a sense of movement and acceleration. The hapless critic Louis Vaux- A special humour: 'Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) , 1921, by Leger celles, whose rage against modernist art gave us both 'Cubism' (he referred dismis- sively to painting of le petit cube') and `Fauvism', scored another, though less well- known, bull's-eye when in 1911 he employed the term `tubism' to describe Leger's fond- ness for elongated cylindrical forms.

Vauxcelles was unreceptive but not unperceptive. He didn't like what he saw, but he observed clearly. There was some- thing 'wild' about the colours of Matisse circa 1906, just as 'Cubism' now seems the inevitable term to describe those canvases by Picasso, Braque and Picabia. Similarly, Vauxcelles picked up on something central in Leger's visual vocabulary. There is some- thing 'tubular' about his forms, from the early Cubist-inspired canvases of 1910 to the monumental tableaux of the 1920s through the late paintings of construction workers. It is as if in his effort to achieve compositional harmony Leger pressed harder and harder on the surface of his pic- tures. The result, especially in his work through the 1920s, is a dual sense of full- ness and flatness, as if every square mil- limetre had been squeezed full of emotion.

`Contrast' was one of Leger's favourite words and ideas. It was, he thought, a qual- ity that spoke to the essence of modernity. In 'Contrast of Forms', a series dating from 1910, Leger exploited contrasts of form, shape, orientation, colour, and texture to make some remarkably beguiling and ani- mated abstract pictures. They are visual memoranda of Leger's experience of mod- ern life: a chaos that is nevertheless a har- mony. It is also worth remarking on the intricately nubbled texture of these paintings. For viewers who, like me, have tended to think of Leger as a painter primarily of hard- edged forms of almost billboard-like flatness, this exhibition will be something of a reve- lation. It shows that Leger was, as Carolyn Lancher notes in her informative catalogue essay, 'a painter in love with paint'.

The exhibition is a revelation in other ways as well. Perhaps the first thing one notices about Leger is his humour. 'Dead- pan' is the term that crops up again and again in reviews. And Leger's humour is dead-pan. But it is also totally without cal- culation. In this, Leger's work is utterly unlike Pop art, with which it has sometimes been compared. Pop art is a species of marketing; Leger was after something deeper. He somehow managed to capture the incongruity that lurks wherever man troubles nature with his probings. The son of a Normandy butcher, Leger was about as down-to-earth as a painter could be. And yet there is an almost metaphysical quality about his humour. It depended not on making jokes but revealing — as Leger himself might put it — certain essential contrasts: between, let us say, the way things are and they way we would like them to be. Leger had a special knack, a genius, even, for ferreting out and expressing such contrasts. Or perhaps 'ferreting out' implies too much deliberation for insights that seemed entirely intuitive. In any event, such contrasts are what imbue even Leger's most abstract paintings with an air of inex- plicable drollery. Sometimes the humour is deliberate, as in his Surrealistic spoof, `Mona Lisa with Keys' (1930). In his great- est paintings — 'The City' (1919), 'Compo- sition with Hand and Hats' (1927), and above all in 'Three Women' (1921), his masterpiece — I.kger manages to infuse the humour with a stateliness that verges on melancholy.

Leger grew into this special humour, gradually. He also gradually grew out of it. His greatest period is from 1919 to the 1930s. Some paintings from the early 1940s — the splendid 'Grey Acrobats' from 1942- 44, for example — still pulse with it. But as Leger grew older he somehow lost touch with his special well of feeling. He went through the motions, but, increasingly, there was something forced about his work: sad with yearning rather than accomplishment. Clement Greenberg may have overstated it when he noted, in 1941, that 'by force of repetition Leger's painting has become facile and empty, almost a matter of formu- la'. Nevertheless, he discerned a tendency in I.kger's work that would become more pronounced as the years went on.