Tasting the fruits of L'eger's family tree

IF you could construct a fanciful genealogy for 20th-century modern artists, and make a most unlikely cross, say, between Chagall and Mondrian, you might well come up with L'eger. Or at least the L'eger of the last 25 years of his career, from 1930 to 1955. The work of this period by the French ``primitive of modern art,'' as Fernand L'eger aptly styled himself, is celebrated and studied in the current show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (it goes to the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in March).

Though he was greatly interested in the possibilities of mural decoration on public buildings during these years, which brought out his more abstract side, the show concentrates on his development of easel painting. And arguably it is in these buoyant, monumental paintings, filled with acrobats and divers, cyclists and picnickers and builders (culminating in such achievements as ``Les Constructeurs'' of 1950 and ``La Grande Parade'' of 1954) that he most successfully pursued his increasing conviction of an art accessible to the ordinary man: popular, full of humanity, and yet neither imitatively realistic nor anecdotal.

Two factors may have particularly contributed to this change in his art at this time: In 1931 he made his first trip to the United States (followed by three further trips in the next 14 years, the last being an extended stay for the duration of World War II); then, on his return to France in 1945, his political convictions culminated in his joining the communist party. It is quite feasible that both of these factors encouraged his attraction to the notion of paintings with larger and more public dimensions and appeal, in which human beings, however stylized or schematic, are the principal players.

It is of obvious interest today, when the figurative seems much more significant than the abstract in art, that L'eger, as early as the 1930s, had come to believe that pure abstraction (the artist working exclusively with form, line, and color) was regrettably elitist. It asked too much of of ordinary people. Art, he said, should simply be loved; it did not have to be ``understood.'' But the problem was how to retain the new freedom that 20th-century abstraction had unquestionably given painters - how to compose paintings liberated from the awful constraints of Renaissance illusionism, and yet still make humane and lovable art?

The human figure, in a mechanistic, puppet-like form, was not new to L'eger's art. But in these later years he appreciated the figure far more as the symbol of human dignity. He saw it as distinct from the beauties of the modern machinery and mechanisms he had once, as a post-Cubist painter, vigorously admired. An interest in nature revived in him.

This show begins with drawn and painted studies from nature - tree forms, holly leaves, landscapes, a quartier de mouton. An element of the dream world of surrealism is not wholely absent in these works: Objects seem to have a strange internal existence, a mystique, of their own. It's an image-world in which objects are half alive. A drawing of two old gloves carries this perception of the organic life of things over into the human realm. Like all L'eger's drawings and paintings, these are vigorously rendered, with that directness and suggestion of tough insensitiveness that were his bluff way of avoiding a prissy aestheticism. It's as if his art was meant to describe himself - born a peasant and always, in sympathies at least, a peasant. ``No eloquence, no romanticism,'' he once cried. Like Mondrian - but with none of Mondrian's ascetic strictness - he focused on the primary: simple colors, thick black lines, white spaces. No wonder he liked stained glass.

But in fact, this apparent directness is somewhat misleading: Like Mondrian, his procedures were in the tradition of the most classical artists. He slowly, deliberately, and laboriously explored, altered, and refined his images until he reached a ``definitive'' public painting. But his claim of not being eloquent was also nonsense: His images speak out loudly, and he used words with clarity and vigor. His pronouncements - as a video in the show bears witness - remain an elucidating commentary on his art.

All told this show is marvelously exhilarating. He contrived to have the best of both worlds, the figurative and the abstract. The energies and rhythms of the human figure (of its form rather than its dramatic actions) give these paintings a great vitality and exuberance. His builders are acrobats of the construction trade, gesturing and balancing up on the scaffolding against the sky with its bulbous clouds. His divers both defy and succumb to the forces of gravity.

In his freedom to dispose his figures virtually anywhere on the canvas or paper he reminds one of Chagall. And the two artists certainly shared an instinct for an art of the folk, of the common man. But Chagall was an archetypal romantic; L'eger's romanticism is held in check. He is far more of a constructeur and much less of a dreamer. In the end he is a kind of realist. Not a slavish imitator of the world around him, but an inventive, slow-pondering, optimistic realist.

``Fernand L'eger: The Later Years'' is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery through Feb. 21. It then goes be seen in Stuttgart, at the Staatsgalerie, March 26 to June 19.

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