If Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby epitomizes the Roaring Twenties of New York, then Fernand Léger’s “The City” exemplifies Les Années Folles of Paris—the centerpiece of the recently debuted exhibit, “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Curated by Anna Vallye, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art, the show illustrates the evolution of the sensational avant-garde movement in Paris following the devastation of World War I.
After three years in combat, Léger, a French modernist born in Normandy (1881-1955), retreated to Paris only to encounter yet another explosive lifestyle. Post-war disillusion paired with urbanization, technological advancement, consumerism, and a newfound prominence of the individual triggered a spasmodic yet zealous culture that transpires in Leger’s innovative work. By reducing cityscapes to geometric, mechanical forms in vibrant colors, Léger’s “The City” creates a kaleidoscopic effect that captures the electrifying city life of Paris in the 1920’s.
Over time, Léger’s style transitioned from semi-cubist to more abstract. While his vivid and simplified compositions root back to Paul Cézanne, a renowned French Post-Impressionist, the exhibit pays little attention to his crucial influence. Nevertheless, visitors participate in a dynamic dialogue with over 120 works by Léger and his contemporaries, such as Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray, Georges Braques, and Le Corbusier, on the escalation of modernity. Such an impact becomes evident as subject matters change from bustling cities to popular culture—a harbinger to Andy Warhol’s soup cans.
As the show unfolds, the fractured dimensions of space in Léger’s work mirror the arrangement of the exhibit, as the transition from Dadaism, Futurism, and Constructivism is not as fluid as it could be for the amateur dilettante. That being said, appreciation is not reserved for the flannel-wearing hipster or the art history major.
“Modern Art and the Metropolis,” from its paintings, to architectural models, and silent films, demonstrates that art is a synesthetic way of interpreting history accessible to all. Advances in cinema, street side accordions, and even Einstein’s theory of relativity emerge from the interplay of dissonant colors and shapes throughout the exhibit, revealing a visceral insight into the past that no history textbook can echo.