Cubism on the front: Fernand Léger's war drawings

Cubism on the front: Fernand Léger's war drawings

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  • Verdun, drawing of the front.

    LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

  • Seated soldiers [War Drawings series].

    LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

  • Mechanical elements [War Drawings series].

    LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

  • Soldiers in a ruined house [War Drawings series].

    LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

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Title: Verdun, drawing of the front.

Author : LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 21.2 - Width 16.3

Technique and other indications: Pencil.

Storage location: Fernand Léger National Museum website

Contact copyright: © ADAGP, © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 95-019735 / MNFL96018

© ADAGP, Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Seated soldiers [War Drawings series].

Author : LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 16.8 - Width 12.1

Technique and other indications: Pencil on paper. Executed in Verdun in 1916. Old title: Frontal drawings.

Storage location: National Museum of Modern Art - Center Pompidou website

Contact copyright: © ADAGP, © Photo CNAC / MNAM Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - © All rights reserved

Picture reference: 35-000776 / AM1985-418

Seated soldiers [War Drawings series].

© ADAGP, Photo CNAC / MNAM Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

To close

Title: Mechanical elements [War Drawings series].

Author : LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

Creation date : 1916

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 16.3 - Width 12.6

Technique and other indications: Pencil on paper. Executed near Verdun in 1916. Old title: Frontal drawings.

Storage location: National Museum of Modern Art - Center Pompidou website

Contact copyright: © ADAGP, © Photo CNAC / MNAM Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - © All rights reserved

Picture reference: 35-000786 / AM1985-426

Mechanical elements [War Drawings series].

© ADAGP, Photo CNAC / MNAM Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

To close

Title: Soldiers in a ruined house [War Drawings series].

Author : LEGER Fernand (1881 - 1955)

Creation date : 1916

Date shown: 1916

Dimensions: Height 25.5 - Width 16.2

Technique and other indications: Pencil on paper. RMN-Grand Palais - © All rights reserved

Picture reference: 35-000781 / AM1985-423

Soldiers in a ruined house [War Drawings series].

© ADAGP, Photo CNAC / MNAM Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: July 2007

Historical context

Represent the war

The 1914-1918 war brought about an unprecedented break in the history of ways of fighting: war of movement, where two armies clashed face to face, gave way to a conflict of position, buried, long, almost at a distance. with the use of long range weapons (shells, tanks, rifles, machine guns, etc.). The mass of soldiers alone counted before a strike power that destroyed and killed on a large scale.
Traditional representations (individual portraits of generals, melee of the two armies, battlefields, heroes in action) no longer suited this depersonalized form of combat: individual bravery was no longer appropriate; The scale of military development and destruction created apocalyptic landscapes. As Félix Vallotton, official painter sent by the army to the front lines, said: "To paint war today is no longer to paint pictures of battle".
Among the artists involved, some found in the cubist aesthetic a means of expression adapted to the representation of their experience on the front, to their experience as a fighter and to the vision of spaces, fields, cities, devastated after the battle. . His correspondence abounds in remarks explaining the fit he felt between the Cubist style and what he experienced.

Image Analysis

Cubism, an aesthetic adapted to war?

Verdun was thus for Léger "the academy of cubism": "There are in this Verdun completely unexpected subjects and well made to rejoice my cubist soul. For example, you discover a tree with a chair perched on it. Sane people will call you crazy if you present them with a picture made this way. Yet there is only to copy. Verdun allows all pictorial fantasies. "

After the clashes, the sites were so devastated, turned upside down, that they no longer looked like anything recognizable: the pulverized constructions, the ruins, the shell holes, formed an indescribable imbroglio that the cubist aesthetic allowed to return. In Verdun, front drawing, the absence of a single perspective, the fragmentation of vanishing points and the spatial contraction produced by the juxtaposition of figurative elements generate a lack of landmarks which formally transcribes the extreme confusion, the unrecognizable aspect of landscapes and sites. The fragmented representation of objects in simplified and open forms, that is to say without well-defined contours, reflects the physical dislocation of things, their disintegration by destructive powers.

Cubist plastic solutions also served to transcribe the experience of fighting, the dehumanization that Léger felt. “Fighting, individual action is kept to a minimum. You pull the trigger of a gun and you shoot without seeing. You barely act. In short, we arrive at this: human beings acting in the unconscious and making machines act. "

The characters of Seated soldiers are mainly composed of geometric shapes: cubes for the head and trunk, circular tubes for the arms, circles for the joints. They are thus depersonalized, reduced to an infinitely reproducible sketch, like the Mechanical elements drawn on another sheet. They reflect exactly this impression of making the "same gestures in the same places", this "mechanization from which all emotion is excluded" that Léger described in his letters. Moreover, reduced by this war to the state of killing machines equal to other weapons, men have lost so much of their individuality and humanity that they merge with their environment in Soldiers in a ruined house. The use of a similar formal repertoire to represent ruins and soldiers produces a visual equivalence that transforms them into inanimate things, almost physical props.

Interpretation

A new visual language

In his depictions of the hairy, Léger gives war its "abstract" character by eliminating the human. “This war is linear and dry like a geometry problem. So many buses in so much time on such a surface, so many men per meter and at a fixed time in order. All of this is triggered mechanically. It is pure abstraction, purer than cubist painting. So for Léger, "there is nothing more Cubist than a war like this which more or less neatly divides a man into several pieces and sends him to the four cardinal points".

Cubism also became the aesthetic language of other artists sent to the front, such as André Lhote or André Mare. Faced with the spectacle of chaos, of dehumanization, the naturalist representation seemed too poor: it did not allow the destructive force of the new weapons to be expressed, nor the experience of the combatant in the trenches. Art could no longer be imitative, it needed stronger plastic metaphors to transcribe this experience.

The cubist style, by its decomposition of forms, its distortions of perspectives, its broken objects, offered a formal vocabulary more apt to evoke the apocalyptic scale of destruction. It also allowed the expression of the furry’s inner feelings, the psychological effects that the fighting had on them. The rupture that cubism had initiated in 1907 thus made possible a representation which, beyond the visible reality of war, also offered meaningful transcriptions of the soldiers' experiences.

  • battles
  • cubism
  • War of 14-18
  • modernism
  • hairy
  • ruins
  • Verdun
  • abstract art
  • destruction
  • Artistic current
  • representation of war

Bibliography

Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004. Stéphane AUDOIN-ROUZEAU and Annette BECKER, 14-18, return to war, Paris, Gallimard, 2000. Pierre DAIX, Journal of Cubism, Paris-Genève, Skira, 1982.Fernand LÉGER, “Une correspondence de guerre à Louis Poughon, 1914-1918”, éd.Christian Derouet in The Notebooks of the National Museum of Modern Art, special edition, 1990.André MARE, Cubism and camouflage: 1914-1918, Bernay, Municipal Museum of Fine Arts, 1998. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Claire LE THOMAS, "Cubism on the Front: Fernand Léger's War Drawings"


Video: Fernand Léger. Le balcon, 1914. Kunstmuseum Winterthur