Review: Fernand Léger at Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool, Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures. images courtesy of Tate Liverpool

At Tate Liverpool until 29 March 2019
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Léger’s early work is really fairly disappointing to see. Le Jardin de ma mère, painted as he left college, show no personality, and nothing unique. It is a slightly sellable but unaccomplished impressionist work that benefitted little from any of his education.

Thankfully, this work isn’t on display at Tate Liverpool. This display carries his development forwards from just before the outbreak of WW1, to his death in 1955. A time when he had been decidedly influenced by Cezanne and Picasso, where cubism entered his work.

Still a relatively unoriginal painter for most of his career but with some promise, it wasn’t until the 1930’s when the style of Fernand Leger as we remember him was discovered.

One of many fuses that sparked pop art, this later figurative-cubism has become entirely iconic. But for me, it’s not that these works are outstanding in their own right, its that they are so clearly the work of an artist who spent his career striving to be an artist, never quite having confidence in his own voice.

As he matured, his work did with him, gaining a more natural energy, and a more honest style that kept his influences on the surface. The result is a career that accidentally charts the first half of the 20th Century’s movements in European art through the work of one artist, whose nervousness of his own ability meant he continually copied, mimicked and took more than a little influence from his peers.

This latest exhibition is therefore one of the clearest charts from impressionism to pop-art you might ever see, and without wanting to spoil the ending, an exhibition that proves Léger’s style came late. The latest works on show being the first of their kind, and the start of a style that led to the creation of countless other works by countless other artists on display in other galleries at Tate Liverpool.

Context is as important to this retrospective as anything, making it an exhibition that you either reflect on, or learn from. Whether you go into it with an established knowledge of Léger, his peers, and his influences, or not, you’ll come out of it knowing something you didn’t at first, and perhaps thinking differently about an artist you assumed you understood.