Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures, Tate Liverpool

Words, Louise Emily

Sometimes I think in another life I was a moth, or magpie. Bright colours and glints of shiny surfaces I seem to gravitate to. When I saw the posters of Fernand Léger’s exhibition I was immediately drawn to his large vibrant paintings. The work itself looked interesting, it was very simple and modern, using a lot of primary colours and simple shapes to create human forms.

Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was French artist born on February 4th, 1881 and died August 17th, 1955. Léger was a very broad and experimental artist (a painter, sculptor and film maker). He created his own form of cubism and developed into a figurative painter later on. However, the figures he created were still highly geometric, symmetric and slightly cartoon like.

I was surprised after seeing the exhibition, where I had taken down the names of the paintings I liked and disliked, that I could only find one of them online or in in print. This seemed good in a way. Tate must have got a very elite group of paintings. When you cannot photograph the exhibition, who sees it though? Only people who feel comfortable going to art galleries. Many, many of my “none arty” friends will only go to galleries if I am there, and never go alone. This creates an elitism in the art world still only allowing certain people to view art when art should be for everyone.

Rant over, The Dancer with the key stood out, a piece with more movement then other’s by Léger. Even though I was attracted to the bright, mainly primary, colours initially, with time, the image seemed flat – like stills from a moment in time.

The Dancer with the key, however, had an abstract quality creating the effect of music but without sound. This feeling had my mind racing. The image is only simple with many architectural forms and an even simper colour palette. The figure stands, in the middle of a dance movement, the keys are in the centre and what looks like the lock in behind the keys on the left. The rule of using odd numbers to create balance in composition really worked here. Equally wonderful about this painting was that centre point. I was drawn to the keys, and yet it holds no colour what so ever. Most of the colour is in the figure. I always learn something new at an exhibition and even though I am drawn to colour, composition done correctly can dictate a painting.

Ballet Mécanique, a video Léger made with Le Corbusier, was the best piece in the exhibition though. Tate Liverpool created a simple, effective, dark room, with minimal seating and minimal writing. Ballet Mécanique was created in 1924. The silent film is so energetic, it’s as though Léger and Le Corbusier wanted to create music from the pictures.

With a mixture of eyes, pan lids, women on swings, make up, legs, clocks, cars, marching and machines the whole piece is full of rhythm but, still silent. The video has kaleidoscopic transitions creating these beautiful patterns and elegant scenes in places. Others have the “heaviest” images such as the marching creating a solid pounding feeling in the video. Apart from the film quality, and very timely fashion, this work is timeless.

Other than Ballet Mécanique, the exhibition was full of colour. Huge pieces had been hung on the walls and it seemed at first glace that Tate were attempting to shift from a very formal white cube aesthetic to create a less “art world only” space. They seem to have shifted towards a museum setup in places, with art works in large glass tables with writing and information everywhere.

I love context in galleries. The down side of this though is finding over half the visitors huddling around the writing on the wall and trying to figure out dates and time lines while nobody is looking at the art!

In an exhibition I want people looking at the art work with the same intensity and interest as they do the text on the wall. A gallery is about the art. To quote John Berger we forget that “Seeing comes before words…The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” This seemed prominent in Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures. I guess my “New Pleasure” in these “New Times” is to get lost in the art and not the words.

Words by Louise Emily