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Making the grand gesture: simple but vital

A friend who once studied with Fernand Leger told me that Leger at one point during a class transformed my friend's detailed study of a potted plant into a cluster of bold curves. And that he did it with a few swift strokes, all the while talking about simplicity and the need to find an object's essential form.

My friend wasn't pleased (this had happened before) and took himself elsewhere for study. But I'm certain Leger lost no sleep over that, for he had created and mastered a powerful modern style, and was thoroughly convinced of its effectiveness and worth.

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The style he had created represented the triumph of the generic over the particular, or, to put it another way, the triumph of will and imagination over the "accidental" in nature.

Whereas my friend had lost himself in trying to trace every particular of every leaf, blossom, stem, or tendril, Leger had seen the plant merely as a cluster of the simplest geometric shapes and patterns. To him a leaf, rather than being drawn with a delicate line sensitive to every bump and indentation of its form, should be drawn with two bold curves, and the blossom as a series of loops with a circle at its center.

Now there's nothing new in this. Every child starts to draw by transforming the complexities of its world into the simplest of shapes. Thus, a human face becomes an egg shape with a few dots for its features and a house becomes a rectangle with a triangle for its roof.

But a child, as he grows older, gradually tries to particularize what he draws and will make every attempt to reproduce the unique characteristics of what he sees, so that a head will be recognizable as Uncle Fred's and a house will obviously be the one up the street.

Leger, as a grown man and a sophisticated artist, reversed the process and devoted his life to turning the complex into the simple, the subtle and nuanced into the most obvious.

The question, of course, is why. Why did he turn his back on the historical process of making art more and more "realistic," more and more specific and particular, and opt instead for an art that was so very schematic and ritualized?

The answer to that lies deep in the original premises of modernism, and in its determined efforts to create an art that would stand on its own feet without having continually to prove itself by resembling objects and places found in the "real" world.

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But there was more to it than that. And that lay in Leger's profound desire for a balanced and classical art, an art that would rival, in its monumentality and scale, the great masterpieces of the past. All his instincts as an artist led him to see painting as something that was as solidly shaped and constructed as a piece of furniture or a building, and not as something that was lovely or sensitive, or that attempted to recreate a subtle mood. His goal was art as architecture, and he set out at an early age to fashion such an art out of strictly 20th-century forms and images.

For his forms he went to the late paintings of Cezanne and to Cubism, and that included Delaunay's dynamic Cubism as well as the more static Cubism of Picasso and Braque. And for his imagery he went to the machine, to such things as automobiles and airplanes, and to the dynamic patterns and rhythms of the modern city. He took all that very much to heart and was, before long, fashioning an art that was severely geometric in style and impersonal in attitude -- and which represented the regulated patterns and streamlined shapes of our mechanized society.

In the process, he simplified the form of everything that went into his compositions, even turning people into abstractions, or into highly stylized, puppetlike creatures. And if he did that to people, it made little sense that he would not also do it to such things as potted plants -- either those in his own paintings or those in the drawings of students who came to study with him.

To an artist of monumental visions, there must come ultimately the desire to paint the monumental masterpiece, the work that will encapsulate all that he and his style represent. To Leger, this vision took the form of "The Great Parade," the final version of which is reproduced here.

It was finished a year before his death, and was the culmination of several themes developed over the preceding 15 years and of hundreds of preparatory drawings. He worked very hard on it and what he produced was truly one of the monumental masterpieces of the 20th century -- probably not one of its very greatest, but certainly one of its very best.

I ran into my friend a few days ago and asked him if he minded my using his experience with Leger as an introduction to an article on him. Certainly not, he said, and then added that he was really sorry that he hadn't stayed with Leger a little longer. That he feels now that by leaving him he missed out on learning something quite significant.

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