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Making the grand gesture: simple but vital

Peggy Guggenheim in her book "Confessions of an Art Addict" had, often, a rather summary way of describing people. She said of Fernand Leger: "He was a terrifically vital man, who looked like a butcher." Naturally, she didn't also say that he painted like a butcher, but if she had he might not have been entirely displeased. The strength and skill of the workingman, the combination of muscle and precision, is not a thing Leger would have dismissed lightly.

He was the son of a stock-breeder, trained as an architect, who turned to painting. During the First World War he made a discovery that was immensely significant to his art: a sense of shared experience with the working class. He became increasingly opposed to elitism in art. He concluded that the middle class concept of the easel painting -- of art itself -- as a beautiful commodity was unacceptable. And he tried to make his own painting more accessible to ordinary people.

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This didn't mean an abandonment of quality, but it did suggest a reassessment of values. It wasn't the taste of the working class that appealed to him, it was its directness, its positive opinions, and its energy. He also felt that working-class slang had the kind of rich inventiveness and freedom from the conventions of written language that 20th-century painting ought also to have from the dead inheritance of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on copying the beautiful.

Before the First World War he had contributed his own vigorous ideas to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. These ideas already displayed the contrary poles of a vision that gave most of his pictures, right up to the last major (and mural-size) work of 1954, their peculiar, locked tension. On one hand they have architectural monumentality and a kind of weighty stillness; on the other they are filled with bursting movement, alive with activity.

He moved further into abstraction than did the Cubists and developed a classical attitude which saw a picture (or, on one occasion, a film) as an interplay of quite separate components, scrupulously and boldly organized. These were not only the "abstract" painter's components of color, line, form, but also object-components. So if figures found their way into his pictures -- and they did increasingly -- they were strangely like puppets or shop-window dummies: objects rather than people. They were made of parts that he could rearrange at will --arms, legs, heads, feet, large hands, all heavily outlined. From Cezanne, he said, he had learned that "drawing should be rigid and not at all sentimental." He also greatly admired the quality of "dryness" he perceived in the pictures of the Douanier Rousseau.

All these attitudes are wonderfully maintained in "The Great Parade." It was the result of a large number of trials and tests, of prints, drawings and paintings on the theme of a circus parade with acrobats and musicians and dancers, clowns and horses and dumbbells, a flow of ideas on this favorite subject which began in 1940 or earlier. It must have been the objective character of the circus, as well as its exuberant popularity, that excited him. Theatre also attracted him as visible spectacle rather than language; at one time he designed some inventive stage costumes. "The Great Parade" is Leger's treatment of a dynamic form of mass entertainment: it is noisy, joyful, commercial and emotional. Leger relishes this, but he also deliberately and coolly uses it as material for his own ends. He selects, enlarges and imposes an obvious order. He elevates and cuts across its celebration and chaos with his own "dryness" and lack of "the sentimental." This translates it into another idiom but simultaneously tautens and intensifies the vitality and the music and the fun. He once witnessed the ebullient enthusiasm of "six very elegant blacks , musicians in a New York bank," dancing in front of one of his pictures in Chicago. Looking now at "The Great Parade," one can guess that Leger was probably thrill ed by such a response.

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