Fernand Leger (1881-1955) apprenticed to an architect, studied under Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) and was admitted to the prestigious Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, but he never designed a building and, except for some early work under the spell of Impressionism, was impervious to more traditional modes of painting. Instead, Leger made his mark alongside the first cubists – Picasso, Braque and Gris – in canvases that more or less banished nature from the scene. They were largely depictions of a man-made world of objects and artifice, and few Cubists pursued the logic of Modernism more aggressively than Leger.
Influenced soon enough by the Italian Futurists and the experience of World War I, he painted a Machine Age of tubular, conical and cubical forms that often suggested the vast innards of an immense factory. His memorable image from his military service, The Cardplayers (1917), resembles a field of dismembered, or dismantled, robots in military helmets. While he began to reembrace the human form with The Three Women (1921), his models were geometric constructions seated amid straight-edged patterns. His political inclinations led him to want to reach the masses and he dabbled in printmaking, book illustration and explored the cinema. He worked peripherally with French filmmaker Abel Gance and went on his own to produce the film Ballet Mecanique (1924), an avante garde display of rapid moving mechanical images juxtaposed with faces, bodies and abstract shapes.
Experimental and unsuccessful, Leger remained enthusiastic about the possibilities of crafting his artistic vision of a mechanical montage animated in motion picture. Coinciding with his film work, Leger founded the Academie de l’ Art Moderne at his studio in Montparnasse. His teaching staff included the Cubist painter Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966) and Fauvist artist Othon Friesz (1879-1949.) By 1930 Leger returned to more organic forms. Perceiving that realism was more acceptable to the masses, he began to include recognizable imagery in his Cubist construction. A supporter of the left-wing Popular Front, which came to power in France in 1936, he corresponded regularly with the Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein, a most prominent Soviet artist wrestling with Modernism with mass appeal.
Faced with the imminent occupation of Paris during World War II, Leger stepped down as the academy’s director in 1939 and traveled to Normandy, then south to Marseilles, on to Lisbon and from there, New York, where he settled in October 1940. Teaching at Yale University and travelling throughout the country, Leger mingled with many fellow European exiles and created more than 120 paintings; Leger later observed that he painted in America better than he had ever painted before.
After his wartime exile in the U.S., Leger returned to France, joined the Communist Party in 1946 and moved toward an easily understood vocabulary of imagery that brought him closer to Social Realism. Reviving his academy that same year, he appointed one of its former students as director. Benefitting from the GI Bill, many American artists enrolled. In the 1950s, Leger began working in stained-glass, mosaics, ceramics and tapestry. His commissioned works included mosaic murals at the American Memorials in Belgium and murals for the east and west walls of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York.
During his lifetime, Leger produced an enormous body of work in many mediums. Oil, gouache and drawings were abundantly produced as preliminary prep studies for his murals and as part of his teaching method. He often used his students to paint his large-scale works.
A world record was set for Leger with the 2008 sale of La Femme en Bleu (The Woman in Blue) at a hammer price of $35 million. The four foot tall oil on canvas, executed on the eve of World War I, is considered one of the grande dames of Cubism. In 2009, another Cubist master work, La Tasse de The (The Cup of Tea) dated 1921, auctioned from the much publicized Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Berge collection, sold for $13 million. As Leger’s sales continue to increase, so does the awareness of his work and distinct Cubist style. Although still less known by the general public, Leger now stands alongside Picasso and the other great Modernists in auction results.
If more proof of Leger’s rising profile is needed, the high end publisher Assouline has scheduled for the fall of 2012 the release of a lavish book, Fernand Leger, A Survey of Iconic Works. With a price tag of $695, the limited edition, curated selection of masterworks is a must for the serious Leger collector.
Leger’s quest to make art accessible to the masses through his printmaking is part of his legacy today. His prints are affordable and are frequently found at auctions around the world. Although a print signed by Leger can fetch a high asking price, such as his 1927 work Le Vase, which sold for $35,424 hammer at a Swiss auction house in 2007, records show sales as low as $75. The numbers are all over the map, with condition, size and aesthetics determining value in the market. In recent years, the average price paid for a Leger lithograph, signed in good condition, falls to as low as $2000. A 1927 print, Coquille et Feuille (Fern and Leaf),with an estimate of $500-$700 at a midwest auction house last September, hit the hammer at only $400. Perhaps in response to the underbid, the same auction house assigned a lower reserve of $100-$200 for a lot of two Leger lithos in February of this year. This time around, the hammer hit at $1300, a positive return for the seller and a good investment for the buyer.
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.