"Liberate the mass of people, give them a chance to think, to see, to cultivate their tastes," Léger (fig. 1) counseled amid the revolutionary fervor in France during the mid-1930s. "They will be able in their turn to enjoy to the full all the latest inventions of modern art" (quoted in S. Wilson, "Fernand Léger: Art and Politics, 1935-1955," Fernand Léger: The Later Years, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1987, p. 58). Against the heady politics of Paris between the wars, Léger positioned modern art as an agent of change--capable of communicating to the masses in bold, legible terms the vision of a new and collective society. The new reality demanded an art that could not only keep pace with the speed of modernity but also, through the purity of its plastic beauty, provide a kind of aesthetic relief from the toils of the working man's labor. "From the beginning," Ina Conzen-Meairs has observed, "Léger was convinced that the role of art was to support modern man, who had lost his religious connections, in his search for a 'substitute for the diminished religion.' It should mean a heightening of the quality of life for the working man" (in "Revolution and Tradition: The Metamorphosis of the Conception of Realism in the Late Works of Fernand Léger," op. cit., exh. cat., 1987, pp. 13-4).
The Everyman to whom Léger addressed his words might one day wear the colorful sweater featured in Le jeune homme au chandail, a prototype of utilitarian and avant-garde design. Léger had great confidence in the common man: if the masses had not yet acquired an understanding of modern art, the fault rested with an oppressive social order that robbed them of the leisure to cultivate their taste. "Above all, don't start assuming that the People don't care," he cautioned. "When a man of the people gets dressed, he chooses: he chooses a blue tie or a red tie. He spends a lot of time making his choice. He has taste. He must be permitted to develop this taste" ("Art and the People," Functions of Painting, ed. Edward F. Fry, New York, 1973, p. 145). In 1937, Léger published "The New Realism Goes On," writing in defense of the men and women of the modern world: "They are told the le moderne is not for us; it is for the rich, a specialized art, a bourgeois art, an art that is false from the bottom up." Consequently, it becomes the task of modern art--of the "New Realism"--to "free the masses of people, give the possibility of thinking, of seeing, of self-cultivation." He continues: "It would require no great effort for the masses to be brought to feel and to understand the new realism, which has its origins in modern life itself the continuing phenomena of life, under the influence of manufactured and geometric objects, transposed to a realm where the imagination and the real meet and interlace... The working class has a right to all this... Give it time and leisure, and it will make itself at home with such paintings, will learn to live with and to love them... It is possible for us to create and to realize a new collective social art; we are merely waiting for social evolution to permit it" ("The New Realism Goes On," in E. Fry, op. cit., pp. 115-17).
Driving the social evolution forward in the mid-1930s was the government of the Front Populaire, which provided Léger with critical support and a platform through which to promote his populist initiatives. In 1935, a coalition of leftist and centrist parties, organized labor and intellectuals had formed the Front Populaire with the goal of countering the rise of fascism in Europe. Léger pledged his support in an article published on Bastille Day in the periodical Le Monde: "This July 14, 1935, will mark a date in the social and national rectification of France... We are coming out of a gray and confused time" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 138). In the previous year, Léger had joined the Communist-led Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires (AEAR), which brought together artists working in diverse modern styles. Léger's work was controversial; he persisted in the promulgation of his machine aesthetic, meeting with protests from those who had adopted a social realist position and believed that the celebration of the machine in an abstract idiom was capitalist and anti-proletarian. Léger argued that social revolution would pave the way for workers to control their destiny in the machine age and foster appreciation of advanced modernist styles. The emergence of the Front Populaire represented for Léger the advent of this new social consciousness.
The Front Populaire controlled the French government from May 1936 to April 1938, and during this time the state acquired its first paintings by Léger. The artist actively sought government patronage and undertook a series of mural projects in Paris that espoused the Front Populaire agenda and reflect the exhilarating but short-lived surge of social optimism during this period. In 1937 in Paris Léger painted Le Transport des forces for the Palais de la Découverte, Le Syndicalisme ouvrier, for the Hall d'Honneur of the Pavilion de la Solidarité, and Travailler, a combination of photomontage and painting installed in the Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. Despite the prominence of both organic and machine-derived abstracted imagery in his murals, the important works of this period are monumental figure paintings: Adam et Eve (fig. 2) and the landmark Composition aux deux perroquets (fig. 3). Together, they set out the prototype for the pictorial ideas that would take precedence in his art for the remainder of his career. Visual contrasts and pure colors would interact on a huge scale, and his subjects would be life-affirming and vigorous, participants in a new reality.
As a complement to the outsized scale of these works, Léger painted a number of smaller canvases that brought his new, humanist realism into more intimate proportions. In individual portraits of Modern Man, such as Le jeune homme au chandail and its female counterpart, La jeune fille et la nature morte (fig. 4), Léger brings us into the calm of domestic setting, the place where the worker might follow the artist's advice to "have the strength to remain unhurried and calm, to work beyond the disintegrating elements that surround us, to conceive of life in its unhurried and peaceful sense ("Color in the World," in E. Fry, op. cit., p. 128). The equilibrium of forms that comprise this young man and his outfit, as well as the timeless quality of many of Léger's other figure compositions of the decade, clearly bear a utopian sociopolitical message. Yet Léger advises, "The work of art should not participate in the battle; on the contrary, it should be the resting place after the strife of your daily struggles, in an atmosphere of calm and relaxation where your developed sensibility will enable you to admire the works, the pictures, without compelling you to ask negative questions such as 'What does that represent?' 'What does that mean?'" (ibid., p. 130).
Léger applies the principles of his New Realism to Le jeune homme au chandail. "Realism," Léger had stated years earlier, "should be the simultaneous fusion of the three basic pictorial elements of line, form and colour" (quoted in I. Conzen-Meairs, exh. cat., op. cit., London, 1987, p. 11). Here, the abstraction of his earlier aesthetic is updated and made more accessible: the eponymous sweater is a modernist grid of bright color contrasts, balanced by the flowing contour of the flower the young man holds and the decorative ornaments to his left. The emblematic yellows, greens, and reds stand out against the plain black-and-brown background--emphatically underlining the "major social role" that color had to accomplish, as Gilles Néret has observed. "It contributed to enveloping the monotonous everyday realities. It dressed reality. The humblest objects could be and were calling out for color to change the way people perceived their real purpose" (in F. Léger, New York, 1993, p. 195). Through the metaphor of color, Léger's realism stood for his belief in the common man and in the formal efficacy of realism to reach him at home and in his world. "To have the common touch was," Conzen-Meairs reminds us, "part of Léger's conception of realism from the very beginning." By the 1930s, however, it is "no longer the purely artistic that stands in the foreground, but the hope for a greater intelligibility and a broader impact for his art...it is an expression of the hope that man will not remain the slave of the machine, and the system, but that he will have the possibility to realise himself and to liberate his spirit in order to ascend to a new dignity" (in exh. cat., op. cit., London, 1987, pp. 12, 14).
(fig. 1) Léger and John Dos Passos in Léger's studio, 1937. BARCODE: 26015965
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Adam et Eve, 1935-39. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. BARCODE: 26015972
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Composition aux deux perroquets, 1935-39. Musée national d'art moderne, Paris. BARCODE: 26015989
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, La jeune fille et la nature morte, 1937. Private Collection. BARCODE: 26015996