‘1918: Peace. Man, exasperated, tense, depersonalised for four years, finally raised his head, opened his eyes, looked around, relaxed, and rediscovered his taste for life. A frenzy of dancing, of spending… able at last to walk upright, to shout, to fight, to waste… Living forces, now unleashed, filled the world.’
(Léger, ‘Colour in the World’, in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 120)
Dating from one of the most important periods of Fernand Léger’s career, Le moteur was painted in May 1918, just months after the artist had resumed painting following his discharge from the army. Taking as its subject a gleaming, multipartite, modern engine, Le moteur is one of the first of a group of visionary works that marks the beginning of Léger’s renowned ‘mechanical period’, which would come to define his art of the years following the First World War. Keen to embrace modernity in all its varied forms, Léger deified the machine during this period, using a fragmented, dynamic pictorial vocabulary with which to depict it. With its riotous explosion of bold colour, frenzied interlocking and overlapping forms and jubilant patterns and texture, Le moteur is a glorious and paradigmatic example of this series of works: a vibrant emblem of the industrialised and modernised post-war era that so enthralled the artist.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Léger was, along with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris, one of the leading protagonists of Cubism. By this point, Léger had developed a near-abstract pictorial language that substituted subject matter for a focus on pictorial effects and contrasts of form. Using an array of fragmented, geometric forms and with a deliberately limited colour palette, these pre-war works achieved the artist’s aims of creating a new mode of pictorial expression freed from subject matter.
Like Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Derain, Jean Metzinger and many other members of the avant-garde, Léger enlisted in the army, and by October 1914 was serving at the front line. Serving first as a sapper, whose job was to dig down beneath ‘no-man’s land’ in order to conduct surprise attacks on the Germans, and subsequently as a stretcher-bearer active in some of the deadliest battles of the war, Léger not only experienced abject terror but in his positions in the trenches at the Front, witnessed unspeakable destruction, torment, death and injury. This was the first modern conflict, one in which both sides employed the deadly forms of mechanised warfare. Léger was a first hand observer of the immense and deadly power of the machine: a witness to the ruthless and precise slaughter of machine guns and shells, the rumbling aggression of tanks, and the constant hum of aircraft gliding into battle above him. Man too had become a machine, depersonalised and anonymous: another cog in the grinding machine of destruction and death.
It was this terrifying yet compelling technological, mechanised and industrialised life that completely shocked and beguiled Léger. The artist found great beauty in the metallic surfaces of canons, the geometry of engines, the smashed debris of a crashed plane behind the front line, or the gleaming barrel of a gun. The constant thud of munitions being made in nearby supplies factories was ever present, as was the vicious rhythm of artillery being fired. Blaise Cendrars, a poet and friend of the artist, vividly evoked this menacing mechanical dominance in J’ai Tué, a text describing his experiences of war, which Léger illustrated: ‘We are beneath a vault of shells… There are locomotives in the air, invisible freight trains, collisions, smash-ups. We count the double thud of the rhymester. The groaning of the 240. The big drum of the 120 long. The humming top of the 155. The insane meowing of the 75. An archway of light blows open right over our heads’ (B. Cendrars, ‘I’ve Killed’, in Chicago Review, vol. 25, no. 3, 1973, p. 34). This constant immersion in mechanical destruction awakened and reinforced in Léger the realisation that the machine age had truly begun. The power of technology, he found, was inseparable from modern life, and it is this concept that would underpin his art in the years immediately following his discharge from the army, as exemplified by Le moteur.
In just four years, Léger’s beliefs, ideas and artistic outlook irrevocably and dramatically altered. As the artist described: ‘Those four years threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me… Suddenly I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people. Posted to the sappers, my new comrades were miners, labourers, artisans who worked in wood or metal... And at the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breech of a .75 cannon in full sight, confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-13. It came as a total revelation for me, both as a man and a painter… It was in the trenches that I really seized the reality of objects’ (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, New York, 2010, p. 12).
Modern life and modern subjects, including man himself, explosively reappeared in Léger’s post-war painting as the artist sought to defy convention and tradition and instead capture the dynamic energy, speed and pulse of the new machine age. Whereas his pre-war art had eliminated the subject, now Léger openly embraced it in his compulsion to express real life in all its varying forms. Léger infused the same fragmented and fractured pictorial vocabulary that he had developed in the years before the outbreak of war with a new and vital purpose: to glorify the machine. ‘Three years without touching a paintbrush’, he reminisced to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg later in 1922, ‘but contact with reality at its most violent, its most crude… the war made me mature, I’m not afraid to say so’ (Léger, quoted in C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 96).
Though the artist drew throughout the duration of his time at the Front, primarily depicting the life of his comrades and his surroundings, he executed only one major painting (Le Soldat à la pipe, 1916, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf). It was not until September 1917, when Léger was hospitalised having suffered a bout of rheumatism, that he returned fully to painting, picking up his brushes once more and creating one of the great masterpieces of his career: La partie des cartes (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). Nowhere is Léger’s new approach to art perhaps better encapsulated than in this painting of 1917: a declaratory manifesto of his post-war beliefs and aims as an artist. Depicting his comrades engaged in a game of cards, in this picture Léger has mechanised the human form, turning men into geometric and cylindrical forms, heralding the machine aesthetic that defined his art over the following years. La partie des cartes was in Léger’s words, ‘the first picture for which I deliberately took my subject from what was going on around me…’ (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 18), and was quickly followed by a series of paintings that hailed the triumph of the machine in modern life in boldly coloured, increasingly abstract paintings, of which Le moteur is one of the first.
Le moteur was painted in May 1918, while Léger was once again convalescing, this time in a hospital in Villepinte where he was being treated for pulmonary tuberculosis. Having been discharged from the army at the beginning of this year, during this three-month long recuperation, Léger began to depict both domestic objects that were accessible from within the hospital – a stove and a clock for example – as well as an array of mechanical or industrial objects that were seared into his memory from the front line: deconstructed engines, propellers, pieces of machinery, train stations and factories. For Léger, these mechanised objects encapsulated a new conception of modern beauty: as the artist stated, ‘The manufactured object is there, a polychrome absolute, clean and precise, beautiful in itself; and it is the most terrible competition the artist has ever been subjected to’ (Léger, ‘The Machine Aesthetic: Geometric Order and Truth’, in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 62), and crucially, this modern beauty was ubiquitous and accessible to all: ‘The Beautiful is everywhere; perhaps more in the arrangement of your saucepans in the white walls of your kitchen than in your eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums… The polychromed machine object is a new beginning. It is a kind of rebirth of the original object’ (Léger, ‘The Machine Aesthetic: The Manufactured Object, the Artisan, and the Artist’, in E. Fry, ibid., pp. 52-53).
Composed of an intricate structure of mechanical and geometric struts, discs, pistons, cones and cylinders, Le moteur exultantly encapsulates Léger’s newly formed machine aesthetic. Bursting with vivid, heightened colour, this painting not only takes as its subject a machine, but its mechanical forms create a palpable sense of dynamism and movement, as if the parts, some of which are illuminated by a metallic gleam, are rotating. Yet, in contrast to another major work painted in the same month, Les hélices (1918, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; in June, the artist painted Les hélices, 2e état, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), Le moteur demonstrates a greater sense of balance and equilibrium, achieved through the vertical and horizontal struts and flattened planes of colour that constitute the background of this elaborate and exuberant composition.
Although he used an engine as his starting point, Léger has transformed this mechanic structure into an abstract vision of flattened, brightly coloured geometric forms. ‘I have never enjoyed copying a machine’, the artist stated, ‘I invent images from machines, as others have made landscapes from their imagination. For me, the mechanical element is not a fixed position, an attitude, but a means of succeeding in conveying a feeling of strength and power… It is necessary to retain what is useful in the subject and to extract from it the best possible part. I try to create a beautiful object with mechanical elements’ (Léger, ‘The Machine Aesthetic: Geometric Order and Truth’, in ibid., p. 62).
When he finally returned to Paris later in 1918, Léger found the avant-garde art world greatly changed. The halcyon days of intense artistic experimentation and innovation were over and had been replaced by an overtly moralistic, nationalistic atmosphere, which in artistic terms manifested itself as a revival of Classicism, the so-called ‘return to order’. Picasso, once the protagonist of the fractured, disintegrated forms of Cubism, was painting in a naturalistic, neo-classical style and executing Ingres-esque drawings in a blatant embrace of the past. Gris was likewise drawing from traditional sources, introducing purity, clarity and lucidity into his so-called ‘crystalline’ or ‘classical’ cubist works. Likewise, Gino Severini, once an ardent exponent of Futurism, had turned to this more balanced, precise and static form of Cubism.
Léger’s art, rooted in modern life and executed with a dynamic simultaneity – as exemplified by the climactic La ville of 1919 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), a dynamic, frenetic and all-encompassing vision of the modern metropolis – was the antithesis of the calm and measured atavistic classical Cubism dominant in Paris. However, this did not prevent the predominant dealer of post-war Cubism, Léonce Rosenberg – the first owner of Le moteur – from offering the artist a contract. Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne became the central exponent of Cubism in the years immediately following the war, as the dealer attempted to fashion a cohesive and unified ‘school’ of artists. Although Léger maintained his artistic individuality, by 1920, two years after he had painted the present work, he too had introduced classical elements into his painting, fashioning his own response to the ‘return to order’.