And I made myself a new name
As visible as a blue and red poster
Hoisted on a scaffolding
They are building what will be tomorrow.
'Enormous letters and figures four metres high hurtle into your home. Colour takes a stand; it is going to dominate everyday life, and one will have to come to terms with it. Returning to normal life... man retains in himself the physical and moral tensions of those hard years of war. He has changed. Economic struggles have replaced the battles at the front. Industrialists and tradesmen face each other, brandishing the weapon of advertising: colour. They've laid hands on it, and the walls are burst open in an unprecedented orgy of coloured chaos. There are no laws and there's no brake to slow down and cool this overheated atmosphere that cracks the retina, blinds one and sends one mad. Where are we heading?' (Fernand Léger, 'Couler dans le Monde' 1939, quoted in Fernand Léger, Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 120).
Un disque dans la ville is one of a small number of outstanding paintings that Léger made on the theme of the metropolis in 1919. Marking the culmination of the aims that Léger had set out for his art on leaving the military in October 1918, this series of paintings, which includes the masterpieces La ville, Les Disques and Les Disques dans la ville invokes modern life as a triumphant, vibrant and dynamic experience and celebrates the city as its vortex. These paintings, on the theme of the city are the first great works of what has become known as Léger's 'Mechanical Period' and the first paintings to articulate his almost utopian vision of a harmonious union between the spirit of man and the machine.
'Clear, true, impartial judgement, the creation of works that will last, an art related to its setting away from extremes,' was how Léger proudly proclaimed his aims with these works. 'The appearance of cities - geometric, horizontal, vertical...The concept of colour as an external value belonging, to architecture. To make a city sculptural, lively, to permeate and illuminate it with colours. To comprehend the whole in a beneficial and social spirit'. These were his intentions, to create pictures that would enthuse and ultimately 'divert people from their enormous and often arduous exertions, (and) envelop them in a vividly new and decisive manner and make them live' (Fernand Léger, 'Kurzgefasste über das aktuelle Künstlerische Sein', Das Kunstblatt , Berlin, VII January 1923, pp. 2-4). This was the dynamism of the big city, not as the Futurists had seen it, in terms of speed, battle and the Nietzschean 'will to power' but rather a dynamism at the service of man, as a force for social change and the betterment of all.
Léger had come to this view of life through his experiences in the trenches, where, as he was fond of recalling, the fall of sunlight on the shining barrel of a .75mm gun had 'shaped' him and taught him more about truth, beauty and reality than all the art academies of the world ever would. Léger's war experience, and in particular his living on a daily basis dominated by the terrifying rhythm of military machinery - something he later likened to the pounding machines in a Chicago factory - awoke in him the realisation that man's future, for good or worse, was mechanised. It was his intention to show through his paintings how glorious and liberating this mechanical future could be through an art full of autonomous, liberated form and colour. 'When I was discharged' he wrote, 'I saw how I could benefit from these hard years. I reached a decision; without compromising in any way, I would model in pure and local colour, using large volumes. I could do without tasteful arrangements, delicate shading, and dead backgrounds. I was no longer fumbling for the key. I had it. The war nurtured me and I am not afraid to say so. It is my ambition to achieve the maximum pictorial realization by means of plastic contrasts. I couldn't care less for convention, taste and established style; if there is this in any of my paintings it will be found out later, Right now, I'm going to do some living. To me the 'opposite of a wall' is a picture, with its verse and movement. For example, in a flat. I'm satisfied if my picture controls the room, if it dominates everything and everyone, people and furniture. It must be the most important character' (Fernand Léger, cited in Peter de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 42)
Taking inspiration from his friends Blaise Cendrars and Robert Delaunay, Léger began to develop a new form of Cubism in which clear simple geometric shapes of pure colour assembled themselves in a montage-like way that echoed the techniques of such up-to-the-minute media as the cinema and advertising. Each of these elements, autonomous and independent, asserted themselves with equal vibrancy to the other against the flat empty background of the canvas. The result was a joyous carnival of form and colour radiating from the picture plane with a dynamism that seemed to speak of the noise and frenetic energy of the city and its factories and its streets. In 1919 Léger began to paint the subject of the city directly, showing the forms and shapes of buildings, streets, railway signals, people, advertising signs and towers, all coagulated into a vibrant and semi-abstract montage of form. The culmination of these experiments was his painting La ville, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was not his intention, Léger declared, to paint a fantastic vision of the metropolis, but to discover its inner harmony, to 'discover a more pictorial arrangement, the contrary of the confusion of the advertisements that slash the streets of modern towns. The ideal is to achieve a feeling of beauty, balance, physical and spiritual liberation' (Fernand Léger quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger,, New York, 1976, p. 102).
This picture, Léger explained, was painted 'in flat pure colours. Letters are introduced as realistic values... I have avoided using the complimentary colours that Robert Delaunay has insisted on retaining ...To preserve the colour's tonal and constructive force I had to avoid the complimentary relationships of Impressionism' (ibid., p. 102). The same can be said of Un disque dans la ville which also includes advertising lettering, the same tower of smoke and anonymous metallic workers in its montage of colour and form. 'In technical terms,' Léger continued, 'this picture is a revolution in three-dimensionality. It was possible to achieve a depth and a dynamism without using chiaroscuro or modulation. Advertising was the first to draw lessons from it. The pure tones of blues, reds, and yellows, in signals and along the sides of roads. Colour had become free and was now a reality in itself. Its field of action became a new one, completely independent from the objects which, before this time, had been entrusted to contain it or to bear it' (Fernand Léger, quoted in Fernand Léger: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Basel, 1994, p. 69).
With La ville, Léger had created a portrait of the city as a choreography of modern life, the product of a new semi-abstract pictorial language based on the structural patterns of the metropolis and its life. The way in which signs and signals and billboards and buildings have jarred and fragmented the panoramic vision of life is articulated and expressed in this work in a way that owes nothing to Futurism. La ville is a portrait of the way in which modern man has learnt to see the world, not a portrait of the way in which a city actually looks. Léger is not describing motion or a fragmentary view of the metropolis but a portrait of the experience of the whole. It is a portrait of the changing language of modern life. The way in which modern man has been manoeuvered by modern urban existence into seeing the world around him.
Into this vision of the city, Léger sought to introduce elements that conveyed the force and dynamism of urban life, and his solution was to impose directly and unashamedly the 'disques' he had first painted as an expression of mechanised life in 1918. This he did in the appropriately entitled work Les disques dans la ville, in which these colourful circles were imposed directly over his choreographic portrait of the city. Inspired by the motion of a propeller, Léger's disques were an expression of the dynamic energy of a machine rather than a depiction of it. In Les Disques now in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, Léger collated these flat circular and semi-circular coloured forms into an abstract expression of rotational movement, that echoes the appearance of train wheels and their axle rods. 'In my search for brilliance and intensity I have made use of the machine just as others happen to employ the nude figure of the still life. One must never be dominated by the subject... I have never amused myself by copying a machine. I invent pictures of machines as others conjure up landscapes of their imagination. For me the mechanical element is not a predilection or an attitude but a means to impart a feeling of force and power... One must retain the utilizable part of the subject and turn that part to good account. I try to make a handsome object out of the mechanical elements' (Fernand Léger, cited in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., p. 98).
Through these non-objective 'mechanical elements', Léger arrived at a forceful counterpart to the sensations of looking at city life captured in La ville. Un disque dans la ville represents one of Léger's earliest attempts to combine these two elements into a complete portrait of the experience of life in the city. At its centre is a single disque seemingly mounted on a metallic element, of the kind that Léger had derived from his contrastes des formes. This cut-out metallic element, whose surface radically emulates the sensation of sunshine on the barrel of a gun that so moved Léger in the war, began to appear increasingly in Léger's works of 1919. Ambiguous in its shape and depth, it had the effect in these city paintings of bestowing an ambiguous sense of perspective upon the readability of the image, while at the same time reinforcing the sense of mechanical dynamism. In Un disque dans la ville this metallic element emphasizes and seemingly elevates the disc at the centre of the painting into a position of complete prominence. Its imposing presence is watched, perhaps even monitored by the mechanical figure of a man, perhaps one of Léger's mechanics, although his metallic uniform seems more like that of a French soldier's, standing in a doorway.
Backed by a montage-like panoply of modern architecture, smoke, advertising hoardings, balconies and piping, this ambiguous but imposing central form seems to speak proudly of the passage of modern life as a commanding wheel-like vortex of unstoppable force and perpetual motion.
Un disque dans la ville, belonged to two champions of early modernism, Léonce Rosenberg, who acquired the work directly from the artist and Christian Berg, to whom Rosenberg sold the painting in 1937 and in whose family the painting remained until recent times. Through his gallery, L'Effort Moderne, Léonce Rosenberg (1879-1947) was one of the first and most significant supporters of Abstract and Cubist art and defended the cause of Léger, Metzinger, Severini, Lipchitz and Laurens amongst others. Christian Berg (1893-1976), was Sweden's leading Cubist sculptor, settling in Paris in 1922, he immersed himself in the avant-garde movements of the time, influenced by the work of Picasso, Braque and Archipenko.