If you go to art galleries for the silence, you may have to think again before visiting Tate Liverpool’s excellent new show devoted to Fernand Léger. Stepping into a gallery space often feels like being dipped into a pressurised, ear-popping vat of quiet, but not here. Instead of the plaintive squeak of Hush Puppy on polished wood, there’s the sound of a battering ram made of pianos topped off with a euphoric rave siren, a screech that would once have caused me to throw my arms in the air and scream, “Can you feeeeeel it?!”.
This is the soundtrack to Mechanical Ballet, a film made by Léger in 1924. Working in collaboration with the filmmaker Dudley Murphy and the artist Man Ray, the film was Léger’s response to the onrush of the 20th century – a marmalising head-fuck of movement and mechanism with cat-on-keyboard music to match. It plays on heavy rotation at the exhibition’s entrance adding a scene-setting vigour to the show.
Born in rural Normandy in 1881, Léger seems to have been alive to the new century’s exhilarating timbre from the off. Arriving in Paris aged 19, the city’s energised clamour must have seemed thrilling. Even the earliest paintings shown here – heavy with a cubist influence – are restless with stroboscopic intensity and a flickering, shuddering insight into a new way of life.
“A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an 18th century artist,” said Léger, and although he saw action with the French army during the First World War, these early works, and the Mechanical Ballet film, make it clear that for him, this vital new world was worth celebrating.
Opening at a breakneck pace, the show feels as though it might be about to explode into mid-century chaos, but instead Léger’s work, and the exhibition, settle into more sedate moods. Arranged in broadly chronological fashion, the rooms are thematically grouped, with the hectic judder of the modern world flowing into some beautiful, coolly mechanised still-life paintings and on towards Léger’s more classically influenced later career.
There’s a timeline hiccup along the way, with a fascinating room devoted to the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris. Ostensibly dedicated to exploring the forward thrust of the modern world, the event’s timing meant it was also a barely suppressed battle of competing ideologies, with the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany throwing up bombastic pavilions intended to claim the future for themselves.
It was in this fearsome context that Léger collaborated with the architect Le Corbusier on The Pavilion of New Times – a structure celebrating themes of 20th century innovation. Léger contributed a monumental photomontage on the subject of work, and although it doesn’t survive, this exhibition presents another of Léger’s huge murals from the same event. Essential Joys, New Pleasures was created with the photographer Charlotte Perriand, and though never meant to be permanent, it was recreated in 2011 and now hangs here, with its Hockney hills and pop art styling, looking for all the world as if it was designed on an Apple Mac a couple of weeks ago.
What this exhibition loses in feverish energy as it progresses, it makes up for with a steadily building sense of solidity and grandeur. Léger’s stylistic traits were remarkably consistent throughout his career – for all his cubist influences, there are no hints of hunt-the-guitar collages here – with his starkly delineated shapes and structures remaining immediately recognisable. But once the human figure comes to dominate, the show inches closer to a kind of noble positivity, an almost propagandist celebration of social progress.
Lathe-turned figures gaze out from the canvas with breasts like upturned china teacups and hair like sheets of liquorice. Their world is one of flowers and circuses, well-earned leisure and the dignity of labour. From the point of view of 1955, when the card-carrying Communist Fernand Léger died, it might have seemed as though the road to the future was gleaming.
From our point of view, things perhaps look a little different. But Léger’s vision is gloriously seductive, and Tate Liverpool reveals it in all its optimistic, heavily outlined glory.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
Main image: Fernand Léger, 1881-1955, The Acrobat and his Partner 1948, Tate. Purchased 1980 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018
Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures is at Tate Liverpool until 17 March, 2018. For more information, click here.