Painting in Slang

Fernand Leger at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the revelations at the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition earlier this year was a wall of early work by Fernand Léger. Three oils, painted with strong primary colors, black lines and patches of white, showed tumbles of ovoid and box-like forms that seemed to dance into the viewer’s space. They came from Léger’s Contrast of Forms series of 1913 and suggested a brilliant attempt to render musical sounds. Further on in the show a later painting, Disks (1918), revealed the artist developing an even more original gift for intense and evocative abstraction. I wondered whether this legendary figure, relatively neglected by recent critics, might be about to receive his due.

Now it has happened. In a vigorous and superbly contextual show, “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis”—at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 5—curator Anna Vallye has focused on the most experimental years of the artist’s life, from 1918 through the mid-1920s. Léger is the show’s central figure, and The City, his major statement of 1919, its central work, but the many artists whom the highly gregarious Léger met in Paris are also strongly represented, as are the...

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About the Author


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.