PHILADELPHIA — The Fernand Léger show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is not your typical single-star vehicle. Its title — “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” — may feature only the big name of this French Modernist painter. But the show itself teems with so much work by other artists that it has the mood of a crowded, high-spirited, sometimes confusing reunion.
Organized by Anna Vallye, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow in the museum’s department of modern and contemporary art, this show takes a memorably broad approach to a narrow slice of Léger’s art. It concentrates on the decade after 1918, when Léger, returning to Paris after World War I, was most enamored of and energized by the city’s modernity — manifest in everything from street life to architecture to advertising, and most of all machines.
The exhibition includes numerous mediums: painting but also film, stage design, posters and several forms of printed matter. Orchestrated around “The City,” Léger’s great clangorous mural-size ode to the metropolis of 1919, it situates his art among that of about 40 of his contemporaries. They include like-minded painters, sculptors, writers, graphic designers, filmmakers and architects who were often friends and with whom he collaborated on all sorts of projects outside of painting.
In the end, only about a third of the 180 items on view are actually by Léger (1881-1955). But even as the show quietly subverts the convention of the monographic exhibition, his work almost never gets lost — it is formally too robust, or as he might have put it, too viscerally plastic. An added benefit throughout is that the show is studded with unfamiliar works, both by him and by others from home and abroad.
For example, in the exhibition’s prologue, where we see Léger formulating his personal fusion of Cubism and Futurism in the years leading up to the war, don’t miss Mondrian’s “Composition No. VI, Compositie 9 (Blue Facade),” an implied still life/building that seems partly composed of beakers of blue sky. It is on loan from the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland. The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington has lent “Abstract (Standing Figure),” a 1919 sculpture in chiseled stone by Josef Csaky, a friend of Léger’s. In this context you suddenly see how the work perfectly translates into three dimensions the vocabulary of piled cones, cylinders and cubes that characterized Léger’s first mature style from before the war.
This exhibition sets out to prove that from 1918 to 1928, Léger — an innately gregarious type to begin with — had a lot of company, and by extension that culture is a collective project. It does so with terrific exuberance. Its assorted masterpieces not by Léger include the 1924 painting “Razor” by a close friend, the American expatriate Gerald Murphy, with whom he shared an attraction to modern advertising exemplified here by sleek posters of A. M. Cassandre. “Razor” combines three relatively modern inventions (fountain pen, disposable razor and safety matches) into a sleek, flattened rendering in red, gray, black and gold redolent of Pop Art.
Toward the show’s conclusion there is a cluster of relatively serene semiabstract still-life paintings, including two great architectonic ones by Léger and several more by his friends Willi Baumeister, Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant. With Ozenfant he founded an art school in Paris in 1924 where the Russian artist Alexandra Exter taught stage design. Nearby, in a section dominated by a 1969 re-creation of Léger’s immense 1922 backdrop in yellow and orange for the Swedish Ballet’s production “Skating Rink,” you’ll find costume and stage designs by Exter. Also here is her too-little-seen “Construction” from 1922-23, an abstract painting whose colliding forms suggest a traffic jam. It was lent by the Museum of Modern Art.
“Modern Art and the Metropolis” also includes a wonderful little homage to the Parisian Dada movement, whose adherents included Francis Picabia, another friend. Léger was considered an ally, and although he did not attend the group’s first event in 1920, he lent paintings to be carried across the stage between acts. The show also provides a rare opportunity to see three landmarks of early modern film together: Picabia and René Clair’s antic “Entr’acte,” from 1924, with its hilarious funeral march; Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema,” a 1926 experiment in dizzying abstract optics, and Léger’s “Ballet mécanique,” made in 1924 with Dudley Murphy, an American film director.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 18, 2013
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for “The City,” Fernand Léger’s mural-size ode to the metropolis. It is 1919, not 1918.