The Human Body Considered as an Object – Fernand Leger
As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible. Its development has been hindered by the domination of the subject over the ages.
But for the last six years, plastic courses have been liberated. The impressionists were the first to reject the fetters of noble subjects – and they gradually allowed interest in the ‘object’ to appear.
In contemporary modern painting, the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom. At this moment, it is possible for him to use the law of contrasts, which is the constructive law, with all its breadth.
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The law of contrast dominates human life in all its emotional, spectacular, or dramatic manifestations. [. . .]
A work, in any area at all, is involved for the most part with a purelv decorative value if it does not resolve this constructive conflict. Naturally it i s a disruptive and antiharmonious device, but in this fact resides the difference between major plastic art and decorative art.
All great periods of painting have always been followed by a minor, decorative period that they inspired. Industry and decorators have known how to popularize them.
Without wishing to play the role of a prophet, I see no other way out for the future except a powerful, human painting that can embrace all plastic methods, both old and new. All this within an absolute order, guided by a tranquil will that knows where it is going.
Every curious and surprising experience has been tried. Above all traditional constraints, in unlimited freedom, a plastic anarchy has been born. It is very seductive; the streets have no more sidewalks, everything is thrown in together; it is dazzling and imprecise.
In the midst of this romantic confusion it is hard to find one’s bearings. Is it a beginning? Is it an ending? ‘The ghost of David prowls in these parts.’
Out of the ranks of minor artists who have risked their necks during these past five terrible years, some will emerge to settle the question. They are to be trusted. People are capable of infinite possibilities when they have suffered pressures and constraints. When those bonds are relaxed, there is an accumulation of energy and potential that bursts out with a wholly new strength. Perhaps astonishing pictures, made by God knows who, will be found in the back of a barn. They are to be trusted.
One of the most damaging charges that can be made against contemporary modern artists is that their work is accepted only by a few initiates. The masses cannot understand them.
There are several reasons for this situation. The minority of privileged individuals who can be interested in these works is made up exclusively of people who have the leisure to see and look, to develop their sensibilities. They have free time at their disposal.
In 1936 and 1937, I had an opportunity to talk about these issues in working-class and community centers. ‘You work for the rich,’ they shouted bluntly at me, ‘we’re not interested in you.’
Their objection was wrong because it was too simplistic. The matter is a little more complicated.
The situation is created by the existing social order. Factory workers and Clerks have very limited leisure time. They cannot be asked to spend their Sundays shut up in museums. Private galleries and museums close their doors at the very time when the workers leave their shops, their factories.
Everything is organized to keep them away from these sanctuaries. Time must be made available so that this majority of individuals can be interested in modern Works. As soon as they have time, you will be able to watch the rapid development of their sensibilities.
The people have a poetic sense in themselves. They are the men who invent that ceaselessly renewed verbal poetry – slang. These men are endowed with a constantly creative imagination. ‘They transpose reality.’ What then do modern poets, artists, and painters do? They do the same thing. Our pictures are our slang; we transpose objects, forms, and colors. Then why don’t we meet each other?
On the other hand, if you examine the backgrounds of creative artists, you will see that all or nearly all of them come out of a working-class or lower-middle-class background. So what? Between these two poles, however, there is a society that does absolutely nothing to bring about this meeting. All the same, painting, like everything intellectual, requires a period of time for adaptation. There is a preliminary period of quite painful confusion, during which taste and choice must be formed and exercised. This does not happen in five minutes. It takes longer than choosing a necktie. It is not a question of special preparation. Education or instruction has nothing to do with artistic arrangements. Art books can no more give rise to an artistic vocation than they can manage any longer to control the restlessness of our young workers or clerks seeking the satisfactions and emotions of art. People who are very intelligent and rich often fritter away their leisure time. Those who are instinctive are closest to the goal; they are motivated by need and not by curiosity. The masses are rich in unsatisfied desires. They have a capacity for admiration and enthusiasm that can be sustained and developed in the direction of modern painting. Give them time to see, to look, to stroll around. It is inexcusable that after five years of war, the hardest war of all, men who have been heroic actors in this sad epic should not have their rightful turn in the sanctuaries. The coming peace must open wide for them doors that have remained closed until now. The ascent of the masses to beautiful works of art, to Beauty, will be the sign of a new time.
Originally published in Montreal in 1945.