The New Realism Goes On – Fernand Leger
Each art era has its own realism: it invents it, more or less, in relation to preceding epochs. Sometimes this is a reaction, at other times a continuation of the same line.
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Realisms vary by reason of the fact that the artist finds himself always living m a different era, in a new environment, and amid a general trend of thought, dominating and influencing his mind.
For a half-century now, we have been living in an extremely rapid age, one r *ch in scientific, philosophical and social evolutions. This speed has, I think, rendered possible the precipitation and the realization of the new realism, which is quite different from the plastic conceptions that have gone before.
It was the Impressionists who ‘broke the line.’ Cezanne in particular. The moderns have followed by accentuating this liberation. We have freed color and geometric form. They have conquered the world. This new realism wholly rules the last fifty years, in the easel picture as well as in the decorative art of street and interior.
As for those pictures which made possible this evolution, the common reproach is that they have been snatched up by the dealers and the big collectors and that the people have no access to them. Whose fault is it? That of the present social order. If our works have not made their way among the people, the fault, I repeat, is that of the social order; it is not due to any lack of human quality on the part of the works in question. Under such a pretext as the latter, they would have us burn our bridges, coolly pass sentence of death upon that painting which brought us our freedom – a freedom so hard won – and turn our steps backward, God knows where. The names of Rembrandt and Rubens are evoked.
Under the pretext that we are to attempt to win at once the wholly admirable masses, whose instinct is so sure, and who are merely waiting to grasp the new verity – under such a pretext, they would have us start those same masses backward from century to century, traveling at first by rail and, later on, by horse and buggy and by cart, until they end up ‘going in for the antique’ on foot. This is an insult to these men of a new world, who ask nothing better than to understand and to go forward. It is officially to pronounce them incapable of rising to the level of that new realism which is their age – the age in which they live, in which they work, and which they have fashioned with their own hands. They are told that le moderne is not for us; it is for the rich, a specialized art, a bourgeois art, an art that is false from the bottom up.
It is possible for us to create and to realize a new collective social art: we are merely waiting for social evolution to permit it.
Our tastes, our traditions incline to the primitive and popular artists of before the Renaissance. It is from this same Renaissance that individualism in painting dates; and I do not believe there is any use in looking in this direction, if we desire to bring into being a fresh mural art, one that shall be at once popular, collective and contemporary. Our age is sufficiently rich in plastic materials to furnish us with the elements. But unfortunately, until new social conditions shall have been brought about, the people will fail to benefit from those elements.
I should like to say a word as to leisure – the creation and organization of leisure for workers. That, I take it, is the cardinal point of this discussion. Everything depends on it.
At no period in the history of the world have workers had access to plastic beauty, for the reason that they have never had the necessary time and freedom of mind. Free the masses of the people, give them the possibility of thinking, of seeing, of self-cultivation – that is all we ask; they will then be in a position to enjoy to the utmost the plastic novelties which modern art has to offer. The people themselves every day create manufactured objects that are pure in tonal quality, finished in form, exact in their proportions; they have already visualized the real and the potential plastic elements. Hanging on the wall in the popular bals-musettes, you will find aeroplane propellers. They strike everyone as being objects of beauty, and they are very close to certain modern sculptures.
It would require no great effort for the masses to be brought to feel and to understand the new realism, which has its origins in modern life itself, the continuing phenomena of life, under the influence of manufactured and geometrical objects, transposed to a realm where the imagination and the real meet and interlace, a realm from which all literary and descriptive sentimentality has been banished, all dramatization such as comes from other poetic or bookish tendencies. [. . .]
The working class has a right to all this. It has a right, on its walls, to mural paintings signed by the best modern artists. Give it time and leisure, and it will make itself at home with such paintings, will learn to live with and to love them.
What kind of representational art, may I ask, would you impose upon the masses, to compete with the daily allurements of the movies, the radio, large-scale photography and advertising? How enter into competition with the tremendous resources of modern mechanics, which provide an art popularized to a very high degree?
An art popular in character but inferior in quality – based upon the excuse that they will never understand anything about art, anyway – would be unworthy of them. On the contrary, quality is the thing to be sought, in an art that is interior and easy to live with. [. . . ]
[. . . ] In this domain, where it is a question of manifesting life’s intensity under all its aspects, there are some wholly new possibilities – scenic, musical, in the way of color, movement, light, and chant – that have not as yet been grouped and orchestrated to their fullest extent. The man of the people comes into the world with a feeling for beauty. The ditch-digger who prefers a blue belt to a red one for holding up his trousers is making an act of choice. His instinctive judgment passed upon manufactured objects is esthetic in character. He will say ‘the pretty bicycle,’ ‘the nice car, 1 before he knows whether or not it will function. This in itself indicates an acceptance of a fact: the new realism. Seductive shop windows where the isolated object causes the prospective purchaser to halt: the new realism.
All men, even the most stunted, have in them a potentiality of meeting the beautiful half way. But in the presence of the art work, the picture or the poem, if their leisure – I must insist upon it – does not permit them to cultivate this potentiality, they will go on, all their lives, forming their judgments by comparison. They will prefer Bouguereau to Ingres, for the reason that Bou-guereau is the better imitator. Judgment by comparison is not valid; every art work calls for an individual appraisal, it is an independent whole; and if men are given assistance, they will succeed in making such an appraisal. The human masses, demanding their place in the sun, the man of the people – let us not forget that they are poetry’s last great refuge.
The man of the people it is who invents that mobile and ever new form: popular speech. He lives in an atmosphere of incessant verbal invention. While his hand is tightening a bolt, his imagination runs ahead, inventing new : words, new poetic forms. All down the ages, the people have gone on inventing their language, which is their own form of realism. This language is unbelievably rich in substance. Slang is the finest and most vital poetry that there is. Popular actors, popular singers make use of it in the neighborhood theatres. They are the masterly inventors of it. This verbal form represents an alliance of realism and imaginative transposition; it is a new r realism, perpetually in movement.
And is this class of mankind to be excluded, then, from those joys and satisfactions which the modern art work can give? Are the people to be refused ‘their chance’ of rising to a higher plastic level, when they themselves every day are inventing a new language that is wholly new? That is inexcusable. They have the right to demand that the time’s revolution be carried out, and that they in their turn be permitted to enter the domain of the beautiful, which has always been closed to them up to now.