Ballet Mécanique, Fernand Léger, 1923-24.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Paris was undergoing rapid transformation.New technology engendered a new experience of the surrounding environment, now a kaleidoscope of color and form: trains puffing white smoke across the French countryside, ubiquitous advertisements, and automobiles speeding at unprecedented velocities.
“The City,” Fernand Léger, 1919.
Paris was Léger’s primary metropolitan subject. Napoleon III and Baron Haussman undertook a massive urban planning program during the second half of the 19th century, imposing a rational grid of boulevards and train stations where medieval alleyways once stood. Once Paris had a structure, it was able to modernize, a process that changed the experience of the city entirely.
Léger wrote, “when one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train it becomes fragmented, it loses descriptive value but gains in synthetic value. The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.” In Léger’s mind, it was the artist’s job to depict this new myriad of sensory impressions; the desire to capture speed and fragmented detail led him to a nonrepresentational method of painting, similar to cubism and featuring contrasting colors to provoke feelings of dissonance.
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Fernand Léger on left, Le Corbusier on the right. Image via.