Fernand Léger and Liverpool seem such good companions. Léger, the great twentieth century avant-garde artist and Liverpool, home of the Beatles and the sixties cultural revolution. Although Léger died in 1955 you feel he would have been absolutely at home in that great artistic decade where, if you did not know better, you would have thought multi media and optimism were invented. That is the theme I took away from the Tate Liverpool’s show, “Leger – New Times, New Pleasures”
Optimism and collaboration are the themes that seem to leap out of the walls which to me emphasise one the difficulties of the curation – confusion. If the curator wanted me to come away with the idea of “New Times, New Pleasures” he needed to work harder on the presentation. Much of the exhibition revolves around Léger’s range of media brought about by his wide network of influences. Indeed the free hand out seems to concentrate on this aspect rather than the exhibition itself. Maybe the publicity was from another hand? Whatever the themes are, however confusing to follow; the art work is superb.
Léger (1881 – 1955) arrived in Paris from Normandy in 1900 as an architect’s draughtsman but was immediately influenced by the avant-garde of pre war Paris and particularly the cubists (Picasso and Braque) and the Italian Futurists. The Tate show opens with Landscape No. 2, 1914, his form of cubism, his celebration of simple line, colour and form. After a spell as a soldier in the war in which he was gassed and nearly died he developed a style of surrealism where the figure was closely allied with the machine world. The Card Players, 1917 shows mechanical figures at leisure – maybe injured soldiers.
This introduces the theme of the mechanical world which nearly takes him away from painting completely and into the world of film and cinema. Collaborating with Dudley Murphy, Man Ray and composer, Georges Antheil he co-directed the wonderful Ballet Mécanique, 1924; “Mechanical Ballet”. This develops to a great collection of post war mechine inspired abstracts including The Disc, 1919 which becomes a recurring theme. After this terrific start, however, the exhibition seems to lose its way. There is a room devoted to The Paris World Fair, 1937, which seems out of place and in need of some explanation. Léger produced a mural for the fair, entitled Essential Happiness, New Pleasure, which has been recreated for this show. The title goes some way to explaining but not explicitly. This is the point where you realise there is not enough explanation. The show then drifts through the thirties with sections showing Léger developing as a still life painter of not only mechanical objects but some very strange mixtures of leaves, shells, pipes and many everyday objects. There is clearly a conflict in the painter never fully resolved between abstract and figurative, which seems to be partly reconciled in his very late works.
The highlight of the show for me, then, was the final room showing a number of paintings from the fifties which brings me to my initial assessment. Here are very large figurative groups of acrobats, cyclists, construction workers all seemingly full of the joy of living, and in a style that is uniquely Léger’s. Although it is not in the notes it is difficult to believe the artists of Magical Mystery Tour and Monty Python had not seen Léger’s works. The works are large, colourful and brimful of optimism. Maybe the doves represent the post traumatic hope. What do you think?
Retrospective this is not, but it is a very good collection of works previously not seen in the United Kingdom. It is missing some of Léger’s major works, which we were lucky enough to see in the summer in Biot. Some of my regulars know I cannot resist commenting on the museology and the curation of an exhibition, and the confusion here makes this very inviting. As usual with Tate Liverpool the viewing is superb and this outpost on Albert Dock in a much revitalised Liverpool ticks most of the museum boxes. However it is not enough just to hang great paintings in a fine gallery. The viewer is left frustrated by the confusing storyline and paucity of accompanying literature. The visitor either has to put up with a little (free) handout which is very nearly useless or shell out £40 (exhibition price – normally £50) on a lavish exhibition guide. I have tried the web to get some accompanying notes but without success. There must be a middle ground here. Some £5 – £10 good quality exhibition guide, which might at least list the exhibits and reprint the wall notes, and maybe explain the curators intent.
Despite these shortcomings this is a must see exhibition in a must see City. New Times, New Pleasures runs until March 17th 2019 at Tate Liverpool. There is a very good “Op Art” exhibition on currently as well.