Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was born on 4 February 1881, in Argentan, France. After apprenticing with an architect in Caen from 1897 to 1899, Léger settled in Paris in 1900 and supported himself as an architectural draftsman. He was refused entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts but nevertheless attended classes there for what he described as ‘three empty and useless years’; he also studied at the Académie Julian during the same period. Léger’s earliest-known works, which date from 1905, were primarily influenced by Impressionism. The experience of seeing the Paul Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1907 and his contact with the early Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had an extremely significant impact on the development of his personal style. From 1909, Léger lived in Montparnasse, meeting Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall and Robert Delaunay amongst others. In 1910, Léger exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, with critics coining the term ‘Tubism’ to describe a style he was developing based upon cylindrical forms. From 1911 to 1914 Léger’s work became increasingly abstract, and he started to limit his colour to the primaries and black and white, as seen in the series of paintings titled Contrasting Forms. In 1912 he was given his first solo show at Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris.
Léger served in the military from 1914 to 1917. His “mechanical” period, in which figures and objects are characterised by tubular, machine-like forms inspired by his experience of the war, began in 1916. In December 1919 he married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy, and in 1920 he met Le Corbusier, who would remain a lifelong friend. During the early 1920s he collaborated with the writer Blaise Cendrars on films and designed sets and costumes for performances by Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois; in 1924 he completed his first film, Ballet Mécanique, which was neither abstract nor narrative but a series of seemingly unrelated images (a woman’s teeth and lips, machines, ordinary objects, and routine human activities). Léger opened an atelier with Amédée Ozenfant in 1924, the Académie Moderne, and in 1925 presented his first murals at Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs.
Starting in 1927, the character of Léger’s work changed, as organic and irregular forms assumed greater presence in the artist’s compositions. In 1931 he visited the United States for the first time. Four years later in 1935, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago presented an exhibition of his work. Léger lived in the United States from 1940 to 1945, teaching at Yale University, but returned to France after the war. In the decade before his death, Léger’s wide-ranging projects included book illustrations, monumental figure paintings and murals, stained-glass windows, mosaics, polychrome ceramic sculptures, and set and costume designs. In 1955 he won the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Bienal. Léger died on 17 August of that year at his home in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. The Musée Fernand Léger was inaugurated in 1960 in Biot, France.
Léger’s work features in numerous major public and private collections internationally, including: the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; the Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; the Albertina, Vienna; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.
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