Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures

Tate Liverpool – Until 17/03

There’s a sense of familiarity about New Times, New Pleasures. You’d be forgiven for wandering through the four gallery spaces, observing FERNAND LÉGER’S incessant commitment to his role as the artist, striving to retune his craft to the surroundings he’s given, and believing a mirror holds the best reflection of the future. Parts of the exhibition are compelling in such a way. It plays the prescient prospector well through a mixture of paintings, film and lithograph prints. His early infatuation and eventual disillusionment with automation seems apt. Yet, the prevailing mood doesn’t find the buoyant conjecture with contemporary feeling. It’s all too positive to suggest history is showing the way through dark times.

Were the New Pleasures strapline to be completed with a question mark, you’d have the tagline of a comfortable contemporary exhibition with contemporary artists that looks towards a discordant future. This wouldn’t be a resounding target of ridicule. Every age has the unapologetic narcissism to believe it is their times that are truly the worst, the most unprecedented. Leave your Blitz and Brexit, your Cuban missiles and Kim-Jong Un’s rockets, your anxiety soaked anti-depressants and isolating industrial decline. New times, new problems. It’s relative.

"Leger shows a fascination with the coming dawn, dark as it may be for the moment"

Perhaps this is what this current exhibition does well: it’s positive, rose-tinted, hopeful. It’s naïve, but for all the right reasons. It isn’t ‘I told you so’. It isn’t a gaggle of woke centrists, with their Orwell pin up, their 1984 quotes with direct page reference, all of which explain as much as the automated voices announcing the train’s destination. Next stop dystopia… Fetishised logic of a future few would be able to comprehend. Like enjoying JG Ballard’s High Rise and fawning over the Barbican’s serrated jaw lines. Why build 2000 roofs for society when you can control everything under one stylish piece of brutalism?

Léger, for the most part, isn’t filled with cynicism. However, his optimism is forlorn when staring towards the failed dreams of socialism. The Essential Joys, New Pleasures wall mural, originally created for the 1937 world fair in Paris, is resounding in its belief that content existence is found in simple pastures. It’s a brazenly hopeful piece, but, set against the backdrop of 2019, it aches for the better rather than truly believes.

Elsewhere, Léger’s feeling that the human form can be decompartmentalised is apparent. There’s consistent use of mannequin limbs, robotic arms, legs and torsos jumbled within his ‘tubist’ paintings and film work. Machines, like humans, rely on repletion and practice to enhance productivity. There is a sense that Léger believes the engineer can harness the power of a divine creator, hence the blurred lines between mechanical component and human limbs in his paintings – perhaps most evident in film The Girl With The Prefabricated Heart or Soldiers Playing Cards, an impressionist imagining of occupied machines passing the time in the trenches of WWI. It shows a fascination with the coming dawn, dark as it may be for the moment. It’s far from the Dadaist screams and ridicule that echo onto canvas in the decade following the war, notably the work of Otto Dix who filled the exact same loft space in the Tate just over a year ago.

Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures Image

While the exhibition is rather unusual in its assortment of works, showing collections via theme rather than a retrospective timeline, it offers the sense of re-evaluation in the final two rooms. Here the machinery has been superseded as the human form, gentle sea-shells and tree roots find their way into Léger’s work. These tendencies were not new, but the layout gives the impression Léger focus has shifted to cut and paste humans with curved limbs, rigid stares and thick, black outline, as though shapes conjured on a drawing board and placed into societal roles. Beyond mention of support for the French Socialist Popular Front, it is only now the exhibition seems to touch on the artist’s politics, his growing favourability to communism.

We see this best in his recalling of scenes such as the circus, or families holidaying on bikes – pockets of society that are underpinned by collective endeavour. And here there are glimpses of nervousness about the rapid advancement of machinery; the bombastic draw towards pistons and levers wanes in Study For The Constructors: The Team at Rest. The painting depicts man grappling with the growing prowess of machinery. It becomes highbrow propaganda. Real jobs for real people. Not machines.

It’s perhaps fitting that the optimism that rises up through most of the exhibition fills the closing wall with The Two Cyclists, Mother And Child. Here is the vision where Léger confides himself. The idea of the machine as equally dependant on the human. The harmony of cycling underpinned by the balance of co-dependence. History might yet fail to validate the exhibition. It merely shows us a fading narrative. Currently, there’s little co-dependence to be had in the contemporary era. Whether we require our machines to operate, their ghosts demand that they do, that they invade without a sound, no longer whirring and chugging. Ever so silent they are, just so Instagram can hear exactly what adverts to serve up.

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