CreditsDirector: Jacques Berthier Narration: Fernand Léger: Jacques Berthier Original music: Marian Kouzay
Catalog number # 520
14 minutes Color
Age Range: 12 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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Fernand Leger was born in Argentan, in Normandy, on February 4th, 1881; his father was a cattle salesman, hence Leger's youthful years were spent roaming in the countryside or in the peaceful meadows. "When you just happen to have been born, like an animal, with a dog as a playmate, the obstacles you encounter are squat and well-fed". He led a quiet, simple life, with few distractions. Perhaps a travelling circus with its bagful of tinsel and dreams. "It was a vital occurrence. Enormous, ponderous, and when the circus was gone, we spoke of the marvels we had seen, the emotional impact it had caused. There's no doubt that the circus was the event of my childhood".
His family wanted him to be an architect, but young Leger had other ambitions: he wanted to paint. At any rate, he had to leave the paradise of his youth and come to the city, the noisy, bustling city, with its panting factories and limited horizon. "Finally, you raise your head, to see this thing that crushes and rejects you. It's like peaking over the edge of a trench in wartime. A new art appears. It is linked to ancient conditions which it's had to combat, to keep its independence. It is a drama in many tableaux".
The drama was the life of the city: the struggling, the grinding, the endless snares and the solitude all surrounded, oppressed and crushed the artist in search of liberty. His liberty. "The love of liberty, living, acting, and suffering of your own free will, is at the cost of daily, permanent risk". The city brimming with noise, the endless stone walls, the blocked out horizon, the civilization of machines. The impact of all this on Fernand Leger was tremendous and when he began painting, as a member of the Cubist school, he depicted the merciless world he had just discovered. The stolid country-dweller suddenly felt like a prisoner. Liberty! Liberty!
Then came the war, and a grey and sinister universe enveloped the young Norman; the crushing weight of modern arms, of machines spewing forth instant and anonymous death. Tanks, airplanes and man burrowed down into the earth like a mole, all followed the fearful march of lethal progress. Along with a million ants, all dressed in horizon blue, Fernand flattened out in his trench under tons of steel, machined and scattered by progress; here, he spent four years hugging the earth; crushed by mechanization, with its death-rain of bullets and shrapnel.
"The war was grey and camouflaged. Light and color were forbidden under penalty of death. None saw the hidden war groveling on all fours, the color of the earth".
Gassed at Verdun, Fernand Leger was sent back to civilian life. In the midst of post-war confusion, he took up his struggle again, the struggle to free the man and the artist. Man was beginning to live again, with a vengeance. The triumph of mechanization was increasingly evident.
"Living forces have been unleashed on the earth; color is taking its place and will dominate daily life. We're going to have to live with it. Economic struggles have replaced the fighting on the front; executives and business-men wave color like a publicity weapon. They seize upon color, display it upon their walls. There is no law to temper this superheated atmosphere that splits your vision, blinds you and drives you mad: where is the world going to?"
Fernand Leger was obsessed by the mechanized world of hand-wheels, pistons, gears and scaffolding, a world of robots forcing its own order and laws on society. His only thought was to tear himself free from this functional universe to dominate it; or in his own words: "To conjure up images of machines, like others conjure up landscapes".
Years went by, and the struggle continued; color was the great liberator, the "tonic". Fernand Leger worked free from this period of mechanization by exploding his compositions, giving them a light, airy touch. "I dispersed my objects in space and linked them; while casting their glow in the foreground. A whole play of chords and rhythms, composed of background and surface-colors, guide-lines, spaces and contrasting effects. The real subject is the object. I have taken the object and made it jump on the table. I placed it in space, without perspective or support".
And little by little, his painting became more human; people and animals attempt to struggle free from the implacable geometry of our mechanized world, and a strange and subtle germination can be perceived in almost all of his canvases with plants and trees appearing in the midst of industrial civilization. And similarly Leger tries to liberate forms, after the startling discovery of stevedores bathing in the port of Marseille. "I was immediately captivated by the trajectory of bronzed bodies in the sun and the water. A wonderfully fluid movement. Those divers started it all. Then came the acrobats, the cyclists, the musicians; I became more versatile". But industrial geometry has not disappeared; the trees are still imprisoned in their electric cages and the sunflowers are reminiscent of gears; the workshop borders the country.
"I saw man as a flea. He still seemed lost in his inventions, with the sky overhead". The struggle to liberate his art continued, in 1953 Fernand Leger only had two years more to live. The circus, with its color and vibrating life, the circus which had struck him as a child, is depicted in the work of the 70 year old artist. "Go to the circus, and leave the world of rectangles and square windows for the land of moving circles. Breaking the bonds is human, widening out, pushing towards liberty. The circle is free, it has no beginning or end".
It was on August 17th, 1955 that Fernand Leger died at Gif-sur-Yvette, among the birds and the trees. In his last colorful canvas left on his easel two birds wing their way through cloudy skies, but the whole is held together by a concrete geometry.
Soon after his death Nadia, his wife, with the painter's collaborators, undertook the construction of the Biot Museum which was, and still is, the first museum ever built for a single artist and devoted entirely to his work. It all started with his palette, Leger's comrade-in-arms throughout the long struggle with its solid block of colors. These colors, painstakingly kneaded by the vigorous artist, shine forth from all the walls of the memorial.
"Obtaining maximum power, even violence on a wall: such is my final aim. If I succeed, then I can die. I will be satisfied." Fernand Leger wanted the walls to sing; and the walls at Biot, by the artist and for the artist, do indeed sing.
S"Pure color, applied in dynamic fashion can make a wall burst with life. Pure color is the most formidable of raw materials. It is as necessary to life as water and fire". Did Fernand Leger succeed in liberating himself entirely before his death? His eye gleamed with a certain fierce yearning, he carried his secret with him to the grave.
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