Philadelphia Exhibit Showcases Leger and Friends

By Joan Scobey Modified: November 5, 2013 at 10:20 am •  Published: November 6, 2013
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No city supports its local art scene like Philadelphia, so when the current blockbuster show, "Leger, Modern Art and the Metropolis," rolled into the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the town geared up for a red-carpet welcome.


    The cornerstone of the exhibit is Fernand Leger's monumental painting, "The City," not only a landmark of modern art but a megastar in the museum's own collection. The show spotlights the decade after 1918 when Leger, returning to his beloved Paris from fighting in World War I, found an energized city and artists experimenting with all kinds of innovative forms and concepts, even machinery. It was uniquely in sync with his own recent interest in battlefield equipment and mechanical forms.
    A year later Leger painted "The City," a mural-size work almost 8 feet by 10 feet, that embodied his new enthusiasms for modernity and urban culture: images of bridges, radio towers, lampposts, street signs, bits of graphic art and typography, and robotlike figures climbing a stairway into a densely packed city landscape. It was also the beginning of a hard-edged post-Cubist style of primary colors and bold shapes that became a familiar Leger hallmark.
    As for the painting's title, Anna Vallye, curator of the exhibit, says, "Leger never calls it Paris because he thinks of it as the universal city, the metropolis, which was a wonderful, spectacular way to be reborn after the war."
    In the 1920s Paris was the dynamic center of arts and culture when avant-garde artists experimented in new ways with cinema, ballet, theater, commercial art and mass media. Around the theme of the city, this multimedia show features Leger's city paintings, together with film projections, theater designs, architectural models, and print and advertising designs by Leger and his contemporaries. Many were also friends of the gregarious painter -- among the best-known of them Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Le Corbusier, Gerald Murphy, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray -- who often collaborated with him on various projects.
    "For all of these artists," says Vallye, "I think 'The City' was this tremendous source of energy, this lightning rod."
    Despite Leger's sole name in the exhibit 's title, he is only one of the 40 artists in the show; in fact, only about a third of the 160 or so works are by him. But his influence was seminal.
    The large main gallery is a particularly dynamic showcase of diversity, both of different mediums and of Leger's varied interests. One end highlights the importance of cinema in the 1920s with loops of an abstract film by Marcel Duchamp and another by Picabia and Rene Clair. Leger's contribution is "Ballet mecanique," which he co-directed, with Man Ray as a cameraman and avant-garde music by George Antheil. It is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of smiling mouths, eyes, spinning discs, whisks and pot lids that animate the screen to the incessant beat of Antheil's score. For humor: a short march of wine bottles and a dancing figure of Charlie Chaplin tipping his hat to the music. Leger was so enamored of the cinema that he seriously considered leaving painting for film.
    The other end of the gallery is devoted to the stage and theater, with Leger's enormous colorful backdrop for a Swedish ballet, "Skating Rink," covering the whole back wall, and some of his designs for its costumes framed in front of it. Nearby is a group of his costumed marionettes and "Charlot Cubiste," the charming painted plywood figure of his friend Charlie Chaplin, called Charlot in France, with movable hands, feet and head that he made for "Ballet mecanique."
    Between these displays of urban entertainments Leger's paintings mingle with the mass media by other artists and designers. A record company poster by graphic artist Jean Carlu echoes Leger's characteristic hard-edge painting, "Les Disques," with its recordlike circles. Commercial art and advertising posters suggest the billboards, traffic signs and typography in many of Leger's paintings. A wood model of Theo van Doesburg's modern house, "Maison particuliere," evokes the structural nature of his works.
    Every gallery in this interdisciplinary show is an eye-opener. Vallye explains why: "For many artists, the metropolis imposed a new way of seeing and demanded new practices of art-making," she says. "It inspired Leger to probe the boundaries between the arts, and between fine art and common culture."
WHEN YOU GO
    Several city hotels and inns offer Philadelphia Museum of Art visitors various packages that include untimed tickets to the Leger exhibition and other benefits that might include complimentary Wi-Fi, breakfast and/or parking. For individual particulars and prices, check each hotel's website.
    The Alexander Inn, 12th and Spruce streets, 877-ALEX-INN (877-253-9466) or www. alexanderinn.com
    Four Seasons Hotel, One Logan Square, 215-963-1500 or www.fourseasons.com/philadelphia
    The Inn at Penn-- a Hilton Hotel, 3600 Sansom St., 215-222-0200 or www.theinnatpenn.com
    The Rittenhouse Hotel, 210 W. Rittenhouse Square, 800-635-1042 or www.rittenhousehotel.com.
    Inspired by Paris in the 1920s, some restaurants have created themed Parisian menus and/or special dishes. The PMA's main restaurant, Granite Hill (www.philamuseum.org/ranitehill), created a Leger-themed menu that ends with Le Femme en Bleu Souffl‚, a bitter chocolate fantasy.
    Rembrandt's, 741 N. 23rd St., 215-763-2228 or www.rembrandts.com, also has a Leger Souffle. (Yes, it's chocolate, too, with fresh strawberry and mango salsa.)
    Show a Leger ticket stub at Rose Tattoo Cafe, 1847 Callowhill St., 215-569-8939 or www.rosetattoocafe.com, for 10 percent off its American cuisine, and at Bridgid's, 726 N. 24th St., 215-232-3232 or www.bridgids.com, for 10 percent off its Italian menu, $35 minimum.
    You can nail a playful Leger look at Laurentius Salon, 815 Christian St., 215-238-0764 or www.laurentiussalon.com, with a manicure that involves colored metallic foils ($20) and a flapper-style pixie haircut ($55), both 10 percent off with a Leger ticket stub.
    Amtrak gives Philadelphia visitors a break, offering 30 percent off a companion ticket when booking a regular fare, through Dec. 18, 2013.
    "Leger, Modern Art and the Metropolis" is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, through Jan. 5, 2014. Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. For general information contact 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.This is the exhibit's only U.S. stop.
    Joan Scobey is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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