French painter, filmmaker and sculptor Joseph Fernand Henri Léger is considered to be one of the initiators of Pop art, but he had originally created his own version of Cubism in his earliest works. He had a long and interesting life, working as an architect and doing military service, which had a great effect on the way that he expressed himself through art. Léger's work continuously evolved and went through adaptations when he was inspired by the ideas of other artists and the world around him.
He was born on February 4, 1881, in Lower Normandy, where his father was a cattleman in the town of Argentan. His studies were in the field of architecture, from 1897 until 1899, and when he was done he went to Paris in 1900. He was able to support himself by working as an architect, but his career was interrupted by his military service in Versaille from 1902 to 1903. Upon his return to Paris he applied to École des Beaux-Arts, but was rejected, so he joined the School of Decorative Arts instead. Léger went on to study at the École des Beaux-Arts as a non-enrolled student for three years, after which he complained that they had been “empty and useless years”.
Léger’s works began to take shape in 1905-1906, and he had started to use techniques from the Impressionists until he changed course again in 1907. That was the year that he saw Paul Cezanne’s Salon d’Automne retrospective, and he was inspired to add more geometrical forms to his paintings. In 1909 he produced more avant-garde works after meeting Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Lipchitz and Archipenko in Montparnasse, with Nudes in the Forest being one of his major works of that period. Léger’s change in direction from the current Cubism trend led critics to call his work “Tubism”, because of the cylindrical shapes he used as a focus.
World War I had a significant effect on Léger, as he spent two years fighting at the front, from 1914 to 1916. He had made many drawings of soldiers while he was on furlough, and in September 1916 he barely escaped with his life from a German mustard gas attack at Verdun. While recovering in a northeastern suburb of Paris, called Villepinte, he was motivated to paint a scene that reflected his war experience with the giant weapons of destruction. The Card Players (1917) shows figures, monstrous and resembling robots, and it marks the beginning of Léger’s “mechanical period”.
His next project, a year later in 1918, involved a series of paintings called the Disk series, in which he used shapes and colors reminiscent of traffic stop lights, but his mechanical period lasted well into the 1920s, and he followed in the footsteps of figurative artists like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Nicolas Poussin. Other artists whose works he’d admired and from whom he took different ideas, like animated landscapes and Purism, were Henri Rousseau, Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier. Some of Léger’s paintings are The Railway Crossing (1919), The Siphon (1924), Nude on a Red Background (1927), Two Sisters (1930) and he made numerous and humorous versions of Adam and Eve (1935). These paintings all show different art styles that he was continuously progressing through. In addition to his many works he established and taught in a free school in 1924 and produced and directed a short film called Ballet Mécanique.
He had married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy in 1919, and after her death in 1950 he met Nadia Khodossevitch whom he married in 1952. He was an active painter and teacher throughout his career, and he had written essays on his art theories. He had turned away from abstract art during the 1940s, such as his Tree in the Ladder (1943-1944) and Three Musicians (1944),and moved to more figurative art subjects. In addition Léger took on many diverse projects such as stained glass, mosaics, murals, book illustrations and ceramic sculptures. He continued to paint up until 1954, and was creating a mosaic for the São Paulo Opera which was left unfinished, due to his death on August 17, 1955.