METZ, France — A highlight of the current European cultural season offers a startling reflection of how artificial intelligence is transforming work and workers: the retrospective of the pugnacious French painter and filmmaker Fernand Léger at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. What particularly interests me here is how Léger’s early, mechano-morphic imagery enters the oily slipstream of man-machines, thus acting as a harbinger of cyberpunk and contemporary biomechatronic culture, where distinctions between the body and the work environment blur in the density of speeding networks.
Early in life, Léger embraced a transcendent, quasi-Futurist love of technological energy along with the Cubist notion of putting the squeeze on: fracturing objects into sharp geometric shapes. But soon, his brand of Cubism evolved into an automaton-esque figurative style distinguished by his focus on cylindrical forms. These cylindrical android figures express a synchronization between human and machine that is most relevant today given the coming artificial intelligence workplace. When we look at Léger with new eyes, we see that he sought to express the noise, dynamism, and speed of the new technology machinery in which he and we find ourselves immersed.
In 1909, Léger moved to Montparnasse, where he worked as an architectural draftsman and became active in Section D’Or, the group of avant-garde artists who held regular meetings at the home of the Duchamp brothers; including Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Léger’s early Cubist works are full of astonishing, automated, compulsive, and practically cinematic stutter effects; a clear example of this is the still life “Le Compotier sur la Table” (1909). The effects become more intricate in “Contraste de forms” (1913), part of his Contrasts of Forms series (1912–14), which embraces a vigorous vocabulary of mingled cones, cylinders, cubes, and planes that have been loosely scrubbed with color, lending the work a feeling of anxious transiency. They appear to be riffing off of his “Les Toits de Paris” (“The Roofs of Paris,” 1912), a loosely brushed painting that has the relaxed touch of Henri Matisse.
It is generally held that by increasingly rounding off the Cubists’ sharp edges, Léger became more of a Tubist, an evolution sparked because, in his World War I army days (when he was almost lethally mustard gassed), he had been inspired by ogling the silver barrel of a gun gleaming in the sun. During his military service, he created many sketches of artillery, soldiers, and airplanes, leading to his subsequent ‘mechanical period,’ in which he painted tubular, machine-like forms. Hustling cool metal cylinders certainly dominate his first post-WWI paintings. Preparing the way for these Tubist wonders was one of the best paintings Léger ever made: his rich, velvety textured composition “La Noce” (“The Wedding,” 1911–12). It is so jam packed with Cubist crunchy incident that it is difficult to decipher at first glance. Like a fine, nuanced, and balanced wine, this painting exhibits intensity without heaviness. The eye is drawn to the full rhythmic structure of the kaleidoscopic space where smaller, interlocking elements lure it into deep, opulent repetitions of machinic (and implicitly sexual) acts. The painting’s couple fuses into gyrating, repeating forms in a complex and cryptic way, lending the work a vivacious and sleek visual texture that is delightfully seductive. The couple and multitude breed into a repetitive orgy-machine, pulling the mind into an infinite mechanical logic that is almost transcendental.
The military theme in Léger’s oeuvre remains prominent in post-WWI paintings like “La partie de cartes” (“The Card Game,” 1917), where three decorated soldiers tumble out of themselves and ripple across the picture plane, merging into an ecstatic ménage à trois through the interlacing repetitions of their machine forms. This post-flesh, man-machine unanimity could be seen as a precedent, suggestive of our current post-human condition. The resplendent mélange of seated tin men — all evocative of that famous one from Oz — displays a frantic, cybernetic logic in terms of the painting’s visual tactility, with once lumpen and deadlocked male forms set flowing in jerks and spasms across the surface. The artist has systematically imposed on them a vibrating restlessness through labyrinthine extensions and doublings, making their flesh undergo steps of annihilation into transubstantiation. The composition’s flickering, staccato repetitions create the impression of a rolling bacchanalia where human forms transcend their fleshiness and extend themselves through motorized re-embodiment. Léger seems to suggest that the truth of life is found not through chance, as one might glean from the card game, but through the technological apparatus of bodies tumbling into a field of circuits. Likewise, in “Le Cirque Medrano” (1918), exuberant performing figures are put through Léger’s mechanical meat grinder and expelled into the hyperreal dominion of entertainment simulacrum.
In the same year that Léger painted the proto-Pop “Le Cirque Medrano,” he also dabbled in abstraction with his non-figurative works “Le Disque” (“The Disk,” 1918) and “Les helices” (“The Blades,” 1918), which in turn prefigured “Elément mécanique” (“Mechanical Element”) of 1924. In these paintings, Léger rendered uninhabited, post-Cubist machine-scapes crammed with repetitions, combinations, and permutations. Particularly in “Elément mécanique,” he pushes low-key color values through a chiaroscuro enhancer that punches the painting’s surface into high contrast. In the more subdued “Les helices,” Léger constructs a semi-coherent composition out of wildly diverse elements by vertically stacking shapes into wobbly rows, thus making visible the process of building a picture as if it was a city. He borrowed such avant-garde, machinist elements not only from Cubism, but also from Dada and Futurism. For example, the typographical dismembering brought into fashion by the Futurists’ Parole in Libertà is evident in Léger’s poster “L’Inhumaine” (1924), which he made for the avant-garde film of the same name by cinema theorist Michel L’Herbier. Though Léger worked in a variety of media besides painting and the graphic arts — including drawing, ceramic, film, set design for theater and dance, glass, print, and book arts — his style rarely varied, clinging to a visual clout that favored primary colors loosely distributed through stuttering patterns that consume or frame bold forms.
Léger, though not himself a Dadaist, made much of the machine, but little of sex farce. He did not mock the machine the way Marcel Duchamp did with his onastic “Chocolate Grinder (No. 1)” (1913) or in the numerous psychosexual examples from Francis Picabia’s machinist period. It is not surprising that Picabia was also a member of the Section d’Or group, and, like Léger, distributed disparate body parts and mechanical elements in what seems at first a turbulent, haphazard fashion. But in Picabia’s case, there is a blending of the machinist aesthetic with representations of the human body that suggests the travesty of the sex machine avant la lettre. In sardonic Dada, there is a challenging mix of affirmation and critique of the fusion of man and machine; with Léger, it is predominantly affirmation, enhanced by his populist attitude to art. Léger strove to be as simple and direct as possible in his later art, so as to be accessible. This extends to his pedagogic ambition to educate the eyes of the public through the free art school he founded in Paris with Amédée Ozenfant.
Still, Léger is complex enough in his subject matter to challenge the humanist conceptions of ‘man.’ This is most evident in the mustachioed “Le mécanicien” (“The Mechanic,” 1918) and in “L’Homme à la pipe” (“Man with the Pipe,” 1920), with their tin man-like volumes. They both project a tightly structured machismo air and thus have much less charm than “La Noce,” which has a nonchalant, silky, falling feel to it. Yet in these two later robotic tour de force works, Léger clearly sets up tensions between the human narrative and the mechanical spectacle. In the canvas “L’Homme à la pipe” (one of three versions he painted of this theme in the same year), a visual contest has been set up between man and the machine environment around him, which man has mastered by becoming robot. In “Le mécanicien,” the four-fingered, mustachioed metal man’s phallic arms and shoulders invite mockery. In these canvases, and with “Composition à la main et aux chapeaux” (1927), I became less interested in Léger’s paintings as they seemed to prefigure the use of the simulacral culture of advertising typical of Pop Art. Rather, I prefer Léger’s work when it points at neurocomputing wetware, biorobotics, and AI-charged automation; when it hums away in the space between the mechanic and the organic. This is when Léger functions as a mythic oracle of our times.
But the greatest construct of tipsy automation — and, I think, Léger’s paramount work — is the flicker-film “Le Ballet Mécanique” (1924) that he co-directed with the American filmmaker Dudley Murphy. It features Kiki de Montparnasse fluctuating between figuration and abstraction. It is a Dada masterpiece of early experimental film, stringing together a reeling mechanic-mental river of sensations both flashy and frustratingly repetitive. The film is a bid at eliminating our sense of linear time, and it always gives me the fantastic feeling of prolonging action into an almost erotic eternity through repetition. After the initial dazzling, “Le Ballet Mécanique” — much of which was shot by Man Ray — smartly transmits an altered, exalted, and orgasmic state of mind that is perfectly matched by George Antheil’s noise music soundtrack, the 30-minute-long “Le Ballet Mécanique” (1924). This pummeling composition was originally conceived as the musical accompaniment to the 15-minute film, but due to their differences, eventually the filmmakers and composer chose to let their creations evolve separately (although the film credits always included Antheil). Nevertheless, Antheil’s “Le Ballet Mécanique” premiered as concert music in Paris in 1926 and is majestic in and of itself. When included in the film (as here), everything is infused with a pulsating and flickering go-stop-go-stop-go-stop-go energy, evoking a hyperactive current of industrial forces on the body.
Like Léger’s early paintings, the film is flush with discontinuous, fragmented, and kaleidoscopic sensations. The screen pulsates with the hot energies of modern life and its dull repetitions, animating the screen with an insistent flicker. This stutter-and-flicker effect is something that Brion Gysin picked up again in his “Dreamachine” (1961) and we find it too in the works of Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits. “Le Ballet Mécanique” is a stunning, spasmodic display of looped concentration, where relationships between the protoplasmic body and mechanical cycles invite meditation on self-prosthesis. In this flickering ballet, the human body at the center of traditional narrative subjectivity is undone by a visual noise it cannot contain.
The film’s level of energetic brilliance proved unsustainable for Léger. In his “Composition aux trois figures” (1932), three robotic figures symbolizing the three graces are unconvincingly feminized. These stiff, ashen, sculptural forms have a slight appeal, but are less interesting than his earlier figures, which were consumed within perverse, post-Cubist fields of fractured displacement. Later, in 1945, after years of great success inside and outside of the United States, including mural commissions for the World’s Fairs of 1925 and 1937 (the year his Nicolas Schöffler-esque cybernetic sculpture project to camouflage the Eiffel Tower was rejected), Léger joined the Communist Party in France. During the subsequent period his work became even less flickering, less abstract, and less interesting; taking up as subject the cliché of the monumental, heroic worker of Soviet socialist realism. Look at his prosaic painting “Les constructeurs” (1950), which riffs off a photograph of Soviet workers that he clipped from a propaganda publication; it is actually surprising that the Soviets denied him a visa to visit with them.
Like in a good deal of the later work one encounters at the artist’s former studio — now the Musée National Fernand Léger at Biot on the Côte d’Azur — “Les constructeurs” verges on glib schmaltz. The flat clarity of focus on the earnest-but-cartoonish iron workers alerts the insightful viewer to Léger’s desire to transmit the moral allure he felt for communism. But the paint application is blasé and so the painting profoundly lacks panache. What the soulless rectangle lacks is not a good subject — the working class certainly is — but the once tight fit of energetic bodily engagement and mechanical penetration typical of the modern workplace: that consciousness of a workers’ existence as augmented by (or merged with) technology.
Léger’s late stylistic mediocrity is a pity, because through his choice of working class subject matter he could have elevated the worker into the realm of élan, better supporting the proletarian uprisings of the following decades. But the monotonous “Les constructeurs” falters when compared to its thematic predecessor, Gustave Courbet’s “The Stonebreakers” (1850), which projected majestic seriousness. By contrast, “Les constructeurs” has a flat, cartoonish feel that makes it hard to find a working class hero worthwhile of our solemn empathy.
Be that as it may, in his most refined flesh-meets-machine works — including “Le Ballet Mécanique,” “La Noce,” and “La partie de cartes” — Léger laid down intricate art that raises thorny questions rich in social-political ambition. Already in these works, heavy human flesh no longer functions as a prerequisite for subjectivity, but rather takes on léger (lightweight) aspects typical of the electronic android.