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: Institute Acquires Paintings by Léger and Utrillo


Richard S. Davis



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With the recent purchase of two modern French paintings, Léger's early Table and Fruit and Utrillo's very personal Church at Stains, the Institute has greatly enriched the sequence of French painting in its collection. Although very different, each of these works represents a landmark in the development of modern painting. In fact, each represents a classic example of one of the leading theories of modern painting. Together with Delaunay's cubist masterpiece, Saint-Séverin, they form an impressive group about which the most startling thing is that these once controversial paintings now seem so traditional. The trends which they reflect have become the accepted ways of painting in our century, and the paintings themselves have become old masters within the lifetime of the men who created them.The Léger, of course, represents cubism, a phase of abstract art whose principal purpose is to reduce the painter's form and subject matter to the barest essentials of logical design and representation of nature. Abstract art as a theory is more concerned with pattern than subject matter, more with the language of the painter than with what he has to say. The Utrillo, broadly speaking, represents expressionism, the other theory of modern art. The expressionists may or may not use the simplified forms of the cubists. They more frequently distort form to emphasize subject because they view painting as a means of expression and place subject before form or design. These two ways of painting result from a synthesis of elements out of the past and from the experiments of a group of daring painters working in Paris before World War I.With almost half of the century gone, we are far enough away from these experiments to judge them in relation to the theories of the past and to current tendencies. Hindsight is indeed easier than foresight. Time and familiarity support our judgment, which might otherwise have been timid. We find that the theories of cubism and expressionism have validity, and we can see Léger and Utrillo as part of a tradition which made the French school of painting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the most influential and far-reaching since the Italian Renaissance. Best of all, hindsight gives us the chance to select their most characteristic paintings from a number which could be frankly called experimental. This is especially important in the case of Cézanne and the cubists, who were prolific painters, constantly experimenting with the formal elements of painting at the expense of subject matter.Fernand Léger was born at Argentan in Normandy in 1881. He moved to Paris at seventeen and studied architectural draughtsmanship for two years. The training that shaped the character of this art as profoundly as Rouault's apprenticeship to the stained-glass maker Hirsch had shaped his art. Léger turned to painting at twenty. Working in Paris, he met the other promising experimenters, and although he developed the rudiments of his cubism independently, he also drew heavily on the contributions of other artists working in this manner. The most important single influence was Cézanne, who was receiving the first public acknowledgement of his art. The occasion was the Autumn Salon of 1905, which included, a whole room devoted to Cézanne and, as if that were not enough, the first Fauve paintings.Léger and his friends already knew Cézanne's work. In fact, they grasped quite clearly Cézanne's purpose and his achievement. In reaction to impressionism, Cézanne wished to describe nature with the plastic solidity of Poussin and the old masters, but to combine it with the color and light of the impressionists. His results, as seen by Léger and his friends, were carefully arranged compositions, with each motif solidly constructed, often resembling a geometric cube or sphere, and modelled by competent handling of color and light. The 1905 exhibition had an immediate effect on the development of cubism. Picasso and Léger started breaking down forms with an eye to better plastic effect and over-all pattern. However, most of the younger generation who saw the exhibition missed one point, the danger of over-interest in three-dimensional mass and pattern, in other words, in the formalizing tendencies of cubism. Cézanne had maintained a balance between interest in subject matter and interest in the language used.Cubism developed into a movement and, within a few years, into a style of painting. Its theory was based on Cézanne's objective, which was carried further but with some loss of balance between subject matter and language. Cézanne's influence continued with another exhibition of his work at the Autumn Salon of 1906. But, however important, Cézanne was not the only influence. Cubism was also nourished by Seurat's art, the importation of African Negro sculpture, Iberian sculpture, the general conditions of an industrialized age, and the support of some friendly critics and writers. Léger saw the exhibition of exotic and primitive sculpture, he heard the popular talk about relativity and space, and he knew the promoters (in the best sense) of cubism: his fellow painter Picasso, the poet Apollinaire, and the dealer Kahnweiler. But it was Picasso who contributed most. His first ambitious and successful cubist composition was finished in 1907. It was the Young Ladies of Avignon, now in the Museum of Modern Art. Best of all, Picasso contributed painting of quality to cubism.By 1910 Léger had worked out the formula he was to employ two years later in the Institute's Table and Fruit. The formula was to simplify the objects he painted to solid geometric essentials. We see in this painting the type of subject which painters have been using for experiments for generations. Léger's formula was so well conceived that his table and fruit stand in perfect relief on the canvas. The sense of three dimensions is so pronounced that the table and objects on it seem to float in the air. Léger's exclusion of color for black and white in this canvas intensifies the feeling of space. He does not thrill us with the fruit he has painted, but oddly enough, and quite unconsciously, he transfers to us through his pronounced feeling for three dimensions the excitement he felt when he realized that he could comprehend and conquer space and even convey it to us.The painting makes an ideal museum picture because it illustrates quite clearly the place which cubism will take in the history or art, a place between Cézanne and our contemporaries who are using the short cut of abstract art much as journalists use the vernacular. The painting represents expert handling of form and as such could be called as representative of the whole movement of cubism as of Léger. Nevertheless, it is Léger at his most competent point. Apollinaire described Léger's work of this time aptly—"he discards whatever does not give his conception an agreeable and happy simplicity." The Institute's canvas has played an important role in spreading cubism. It was included in the first large travelling show of cubist art and toured Europe in 1913. Since that date it has hung in three private collections.Having mastered plastic form, as evidenced by his Table and Fruit, Léger soon felt the need of more color and significant subjects. Consequently, he has gradually varied his formula to include broader areas of color and larger forms appropriate to themes taken from the mechanized world around us. Employing this fresh language, he has described the world which inspired that language, the architectural forms of the industrial age. It is an intellectual kind of painting, sometimes, in fun, called tubism, with a consistent balance between decoration and form and subject matter.Critics expected cubist painting to kill self-expression. Far from it, for the cubist language offers as much opportunity for the expression of one's personality as the more naturalistic ways of painting. The very essence of cubism or abstract art is to remove the superfluous detail and leave the underlying form bare. Both the ability to accomplish the process and the results reflect a painter's personality. There is personality in Léger's work. It can be felt in Table and Fruit and clearly seen in his later paintings of the mechanical world. Taking the work of the two cubists par excellence, Braque and Léger, one can always distinguish their personalities. Braque is tender, satisfied with producing charming, decorative, still lifes of the highest order. Léger is tough, interested in the discord of our mechanical age. Yes, we already owe a debt to Léger, for he has shown that cubism is as sound and traditional as painting itself as long as there is an appropriate balance between and fusion of language and message.Utrillo has played a less vital role than Léger in the development of modern art. From the time he started painting, about forty years ago, he has used a realistic style to create his highly personal and romantic interpretation of Paris scenes. He has never been an intellectual, but rather an instinctive painter. Revolutionary changes in art and life have not affected him as much as his usual upbringing. Molded by circumstances into an independent, his position in the history of twentieth century painting is not yet clear. His importance lies in his ability to create a mood, which he can do in a fresh and unselfconscious spirit. It is this ability which classifies him, in the general sense, as an expressionist.However, his background is closely associated with the impressionists. Maurice Utrillo, who was born in 1883, is the son of Suzanne Valadon, who posed for Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Suzanne Valadon was a circus performer until an accident forced her into a less active means of livelihood, modelling. She became interested in drawing and painting through her work in the studios and was encouraged by her masters until she became a capable painter. Her son was born and brought up under unhappy family circumstances and was encouraged to paint as a kind of therapy. It seemed to be the natural thing for him to do. He drew on Pissarro and Sisley for color, but worked out a less sophisticated style. He has chosen the Paris scene as inspiration, but not because he has a special love for Montmartre or whatever the scene may be. His well-known churches and street scenes are simply paintable subjects, based on postcards and photographs. When at work, he rearranges the scene on the postal to suit his own ideas of composition and brings it to life with color.Utrillo has been most prolific, and hindsight has again helped us select a completely characteristic example of his work. Church at Stains is typical of his finest interpretation of mood. He captures the feeling of the dominating presence of this church on a little suburban street. He contrasts the color of street life with the slightly leprous old walls of the churchyard. He even conveys the feeling of moldy plaster by applying paint to the walls with his palette knife.Stains is a poor suburb of Paris and typical Utrillo subject matter. He first painted it in 1910 and has repeated it often, each scene, like our version of 1926, being different. The narrowness of the world he portrays and the naiveté of the language he uses may limit his influence. On the other hand, Utrillo's kind of painting is hard to surpass when handled by such a master of mood of locality as himself, and no survey of modern French painting is complete without an example of his art.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Table and Fruit by the French cubist painter Fernand Léger. A recent acquisition from the Dunwoody Fund
  2. Church at Stains. A characteristic Parisian scene of the contemporary French painter Maurice Utrillo. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Institute Acquires Paintings by Léger and Utrillo," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 37, no. 1 (January, 1948): 3-7.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009