The Fernand Léger National Museum in Biot houses the world’s largest collection of works by Fernand Léger – paintings, sculptures, mosaics and ceramics – and unveils the creative power of this avant-garde modern artist. Fascinated by industrial civilisation, his greatest source of inspiration was everyday life.
From soil to art
The story of Fernand Léger is that of a Normandy farmer’s son who rose to become an icon of modern art. A painter, stained glassmaker, decorator, ceramist, sculptor and illustrator, Léger (1881-1955) discovered Paris’s buzzing artistic scene when he was 19 years old. The Cubist works of Picasso, Braque and, in particular, Cézanne, who aimed to “Treat nature as cylinders, spheres, and cones”, fascinated him. He soon set up home at “La Ruche”, an artist residency where he became friends with Marc Chagall and Blaise Cendrars and began to forge his artistic identity. Nourished by Cubism and determined to push back the movement’s limits, Léger developed a unique style, characterised by easily-recognizable contrasts and colours.
The Fernand Léger National Museum
Reflections of a multi-faceted artist
An artist with many strings to his bow, Fernand Léger never restricted himself to painting and considered that art required exploring many techniques. True to his word, he turned his hand to mosaics (Eglise d’Assy, 1946), stained glass windows (Eglise d’Audincourt, 1951; University of Caracas, 1954), decors, costumes and ceramic polychrome sculptures. A few months prior to his death in 1955, he purchased Mas Saint-André, at the foot of the village of Biot. It was here that the Fernand Léger National Museum was born five years later, on the initiative of his widow Nadia. Designed by the architect Andreï Svetchine, it houses the world’s largest collection of works by Fernand Léger – paintings, sculptures, mosaics and ceramics – and stands witness to the diversity of his artistic world.
A stroll round the rooms of the Fernand Léger Museum reveals the extent of the artist’s obsession with industrial civilisation, which remained one of his favourite themes. Sent to the front lines of WWI he said, “I was dazzled by the breech of a 75-mm gun that was standing in the sunlight: the magic of white on metal […].” Fascinated by the depiction of a mechanical world, he explored the physical beauty of the city, machines and industry. One of the museum’s most iconic works, “Mona Lisa with the keys” (1930) expresses Léger’s deep desire to upturn standard codes and redefine painting in the light of modernity. He explains: “One day I had painted a bunch of keys on a canvas, my bunch of keys… I needed something that would be the absolute opposite of a bunch of keys… what should I see in a shop window? A postcard of the Mona Lisa!” Or how to combine a simple everyday object with the world’s best-known painting…
Get closer to the people
Another common denominator of Fernand Léger‘s work: his social footprint. On his return from the United States in 1945, he joined the Communist Party and became one of its star members at the time, alongside Picasso. His reflection on the manner in which modern artists can approach the people is partially reflected in his series entitled “The Builders” (1950), of which the Fernand Léger Museum possesses the most accomplished version. At the time, Léger decided to exhibit his work in the Renault factory canteen. Here is his account of the experience: “The blokes came in at twelve (…). Some of them sniggered (…). I listened to them sadly as I ate my soup. Eight days later (…), the atmosphere was different. The blokes weren’t laughing any more, they weren’t looking at the paintings. Nevertheless, quite a few of them (…) glanced at the pictures quickly before digging into their plates again. (…) But when I was getting ready to go one of the blokes came up to me: ‘You’re the painter, aren’t you? You’ll see (…) when you take your paintings away, when they’re looking at blank wall in front of them, they’re going to realize what your colours really mean!'(…).”