The Spread of Cubism

“In the search for vividness and intensity, I have made use of the machine as others have used the nude body or the still life . . . . The manufactured object is there, a polychrome absolute, clean and precise, beautiful in itself; and it is the most terrible competition the artist has ever been subjected to . . . . I invent images from machines, as others have made landscapes from their imagination.”
Fernand Léger

By 1912, Cubism had already become an international movement.  For many artists, the sleek geometric forms and multiple viewpoints of Cubism seemed to be the most suitable means of expressing the essence of the machine age.

Shock of the New:  The Mechanical Paradise (narrated by Robert Hughes)


Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower, 1911 Guggenheim Museum
Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower, 1911
Guggenheim Museum

Robert Delaunay used Cubism to express the essence of the modern city:

  “Delaunay explored the developments of Cubist fragmentation more explicitly in his series of paintings of the Eiffel Tower. In these canvases, characteristic of his self-designated “destructive” phase, the artist presented the tower and surrounding buildings from various perspectives. Delaunay chose a subject that allowed him to indulge his preference for a sense of vast space, atmosphere, and light, while evoking a sign of modernity and progress.”

Built in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was a well-known symbol of modernity:  in addition to being made of modern industrial steel, the building also served as a radio tower.

Fernand Léger, The City, 1919
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Fernand Léger also drew on Cubist fragmentation of form and the bright colors of Fauvism to capture the essence of the machine age.  He painted pictures of people and environments that looked like machines.  The City is a futuristic rendering of the modern city that makes Impressionist pictures look positively old fashioned:

“This painting captures the staccato rhythms of a modern urban environment, and the broad panorama of its buildings, scaffolding, and bridges. These architectural elements are punctuated by such signs of city life as shop window mannequins, rounded plumes of smoke, and a telephone pole, all rendered in bold, vibrant colors. Léger even included his own initials, “F L,” among the array of stenciled letters, evoking the colorful billboard posters of the time.”
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The geometrical shapes, colors, fragmentation, and compression of space all evoke the look and feel of the modern industrialized environment.  As Léger explained:

“If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it . . . The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.  A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth century artist . . . The compression of the modern picture, its variety, its breaking up of forms, are the result of all of this.”
Fernand Léger

“In La Ville [The City], I composed a picture exclusively with pure, flat colors.  Technically, that picture was a plastic revolution.  One could achieve depth and dynamism without modulation or chiaroscuro.  It was advertising that first drew the consequences.  The pure tones of the blues, reds, and yellows break away from this picture and invade posters, shop windows, roadside signs, and traffic lights.  Color had become free.  It was a reality in its own right.  It had a new activity, entirely independent of the objects which, till then, had contained and supported it.”
Fernand Léger 


Picasso Posse:  Cubism Between the Wars (Philadelphia Museum)

The Beauty of the Machine
For many modern artists the machine was an object of beauty in and of itself – like a sculpture.  F.T. Marinetti declared that a speeding automobile was as beautiful as the Nike of Samothrace, and when Marcel Duchamp visited the Paris air show in 1912 he declared that no artist could match the beauty of an airplane propeller.

Fernand Leger, Three Women, 1921
Museum of Modern Art

Fernand Léger also thought machines were “sexy.”  He expressed this in a painting of nude women who look like they are made machine parts:

“This painting represents a group of three reclining nudes drinking tea or coffee in a chic apartment. While the reclining nude is a common subject in art history, these women’s bodies have been simplified into rounded and dislocated forms, their skin not soft but firm, buffed, and polished. The machinelike precision and solidity with which Léger renders human form relates to his faith in modern industry . . . .”
Museum of Modern Art

Fernand Léger, Ballet Mécanique, 1924
Museum of Modern Art

Fernand Léger was one of the first modern artists to explore the new technology of film as an artistic medium.  His Ballet Mécanique uses repetition and commonplace manufactured objects (such as pots and pans) and human figures to create a dynamic moving collage that evokes the mechanical nature of modern life.

Fernand Léger, Ballet Mécanique, 1924 

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