The Great War had shaken French society and had upended its culture. The wartime losses for the nation had been staggering and the psychological blow of the German advance as far as the Marne was searing. Women had left their god-given domestic places to work in factories and entered the battlefields as nurses taking the places of men who would never come home. After every war, there is always a sentiment of longing and nostalgia for the familiarity of the past before the world was irrevocably altered–a cultural “rappel à l’ordre.” The sentiment of Recall to Order popularized by the poet Jean Cocteau seemed to be a recipe for healing. One could find safety and certainty by going back in time and returning to traditions. Based upon logic and order and rational thinking, the classicism of which Cocteau spoke was considered distinctly and uniquely French, the kind of classicism familiar in the Baroque paintings of Poussin. 

During the war, the Cubist artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) had served in the engineering corps on the front at Verdun, where he was gassed. Hospitalized for two years, he worked through his battlefield traumas with art, which became more figurative and more conservative to graphically convey the horrors of the battlefield. His wartime experience was discussed by  Carolyn Lanchner in her article, “Fernand Léger: American Connections,” “ October of 1914, Léger was serving as a sapper in the Argonne Forest. Although he tried to secure a less perilous assignment, suggesting that the duties of a ‘draftsman, writer, cyclist or chef’ would be more in line with his talents, Léger spent most of the war at or close to the frong. whenever he had a spare moment, he drew the activities of his companions but he had almost no opportunity to work on canvas, between the last quarter of 1917 and 1917 he produced only one painting, Le Soldat à la pipe, done in 1916, during a leave in Paris. Hospitalized in 1917, Léger  almost immediately began painting again..He reported many years later that “Afterwards when I got back to Paris, in 1918-1919, I made the canvases that are called ‘la période méchanique.’”

By 1920, a calm seems to have descended upon Léger who smoothed the waters of his early agitated Cubism with a new and elegant classicism. The most famous work of this new direction was Le Grand Dejeuner of 1921, a direct homage to Ingres and the French tradition of the grande nu. Constructed on a frankly expressed grid, the painting is stilled and rational, imposing order upon a complex and cluttered modern interior where three inexplicably naked women are having lunch. The work of a wounded veteran recovering from battle, this painting exemplified Léger’s artistic return to order and society’s slow settling into a period of peace following a time of turmoil. Christopher Green wrote of Léger’s reentry into the Parisian art world after the Great War in Art in France, 1900-1940. Green noted that the artist  “found even modernist techniques inadequate in the face of mechanized warfare..He was a sapper and a stretcher-bearer in the Argonne in 1915, and a stretcher bearer on the Aisne front and at Verdun in 1916, before (in slightly dubious circumstances) being invalided out in 1917..And when after the Armistice, he exhibited with Léonce Rosenberg in February 1919, the acknowledged centerpiece of the exhibition was The Card-game, a large canvas painted in military hospital..It is a work in which men-as-engines, decorations pinned to their armour tunics, are made human by the stolid patience that their card-game conveys. In eight months, the battle of Verdun, whose dénouement Léger witnessed, killed more than 300,000 Frenchmen. His correspondence shows how aware he was of the calculated control behind such casualty figures, especially in the minutely planned use of artillery bombardments; a letter of 1915 actually aligns that cold control with the ‘abstraction’ of Cubism. And yet in 1919, he was to publish a text in which the beauty of the French 75 calibre gun is extolled, and that murderous beauty can be seen to be extolled too in The Card Game, these are not merely men-as-engines, they are also men-as-guns..The 1914-1918 war demonstrated as no previous war had, the destructive power of mechanisation. It did not diminish Léger’s awed faith in technology, but even he realised quickly that the aggressive dynamism of the pre-war celebration of modernity, with its equation between the machine and violence, had become unacceptable. In 1919-1920, he was the only leading modernist still to use simultanist techniques of spatial and temporal fragmentation to celebrate modernity, having ignored them before 1914.”  

For the art world, the pre-war decade, the early years of the twentieth century, were extremely productive but also disorderly, as movement replaced trend and as a new tendency overcame the previous style. “Isms” appeared and disappeared in Paris: Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism were aimed towards an audience of producers in the avant-garde salons, while the art public was still trying to catch up with Post-Impressionism and attempting come to terms with van Gogh and Gauguin. The end of the war meant that the previous dissension over avant-garde art was now a settled matter and the once-unfamiliar art had acquired value. The idea that innovative art was valuable in the financial sense gave rise to a healthy art market in Paris after the War, and this was the real order that settled over the art world. Art should appeal to the now willing collectors, who wanted to invest in the avant-garde, but what they wanted was the work of a major artist that was recognizable, in other words, the signature style should be present, but what was disruptive before the war needed to be tamed for this growing audience. 

Before the Great War, Cubism had been divided into parts: those artists who showed in the public salons, the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, and were therefore called the “Salon Cubists;” and Picasso and Braque who used their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to sell directly to clients, usually in Germany or Russia. The Salon Cubists and Kahnweiler’s artists, whom he insisted were not “Cubists,” were separated from their colleagues by where they showed their art. Picasso and Braque could be found only in their dealer’s small gallery, an establishment that could not afford to advertise. Their exhibitions were rarely reviewed because those artists did not exhibit in the large public Salons, where the Salon Cubists became notorious and even, in the eyes of some, “heroic.” The Great War would alter this unbalanced equation and Cubism after Cubism would have an entirely different cast of characters in the starring roles.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

4 + 1 =