Fernand Léger – Color is a vital necessity

“Beauty is everywhere” was the title of an exhibition dedicated to Fernand Léger (1881-1955) at BOZAR. He wrote: “there is no such thing as catalogued, hierarchical beauty”. This is what allows us to call “beauty” what we feel as such. What freedom in the face of those who prescribe us what to admire!

Vinciane Lacroix, three photos of the Fernand Léger mural painting at BOZAR (CC-BY-SA 2.5)


“Color is a vital necessity. It is a raw material indispensable to life, like water and fire” he wrote in 1937. He spent three years in the trenches, in the muddy color of war.

Léger, an apprentice from the age of 16 in an architectural practice, is also interested in color in architecture. “How do you create a feeling of space, of breaking boundaries? Quite simply through color, through walls of different colors. The flat that I will call “habitable rectangle” will be transformed into an “elastic rectangle” […] Color is a powerful means of action, it can destroy a wall, it can decorate it, it can make it move backwards or forwards, it creates this new space. “» [1]

In the search for visual efficiency, Léger is guided by the aesthetics of maximum contrast [2]. In the paintings below, notice the characters, painted entirely in neutral tones, while more saturated colors surrounded by blacks and whites are relegated to the background. This is a “quality contrast”, in the terminology of Itten who proposed seven forms of contrast. It is reinforced by another form of contrast (not listed by Itten), namely the way in which the forms are treated in the figure seen in the foreground, which suggests a volume, and in the background, which suggests a plane. This characteristic can be found in several of his paintings. Sometimes he replaces the “quality contrast” with a “contrast of complements” while keeping relief for the forms and flat areas for the background.

© Fernand Léger, left: Woman and cat, right: The mechanics, both have a volumetric almost neutral shape as foreground on a flat geometrical colored background.

He also experiments with color outside the line, as if the colors had their own independence from the line, their own life. Look at “The four cyclists”, “Women with parrots”, “Woman with the flower”, the series of lithographs illustrating Rimbaud’s poems, or the illustrations of Paris he made for his poet friend Blaise Cendras.

© Fernand Léger, “The four cyclists” (source Wiki Art)

If Léger’s work does not move me, I am nonetheless inspired by his approach, his anchoring in his time, his search for graphic expression, his fascination for progress, his wonder in the face of modernity. As such, the paragraph below is astonishing, so much so that it could seem so topical, even though it was written in 1914.

“The existence of modern creative people is much more condensed and much more complicated than that of people of previous centuries. The pictorial thing remains less fixed, the object itself is less exposed than before. A landscape crossed and broken by a car or a speedboat loses its descriptive value but gains in synthetic value […] Modern man records a hundred times more impressions than the artist of the 18th century; for example, so much so that our language is full of diminutives and abbreviations. “» [3]


[1] http://www.centrepompidou-metz.fr/le-corbusier-et-l-ger-visions-polychromes

[2] http://www.centrepompidou-metz.fr/sites/default/files/images/dossiers/2017.06-FERNAND-LEGER.pdf

[3] Fernand Léger, Fonctions de la peinture, Les réalisations picturales actuelles, 1914, p.40.

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