Classical Bodies, New Humanity

The latest painting wants to offer us the image of something totally finished and complete, minutely formed, opposing it to our eternally fragmented and ragged lives as an archetype of integral structuring, down to the smallest details. Someday man too will be able to recreate himself in the perfection of this idea.1

As the ideal of well-formed paintings and equally formed people took hold, artists sought to represent the body, whole and intact. This transformational approach to pictorial language, appropriate for a new world order, can be seen in the paintings of Fernand Léger (1881—1955). "His use of streamlined forms derived from mechanical imagery dates from World War I [1914—18], when he served in the French army. His predilection for military hardware and its gleaming surfaces coincided with his feelings of solidarity with the fellow foot soldiers in the trenches. The machine aesthetic he adopted at this time reflected his hopes of creating a truly popular art form that would describe and inspire modern life. After the war, he turned away from the experiments with pure abstraction that characterized his earlier work and infused social meaning into his art."2 For Léger, "rendering the mechanical world became a necessity," and his postwar paintings freely mix both mechanical and human elements.3

As a call to order resounded throughout postwar French society, Léger introduced the monumental, classical figure into his work. He offered an idea of classical women but without the aura of antiquity. Léger's distinct style includes the clean, geometric forms of industry and mass production that signaled a renewed social and aesthetic environment. Many of his paintings took mechanical devices as their subject, and all were informed by cool precision and exacting workmanship.

"Women occupied a traditional place within Léger's ideal new order. Counterpoints to the urban world of industry and work, Léger's many depictions of women embody a domestic realm of tranquility and leisure. He treated his depictions of women no differently than the most austere mechanical form: edges are sharp, colors are distinct, and modeling follows a conspicuously stylized formula."4 Léger's modern women are as upright as columns, their hair, with its metallic shine, falling to one side. Two Women (Deux femmes), 1922 combines these precise robot women with sharply delineated details of an idealized, domestic interior.

1 Franz Roh, Post-Expressionism: Magic Realism (1925), quoted in Kenneth E. Silver, "A More Durable Self," in Silver, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918—1936, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2010), p. 27.

"Collection Online: Fernand Léger. Woman Holding a Vase (definitive state). 1927," Guggenheim Museum,

3 Arthur Manwick, "Painting and Music during and after the Great War: The Art of Total War," in Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914—1918, ed. Roger Chickering and Stig Förster (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Initiative; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 509.

4 "Two Women," National Gallery of Art,


Show: Two Women (Deux femmes), 1922

  • Describe this painting carefully. What colors, forms, and shapes do your students notice? What adjectives can be used to discuss this work?
  • As a class, how many items in this painting can your students name? Which ones remain ambiguous?
  • Discuss the connection between the two figures in the painting. What visual clues has Léger provided to help us understand their relationship?
  • Léger developed a distinct style of painting that mixes organic and mechanical forms. Through a group discussion, have the class work together to write a description of his style.