Writings : On Fernand Léger’s “New Realism”

On Fernand Léger’s “New Realism”

After my first encounter, brutal as always, I began to see in Fernand Léger’s paintings something familiar, which became gradually clearer during a second visit: the predominant plasticity combines with an aspect emerging from many studies of animal and plant life, from the analysis of detail or insights into often rapidly changing forms.

Photography and cinema, ‘unappealing’ types of record, insufficiently embroidered, not attractive enough, too object-like, can lead to an engagement with Léger’s paintings. In these we recognise the threats intended by some insect's gestures, the irreversible proliferation of mushrooms, bacilli, the creeping of algae. Spores guard their secrets while all the forms evolve of what will become a crustacean, nauplius and zoea. A type of iulus, a sinusoidal nereis, polymorphous fantasies such as we only see in a greatly enlarged water droplet, bring to life a scene, alongside a threatening sea cucumber and the wild dances of stylonychia.

From amazement to catastrophe, suffering is played out, the same suffering as governs the transformation of a larva into a pupa, and a pupa into an imago. A nerve cell embraces an amoeba while many acts of fertilization are taking place, overlooked by the head of a cockerel in agony.

We seem to be well enough prepared for a synthesis to emerge from acquisitions in the most diverse domains, through static or dynamic achievements, a synthesis which would shed light on the common foundation of all true research governed by uncontrolled impulses.


Jean Painlevé, "A propos d'un "nouveau réalisme" chez Fernand léger" originally published in Cahiers d'Art, n°3-4, 1940.