The rise of Modernism is on display at the PMA’s new Leger exhibition

Photo is of Leger's painting "The City," done in 1919. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 7 inches x 9 feet 9 1/2 inches. (Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Leger’s 1919 painting “The City” is on display at the art museum. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibition “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” brings 1920s Paris to Philadelphia. You might imagine a romantic cafe scene or a bucolic French countryside, but that’s not it. Picture instead the denouement of Cubism, the rise of Modernism and the bewildering excitement of film as a new medium. In the center of this shifting art scene we find Fernand Leger.

“He wants to overwhelm you,” says curator Ann Vallye, standing in front of Leger’s mural-sized painting “The City” as she points out how the “foreground and background are dramatically compressed.” You can’t help but feel like the bold colors and geometric shapes are hurtling toward you. The painting has all the working functions of a city: neon signs, puffs of smoke, shadowy figures on a stairwell, all in a frenzied environment.

“The City” is about the size of a movie screen, with good reason, Vallye says: “This is just about the time that Leger started dreaming of working in theater.

Move into the next room of the exhibit and the space opens up. One of the pieces is a film by Leger, which centers around “inanimate objects set into motion, and people acting as inanimate objects,” Vallye explains. If that doesn’t sound like the most appealing movie, that’s understandable. “No one quite knew what to do with this new invention,” Vallye explains. What’s clear, though, is that Leger’s paintings have movement within them, and it echoes the time’s freshest medium. The exhibition is a meandering stroll through Paris, set 100 years ago, and it’s as playful as it is informative.

Eat at the exhibit
Granite Hill, the Stephen Starr-run restaurant at the museum, is complemeting the Leger exhibition with French delicacies, including roasted Moulard duck, a cremini and comte tart, and, for dessert, chocolate souffle. Or step outside of the restaurant on Oct. 27 for a decadent, French-inspired Sunday brunch on the East Balcony of the Great Stair Hall.

“Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis”
Through Jan. 5
Philadelphia Museum of Art
2600 Ben Franklin Pkwy.
$12-$25, 215-763-8100
www.philamuseum.org


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