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The Legacy of Fernand Léger | Inside the Museum


Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was born on 4th February, 1881, in Argentan, France. The painter, sculptor and filmmaker is considered one of the great figures of modern art with work spanning the first half of the 20th Century. 

After apprenticing as an architect, Léger worked as a draftsman in Paris before enrolling in art classes. His early works were influenced by cubism and became progressively abstract. After serving in World War I, he developed his own form of cubism known as “tubism” characterised by mechanical forms and limited use of colour. In 1925 Léger presented his first murals at Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs.

Léger visited the United States several times in the 1930s, where he was captivated by the energy and vitality of New York City. During this American period he observed the cultural differences between his French heritage and the comparative freedoms he experienced in New York. His works took on bolder bands of colour juxtaposed with figures and objects in a black outline, which were influenced by the bright neon signs of Broadway. During World War II he taught at Yale and returned to France after the war, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In 1960, his widow, Nadia Léger and his assistant, Georges Bauquier inaugurated the Fernand Léger National Museum on the land bought by the artist at the foot of the village of Biot, France. 

Today, Julie Guttierez works at the museum as the Heritage Curator. We spoke to her about her route into curating and the enduring appeal of Léger’s work.

How does your French heritage shape the way you appreciate art?

I grew up in the North of France and then studied French literature in Paris at the Sorbonne University. I've always been attracted to art but it was by chance that I started studying art history at the École du Louvre (located in Paris) and it was a revelation! Beyond the study of history, what fascinated me most was the encounter, almost the intimacy, with the materiality of works of art and heritage objects, because some courses were directly organized in museums or monuments.

Tell us about your path to becoming a curator?

At the École du Louvre, I discovered the profession of curator, which seemed to correspond to my ambitions because it is a versatile job, combining research and the organisation of temporary exhibitions. There is also a more technical dimension, which involves restoring works of art. At the beginning, this job seemed inaccessible to me because in France, you have to pass a difficult civil service exam, but I finally obtained it in 2007! I then joined the Institut National du Patrimoine, a school that trains curators for 18 months, before taking my first job in Nantes in the service of historical monuments.

Tell us about the Fernand Léger National Museum and what visitors can expect.

I have been working at the Fernand Léger national Museum for four years. It is a pioneering institution because it is the first museum dedicated to a modern artist to open on the French Riviera in 1960. Indeed, this region was the place of life and creation of many artists of this period, such as Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse, attracted by the light of the Mediterranean.

Visitors who come to the Fernand Léger National Museum are often lovers of modern art from all continents. But we also have an important school and family educational programme. These groups are encouraged to appreciate the colours, the joyful and modern themes of Léger's works, such as leisure, the world of objects or the circus. We are fortunate to have a museum where the architecture, decorated with monumental mosaic and ceramic decorations, is surrounded by a very pleasant Mediterranean park, where visitors like to walk around and spend a relaxing moment.

What does your role involve as heritage curator?

As curator, my role is to ensure the conservation of the collections, which belong to the national heritage of the French Ministry of Culture, in order to pass them on to future generations. But, on a daily basis, what seems essential to me in my mission is to ensure that the museum is a living place, a place of discovery and learning, but also - let's not forget it - of pleasure. Because I am convinced - especially with the exceptional health crisis we are going through today - that art and culture are indispensable to society, to life itself. This is also what the painter Fernand Léger (1881-1955) thought, who was an artist committed to access to culture for all, including the working class of his time.

Tell us about some recent special exhibitions you have worked on. 

The Fernand Léger national Museum organizes about two temporary exhibitions a year, alternating between exhibitions devoted to Fernand Léger and, in general, to the first half of the 20th century, and exhibitions dedicated to current artists, such as the French photographer Stéphane Couturier or the British duo Gilbert & George.

My goal is to create a link between the history of the 20th century and today's creation, but also to show how the themes addressed in Fernand Léger's paintings resonate in a lively way with the current events of our contemporary era. With Gilbert & George, we have created a dialogue between the committed discourse of these two artists and a masterpiece by Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs, to explain to the public that the question of political commitment, social utopia, art for all, are more topical than ever. Moreover, Léger can be considered a precursor of Pop Art because he was one of the first to take an interest in the graphics of posters, the formal perfection of industrial objects, but also in very vivid colours, which catch the eye of any spectator.

How do you see contemporary art shifting in the near future as audiences are wishing to explore more works digitally?

A current issue in museums is the question of the place of digital technology in access to culture. With the pandemic, the place of digital in our daily lives has become paramount. In museums, digital technology allows us to diversify our communication media, to reach new audiences, especially the younger generations, but also to keep in touch with our regular public. We have had to question and reinvent our practices, but despite all this progress towards an ever greater opening of cultural content, I am still impatient to reopen the doors of the museum. Because nothing completely replaces the experience of a visit, the encounter with a work of art and human contact.

The Transport of Forces, a 50 m2 painting by Fernand Léger, which we have just installed in the Museum for a period of five years, is more impressive in reality than seen on a smartphone screen! I therefore invite you to come and contemplate this monumental masterpiece, as part of our next exhibition, as soon as it will be possible again.

For more information on the Fernand Leger National Museum, please see their website

Photographs by Máté Moro.

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