Functions of Painting

Fernand L├ęger’s essays (translated from the French by Alexandra Anderson) were first published in 1965. His many trips to the U.S. helped him see and experience New York in a way that most Frenchmen were blind to. While I was hipped to this book by way of my current research on history of window displays, I found the other essays intriguing as well: his obsession about color, protestations that the Renaissance was the worst thing to happen to art, insistence that hierarchy has killed art, and general observation about NYC mid-century.

On window dressing: he and a friend watch an artisan working in a display window, spending 11 minutes on each item in the display (they timed him). “When I think of the carelessness and lack of discipline in the work of certain artists, well-known painters, whose pictures are sold for so much money, we should deeply admire this worthy craftsman, forging his own work with difficulty and conscientiousness, which is more valuable than those expensive canvases; they are going to disappear, but he will have to renew his work in a few days with the same care and the same keenness. Men like this, such artisans, incontestably have a concept of art–one closely tied to commercial purposes, but one that is a plastic achievement of a new order and the equivalent of existing artistic manifestations, whatever they may be.” (1924, in The Machine Aesthetic)

In his 1928 essay “The Street: Objects, Spectacles,” he wonders if the street should be considered as one of the fine arts. Yes, yes, yes.

His 1931 “New York” is worth reading in full. “The most colossal spectacle in the world.” He talks about letters thrown into mail chutes on the 50th floor that get hot from friction and burst into flames by the time they reach the ground, so the mail chutes are chilled. He loves walking around the streets, describing what he sees, including store windows: “Windows where a bicycle is suspended above a dozen eggs stuck in rows in green sand… plucked chickens hung in a half light, displayed against a black background–a danse macabre!”