Exhibition Review: Celebrating the Machine in Twenties Paris

By Michael Webb

Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a dazzling exhibition with a misleading title. In the 1920s, Berlin, not Paris, defined the metropolis, and German artists had a love-hate relationship with its oppressive streets, flashing lights, and surging crowds. Filmmakers followed their lead—in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, People on Sunday, and the dystopian vision of Metropolis.

In contrast, progressive French artists were infatuated by the idea of Modernism, detached from the everyday. Le Corbusier extolled the ocean liner and airplane as the embodiments of “L’Esprit Nouveau,” which was also the title of a magazine he published. He was largely ignored; beyond the coterie of Modernists Paris remained deeply conservative. The centerpiece of the Philadelphia exhibition is Leger’s The City, a monumental canvas he painted in 1919 on his return from the battlefields. It’s a powerful composition—one of the PMA’s treasures—but its urban elements are abstracted and the artist did not pursue the theme.

French Avant-Garde and the Machine would more accurately describe this exhibition. Curator Anna Vallye has gathered an extraordinary selection of paintings, posters, and sculptures, but the movie clips almost steal the show. In these, the machines upstage the actors: a montage of wheels and pistons in La Roue and a mad-scientist’s laboratory in L’Inhumaine. Leger designed posters for both and sets for the latter , and the exhibition juxtaposes these with the celebrated railroad posters of A.M Cassandre.  Another highlight is a model of the unrealized De Stijl villa that Theo Van Doesberg designed in 1923: a dynamic assembly of cantilevered white planes accented in primary colors that someone should take off the shelf and build in the Malibu hills.

The exhibition runs through January 5 and, if you go, don’t miss the PMA’s room 189: A chapel-like space in which a dozen of Brancusi’s finest sculptures are permanently displayed. And be sure to order the exhibition catalog ($38 with free shipping from the museum’s Web site), which illustrates most of the exhibits, adding five informative essays and a wealth of documentation.

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