Léger, Fernand: Leaves and Shell (1927)

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The Independent Culture

Is this it? asks the spiritual seeker. This material universe, this mortal span, this natural stuff, is this really it? And the atheist answers yes, there is nothing more, no eternal life, no supernatural powers, no god who made the world, no providence, no destiny. This world, this life, is all there is. And if you feel that's not enough - get over it.

It can be hard for believers to lose a hankering for a beyond. But then, it can be hard for unbelievers too. As Nietzsche said, there are those siren voices that call to humans, telling them: "You are more. You are higher. You are of a different origin." Wherever these voices come from - the long history of religion, the nature of the human mind - they insist that the world is not all there is, and not enough.

Unbelievers don't always say no to these temptations. They may reject religion, and then locate their "more" and their "higher" somewhere else. They find transcendence in the infinite realms of human consciousness, say, or in nature, or even - if they're really desperate - in art. It's an effort to be a proper atheist.

And art itself is especially bad at atheism. Just dropping overt religious imagery or symbolism is not enough. Art is so adept at transfiguring the world. It has all sorts of ways of adding at an extra dimension to existence, making things numinous, eternal, or (alternatively) stressing their wretched mortality, their short-fall from glory. Spiritual resonance of one kind or another is practically art's default mode.

But if you're seeking an art with absolutely no sense of a beyond, look at Fernand Léger. Leaves and Shell is a picture without ineffability. True, it is not entirely obvious what kind of picture it is. You might call it a kind of abstract, except that it has a clear figurative content, in the form of four leaves, one shell, and a couple of curling strands. You might place it in the tradition of still life, but that's plainly an exaggeration too. It is a picture of natural objects with geometrical shapes. There are some visual echoes among them, but the picture has nothing to further say about how its objects and its shapes relate. They just coexist. In a way, they interrupt each other, making it impossible to read the picture either as a pure abstract, or as a pure image. But their very coexistence in the same picture may also mean that they're somehow compatible - the shapes are really objects too, or the objects are only shapes.

What the picture does tell you firmly is that it has no doubts. Whatever kind of world it shows, there is no suggestion that this world is indefinable. On the contrary, what is shown is absolutely definite. That's what the objects and the shapes have in common. All their edges are clearly marked. And with the natural objects, this goes further. Each object is anatomised and itemised into distinct parts - the leaves into their veined partitions, the shell into ridged plates.

Of course it is an anti-natural, de-animating effect. Though the leaves are not mechanical repetitions of one another, their forms and their sub-sections lack any organic fluency or individualised character. They have uniform textures. They don't have a sense of life. These things are pointedly spiritless, but they are most definitely things, with a strong identity. Each element is boldly asserted. There is this, and this, and this... and nothing but.

Each thing is very solid too. The component parts of leaf and shell are given roundness by an abrupt curve of shadow. It prevents the objects becoming purely iconic, pieces of a flat diagram, which would be another way of spiritualising them. These blunt shadows make the objects knock-solid, as hard as wood or stone, the archetypal substances of the physical world. But that's all. Each bit of shading sticks firmly to its separate thing, and goes no further. These objects don't cast any shadows, they're not caught up in a drama of light and darkness, with all its metaphysical possibilities, revelation, luminosity, glimmerings, the unknown. The shading is just enough to make each object into a plain hard fact - something that is simply there, a full stop.

A lot of the force of Leaves and Shell is in what it refuses. It will not transfigure these pieces of nature with mysteriousness. It will not intimate any extra reality or dimension. It won't open into depths or distances. And there's no real sense of up and down, of gravity and levitation. Everything stays on the level.

And on that level, all you have is an arrangement. It's a composition that claims no significance. Sometimes Leger constructs tightly interlocking designs, that fit everything together, and declare the solidarity of the human and the material world. Leaves and Shell has no ruling harmonies. The shapes are just shapes. The patterns are just patterns.

It's a remarkable picture, for the way it utterly refrains from suggestions of "more" or "higher", seeking only a tough material presence. It doesn't even try (like Surrealists and their heirs) to make things strange. The true atheist artwork takes a view of the world that's clear and solid and flat and calm, affirming that everything is only what it is - and this is it.


Fernand Léger (1881-1955) is the most embracing of modern painters. He refuses to be alienated or agonised. He pursued an open and democratic art that would manifest the new forms and promises of 20th-century industrial life. After fighting in the First World War, he evolved a vocabulary of machine shapes and semi-robotic humans, and then a more humanist repertoire of heavy but buoyant figures.