The majority of artists who saw active service in the First World War responded to it – artistically speaking – with a mixture of shock, pity and horror. One thinks of Henry Tonks’s portraits of soldiers who’d had their faces hideously disfigured; or Otto Dix’s hellish depictions of life on the Western Front, in his etchings series Der Krieg.
Fernand Léger was different. He served as a sapper in the French army’s engineering corps, taking part in the Battle of Verdun and eventually being invalided out of action after a gas attack. In later life, he reflected only positively on his wartime experience, though, calling it a “blinding reality that was wholly new to me”. He added that he’d been “utterly dazzled by the sight of the breech of a 75-millimetre (gun) in full sunlight, by the magic of light on bare metal”.
He was also dazzled by the tanks, planes and other technological innovations he saw at the front, and his art soon reflected this. The years between 1918 and 1923 have become known as his “mechanical period”, his work from the time reflecting an infatuation with machinery. Motors, turbines and bridges all feature – as do aeroplane propellers, which he described as pieces of manufacturing so “clean, precise and beautiful [they’re] the most terrible competition an artist has ever been subjected to”.
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