War and Art

The French painter, Fernand Léger (1881-1955) explored the depths of war, death and avant-garde creation. He often said how greatly his personal experience with industrial modernity as a sapper, then as a stretcher-bearer at the front influenced his art: “the breech of a 75 millimetre in the sunlight taught me more than all the museums in the world.”[1]


He defended cubism – and was among its most radical experimenters – with macabre irony:

To all the blockheads wondering whether I am or will still be a cubist when I return, you can tell them more than ever. There is nothing more cubist than a war like this one, which can more or less cleanly section a man into several pieces and blast him to the four cardinal corners.[2]

After being poisoned by gas at Verdun, he attempted to hole up behind the lines as a camoufleur, but despite his efforts he was still drawn to the hospital. He never depicted in his artwork the torn apart bodies that struck him so strongly; he recounted the strange horror – between impossible, "camouflaged" visions and omnipresent sounds:

The war was grey and camouflaged. All light, colour and even tone were banned on pain of death. A blind existence in which anything the eye could register and perceive had to hide or disappear. Nobody saw the war hidden, concealed, crouched on all fours, earth coloured; the useless eye could not see anything. Everyone ‘heard’ the war. It was an enormous symphony that no musician or composer has yet been able to equal: Four years without colour.[3]

Annette Becker, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

Section Editor: Emmanuelle Cronier

Translator: Jocelyne Serveau