Fernand Léger and the Rise of the Man-Machine

From Fernand Léger and the Rise of the Man-Machine

Early in life, Léger embraced a transcendent, quasi-Futurist love of technological energy along with the Cubist notion of putting the squeeze on: fracturing objects into sharp geometric shapes. But soon, his brand of Cubism evolved into an automaton-esque figurative style distinguished by his focus on cylindrical forms. These cylindrical android figures express a synchronization between human and machine that is most relevant today given the coming artificial intelligence workplace. When we look at Léger with new eyes, we see that he sought to express the noise, dynamism, and speed of the new technology machinery in which he and we find ourselves immersed.


The military theme in Léger’s oeuvre remains prominent in post-WWI paintings like “La partie de cartes” (“The Card Game,” 1917), where three decorated soldiers tumble out of themselves and ripple across the picture plane, merging into an ecstatic ménage à trois through the interlacing repetitions of their machine forms. This post-flesh, man-machine unanimity could be seen as a precedent, suggestive of our current post-human condition.

The resplendent mélange of seated tin men — all evocative of that famous one from Oz — displays a frantic, cybernetic logic in terms of the painting’s visual tactility, with once lumpen and deadlocked male forms set flowing in jerks and spasms across the surface. The artist has systematically imposed on them a vibrating restlessness through labyrinthine extensions and doublings, making their flesh undergo steps of annihilation into transubstantiation. The composition’s flickering, staccato repetitions create the impression of a rolling bacchanalia where human forms transcend their fleshiness and extend themselves through motorized re-embodiment. Léger seems to suggest that the truth of life is found not through chance, as one might glean from the card game, but through the technological apparatus of bodies tumbling into a field of circuits.