Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fernand Leger (фернан леже) -- Mother and Child (1921) -- News, Not Art Criticism


Fernand Leger, Mother and Child, 1921 (formerly collection of Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts)

     Yesterday I noticed that someone visiting this blog found their way here using the search term "фернан леже", which is the Russian rendering of the name of the great 20th century French artist, Fernand Leger (1881-1955).

     I was curious about this and and immediately tried to figure out what relevant connection existed between Fernand Leger and Russia that might have prompted the search.

     I reviewed Leger's biography and discovered that the artist's last wife, the artist Nadia Khodossevitch-Leger (1904-82), was Russian, but I couldn't find any recent news about Leger or his wife that might have piqued any interest from anywhere in Russia or the other parts of the former Soviet Union.

One thing I did see, however, shocked me.

     In 2007, the Leger painting heading this post, Mother And Child (1921) was "misplaced" by its owner institution, Wellesley College.  Apparently, Wellesley's Davis Museum and Cultural Center lent the painting, as well as 30 other artworks, to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art for a 2006-2007 exhibition.  After the Oklahoma museum returned all of these pieces to Wellesley in April 2007 and they were placed in storage at the Davis pending completion of a construction project in the Davis galleries, it appears that Wellesley either: a) allowed the Mother And Child to be stolen from the museum; b) allowed the painting to be "thrown out"; or c) simply misplaced it into thin air from which it has never returned.  The disappearance of the Leger was first noticed in November 2007, approximately 8 months after Mother And Child was returned to Wellesley.

     It is important to remember that only he who is without sin should cast the first stone, and I will freely admit to having made mistakes in life and at work, but this is nuts.  Mother And Child is a masterpiece from a crucial time in Leger's career -- the period of The City (1919), Still Life With A Beer Mug (1921), Woman With A Cat (1921) and Man With A Dog (1921), among many, many others. It is a work of extraordinary quality.  It is also worth in financial terms, fairly estimated, tens of millions of dollars.  I don't like it when words fail me, but here they do.  I feel slightly better about this because everyone I have told this story since learning about it has the same jaw-dropping, tongue-tied reaction.

Fernand Leger, The City, 1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Fernand Leger, Man With A Dog, 1921, Nathan Cummings collection, New York City

     Fernand Leger is an artist who combines an almost overpowering physical force with great delicacy of form and color.  His work is impossible to ignore and I've never viewed Leger's paintings with anyone who is not strongly affected by it, even if they find their reactions difficult to put into words immediately.  To me, this intellectual-visceral product has an energy and effect similar to a natural force like magnetism. It  is a bottom-line positive indication of quality in an artwork and Leger's power to reach out and communicate through his paintings is irresistible and undeniable.

Fernand Leger, Woman With Cat, 1921, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

     Leaving detailed critical discussion aside here, I would like to cite an interesting passage in an article I read yesterday by the pioneering exhibitor and dealer (I believe the new term for this is "gallerist") Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler regarding Leger.  Kahnweiler writes:

"It was in March 1910 that Leger exhibited his Nudes In The Forest at the Salon des Independants which was then held at the greenhouses at the Cours la Reine.  It was distinctly an event, even in that period of artistic effervescence, and the name of Leger, unknown the previous day, appeared in the papers coupled with those abusive or mocking commentaries with which the Press of that time slanged the painters who disconcerted it.  Leger was dubbed a 'Tubist'.  Picasso pointed out to me that the term itself testified to the novelty of Leger's art. The minor cubists had never gone beyond imitating the superficial shapes of the works of the leaders, Picasso and Braque. Gris had not yet put in an appearance. With Leger there emerged an authentic painter...." 

(Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Fernand Leger, The Burlington Magazine Number 564, Volume XCII, March 1950.)

Fernand Leger, Still Life With Beer Mug, 1921, The Tate Gallery, London

     I will be on the lookout for Mother And Child and I hope you will also. I would accept the USD $100,000 being offered as a reward for its recovery, but it's not my principal motivation in wanting to find it.  I just love Leger's work and can't believe that anything as stupid and careless as this was allowed to happen.

     Wellesley has promised to clean up its "art security act".  I'd share their president's official statement on the subject with you, but in your lives and careers you've all probably read enough ludicrous, obfuscating memoranda intended to mask and, to some pertinent degree, excuse inexcusable behavior.  I suppose the next stop for whoever is responsible for this scandal is a raise, promotion and offer of a permanent berth in the federal government.

Notes to reader

1. Blogger's color palette, being so limited in range and nuance (the lack of nuance limits the range) is frustrating here.

I wish I could type this using Fernand Leger's color palette. Actually, I wish Fernand Leger had typed and layed this out.

2.  An interesting short 1973 article by art conservator Susanne P. Sack, detailing a radiograph study of Mother And Child and analyzing changes made to the painting by Leger, is found here

Fernand Leger ("I wanted to carry volumes to the extreme.")

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