The hollow man

By GREG COOK  |  January 28, 2010

In Composition (Contrast of Forms) (1912-’13), Léger boils everything down to a kaleidoscope of shimmering black and white blocks and drums. His compositions are often centrally focused, with facets vibrating out from a core. Almost a century later, the energy is a bit mummified, but you feel him wrestling with the major æsthetic questions of his day and tilting toward abstraction, as if racing to break the sound barrier.

The drawings are augmented by a pair of oil paintings in primary colors. Their stylistic relationship to the drawings is direct, but they don’t have the snap of the black and white pieces.

These æsthetic experiments were halted in 1914, when Léger was drafted to serve in World War I. The Harvard works show how he later returned to representational imagery, flattened his pictorial space, and was influenced by biomorphic surrealist abstraction. Be sure to see his 1924 film “Ballet mécanique” — its staccato shots of geometric shapes, spinning machines, a lady’s face, and mannequin legs is a Rosetta Stone for his style and subjects.

‘John M. Armleder: Too Much Is Not Enough’ | Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St, Waltham | Through July 29

‘Fernand Léger: Contrasts Of Forms’ | Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 32 Quincy St, Cambridge | Through June 10

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