“The Painter’s Revenge”: Fernand Léger For and Against Cinema
“Emotion should not be translated by a nervous tremor.”
Intuitively enough given its subject matter and title, Fernand Léger’s and Dudley Murphy’s 1924 film Ballet mécanique is generally understood as a relatively straightforward extension of the so-called “machine aesthetic” that informs Léger’s painting of this period. Standish Lawder’s comparison of the film with Léger’s painting is typical in this regard when he writes: “He sought to create in film the same discontinuous, fragmented, kaleidoscopic world that his paintings [evoke]…. The [same] pulsating energies of modern urban life, its rhythms and its forms.” In marked contrast to this view, I want to argue just the opposite: that the relationship between film and painting is highly vexed for Léger; that Ballet mécanique does not function according to the same aesthetic principles as his painting—quite the contrary; and that the strongest relationship between cinema and his painting is to be found not in Léger’s “machine aesthetic” works of the late-19-teens and ‘20s, but rather in his abstract or near-abstract “Orphic” paintings of 1912-1913, particularly in the 150 or so works that make up his Contrasts of Forms series.
As unlikely a comparison as this may seem, I’m not the first to propose it. In a recent essay on these early paintings, Maria Gough has suggestively argued that Léger’s post-Cubist push into abstraction is rooted in a hardening of volumetric and tonal effects, such that, as she describes it, Léger: “hypostatiz[es] chiaroscuro’s most elementary property, that of value, into its two most extreme or contrasted states—brilliant black, brilliant white.” And in so doing, Léger “interrupts the surface of the sheet, animating it with an insistent flicker…[ a ] compulsive, pulsatile flickering on and off…. [such that] Léger creates, in short, a cinematic effect.”1
As much as I find myself in accord with Gough’s basic claim—that these paintings aim to produce an effect of visual movement, and that this movement should be seen, at least in part, as a response to cinema—I need to qualify that agreement somewhat in order to ward off certain potential misunderstandings that I see lurking in the shadows of her, and indeed my, rhetoric. Most importantly, I worry that Gough’s description of these paintings as “compulsive,” “pulsatile,” “flickering,” and “cinematic” could pull them, against their will, in the wrong direction. We only to have to listen to Pamela Lee’s description of the type of painting one generally associates with black and white pulsatile flickering patterns—in this case Bridget Riley’s 1965 Op painting, Descending—to get a sense of where that wrong direction would lead us. “Stand a little longer [in front of Descending], look a little harder, and then what happens? In time the surface begins to flicker, like a stroboscope; or wave like a lenticular screen.”2 According to Lee, this particular kind of flickering “cinematic effect” (as made explicit in her reference to the lenticular screen) has little—indeed nothing—to do with particularities of abstract painting per se, and everything to do with the way in which it disrupts the viewer’s optical and nervous systems. “To what extent do we see this painting?” Lee asks. “In what lies its retinal appeal? To what extent we do not so much see it, but feel it, experience the painting less as an abstraction than as a woozy sense of gravity visited upon the body…. Spangles of gold, pink, and green burst and flash, lining the eyelids and rattling the skull. The eye is enervated while the body feels something else: nausea perhaps or even a blinding headache.”3
For Lee the virtue of this work lies in the way it reverses the conventional flow of action, from viewer to artwork, such that the “cinematic” flickering of these paintings induce involuntary responses that are “visited upon body.” Rather than “see” these paintings in any meaningful sense, they make us “feel” a certain way (“woozy” etc.), like it or not. And indeed, meaningful sense, as opposed to the empty “sense” of simple affect, is precisely what is at stake in this reversal. For as our capacity to see even the most elemental aspects of these paintings gives way to “experience”—to the point that, as Lee remarks, we no longer even engage them as works of abstraction—so too does our capacity to interpret or draw meaning. We do not, after all, interpret a blinding headache or look for meaning in nausea; we suffer through these experiences, waiting for the feeling to pass.4
Such privileging of an artwork’s purportedly direct action on the body’s autonomic system has, to put it mildly, acquired a certain prestige of late within art history and cinema studies, largely under the influence of the philosopher Giles Deleuze. Indeed, for Deleuze the visceral impact of what he calls a new (third) epoch of cinema—epitomized by the “flicker” films of Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, John Cavanaugh, et al.—stems directly from its “flickering” “cinematic effects.” As Deleuze argues, this new type of filmic experience represents a “cinema of expansion without camera, and also without screen or film stock…a virtual film which now only goes on in the head, ‘behind the pupils.’”5 Again, such films are important for Deleuze not because of how we actually view or draw meaning from them, but because of the ways in which they act upon us, hijacking our interpretive agency.6 As a result, the material aspects of such cinema (camera, screen, film stock, and so on) are only a means to end, such that the actual film that we see is subsumed into to the virtual film that we experience “behind the pupils.” More intense than Op art’s “cinematic” flickering, it is ultimately no different in kind. As Branden Joseph recounts the early screenings of Conrad’s 1966 film The Flicker, audience response typically ranged from: “disorientation, temporary hypnosis, and intense experiences of colors, patterns, and even hallucinogenic imagery…to headaches and violent bouts of nausea, all seemingly supplied by the light’s pulsating interaction with the brain’s alpha waves.”7
It is important then that the “cinematic effect” of movement that both Gough and I claim for Léger’s abstraction not be taken as standing against painting—not be taken, that is, as literally cinematic. For if, as Léger writes, “painting must be all radiance and motion,” the motion that concerns him has nothing to do with the “self-movement” or “automatic movement” that Deleuze views as distinct to cinema, whereby “movement [becomes] the immediate given of the image.” Which is not to say that Deleuze believes painting incapable of triggering the kinds of affect he claims for film. The painter Francis Bacon, for instance, creates what the philosopher describes as “not exactly movement, although his painting makes movement very intense and violent,” but rather “a movement ‘in-place,’ a spasm which reveals…the action of invisible forces on the body.”8 And once this type of movement occurs—be it the “automatic movement” of film or the “movement in-place” of painting—then “the essence of the image is realized: producing a shock to thought, communicating vibrations to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral systems directly.”9
More than simply a representation of “the action of invisible forces on the body,” painting, for Deleuze and his sometime collaborator Félix Guattari, operates as a kind of machine that—again, like it or not—acts directly upon the viewer. To greater and lesser degrees, then, all paintings are understood to produce automatic affective responses upon their encounter. But according to Deleuze and Guattari, it is Léger and Francis Picabia who explicitly take up and thematize this automatism in their so-called “machine aesthetic” work: “The machinic painters stressed the following: they did not paint machines as substitutes for still lifes or nudes; the machine is not a represented object any more than its drawing is a representation.”10 Producing paintings as machines—rather than paintings of machines—Léger and Picabia operate on the level of pure mechanical abstraction, such that the machine period work of these painters is entirely continuous with the automated flow of intensive states already present in their preceding non-representational work. “The machine stands apart from representation…and it stands apart because it is pure Abstraction: it is nonfigurative and nonprojective. Léger demonstrated convincingly that the machine did not represent anything, itself least of all, because it was in itself the production of organized intensive states…. It sometimes happens, as in Picabia that the discovery of the abstract leads to the machinic elements.”11 Ultimately, however, it is not just painting that operates as a form of machine for Deleuze and Guattari, but the viewer’s response mechanisms: “The machine is the affective state, and it is false to say that modern machines possess a perceptive capacity or a memory; machines themselves possess only affective states.”12
Further exacerbating my concern that the “cinematic” movement Gough and I see in Léger’s Contrasts of Forms could be misconstrued as a kind of machine-like “neuro-abstraction,” is the only substantial point on which Gough and I differ. And this difference is important, in my view, if we are to get the measure of Léger’s film. For unlike Gough, I do not think that Léger’s “cinematic effect” in the Contrasts of Form series “confounds” his claims to medium specificity.13 Far from producing a hybridized form between new and traditional media—between film and painting—these works, in my view, affirm the root qualities of the tableau at every turn, especially in the quality of their movement. Léger, in my view, should be taken at his word when he writes: “Each art is isolating itself and limiting itself to its own domain … it is logical that by limiting each discipline to its own purpose, it enables achievements to be intensified.”14 This insistence, mine and Léger’s, on the specific pictorial quality of his paintings, holds true despite the fact—indeed, all the more so because of the fact—that a certain cinematic effect is embedded directly on their surface. Far from contravening qualities proper to the tableau, the cinematic effects that are woven into the visual fabric of these paintings heighten that specificity, ratcheting up the intensity of their surfaces. The means by which Léger achieves this intensity, as he writes in a letter to Léonce Rosenberg, is “contrast”: “I mean to outshine tasteful arrangements, grey shadows, and dead backgrounds. I go for the maximum pictorial output through the contrast of all available plastic resources. Never mind good manners, taste, and ordinary style. For me painting must be all radiance and motion….”15
Again, the problem—or potential problem—is in how we understand “intensity.” Understood in Léger’s terms, intensity remains firmly on the side of painting as that which overcomes or defeats—“dominates” will be his word—what he refers to as “the dead surface.” A central concept and recurrent throughout his writing, “the dead surface” stands for far more than just lifeless painting (although it is certainly that also). Rather, “the dead surface,” opens onto a broad field of visual forms that permeate the warp and woof of modernity at large—a visual tonality that is not just dead but deadening: a hollow, generic and increasingly prevalent visual array that panders to its viewer, presenting us, for all of its supposed optical immersion and emotional force, with a mere facsimile of life. “The dead surface,” for Léger, is visual intensity rendered inauthentically. Various other names and phrases crop up in his writings for this mode of shallow visuality: “sentimentalism,” “good taste,” “habit” “theatricality” and above all—and particularly in relation to new visual forms emerging within twentieth-century modernity—“spectacle.”
As much as I agree, then, that a certain cinematic effect is inscribed onto the immediate surface of these paintings, I by no means think that this constitutes the basic structure and experience of these paintings as a whole. Take Léger’s 1912-13 gouache and ink drawing Composition (Contrasts of Form). One could talk at length about the variations and shifts in tonal value, not only among the blacks and whites (which are themselves rife with qualitative differences), but also in the plethora of greys produced through different kinds of paint and ink application: dry brush scumble, thin translucent wash, wet-on-wet, dappling, and so on. There is also enormous variance in the line quality, where a thick black or grey line will at times draw an outer edge, only to morph into a shadow, or sit in the vague territory between the two. These painted lines are in turn contrasted with the thin graphite pentimenti that begin to appear under scrutiny. Notice also how the gouache and ink quality is juxtaposed across the surface in its thickness, finish, and mode and speed of application—at times very fast, at times very slow. To miss these kinds of effects of contrast that play out, time and again, across the surface of the drawing would be to miss, in my view, Léger’s very understanding of contrast—of intensity—itself.
Movement in Composition (Contrasts of Form) begins as a downward flow, starting in the center of the drawing and moving from top to bottom. The sharp lines and deep blacks along with the blurring of the forms in the periphery, keep our eye centered. And from this point, the flow cascades downward, over the cylindrical pegs, helped along by the black arrow-shaped wedge near the top, and through the repeating dark gashes that cut into the tops of these cylinders like the slots of screws. Along the black and white reflective sides of these cylindrical forms we see a kind of wave or ripple effect that follows the flow of gravity, from top to bottom. At times, particularly towards the top, this ripple of alternating values feels as if it is causing the cylinders to spin. Simultaneous with this downward motion, and again partly because of the blurring on the periphery, there appears a distinctive counter-movement from the left and the right side of the painting towards the center. And finally, in the midst of all this, we also see a roughly circular movement that rotates around the mass of forms in the center, along the cylinders and cubic forms that frame them.
To be sure, Léger was far from unique when it came to his interest in pictorial movement. All of the other so-called Orphic painters—Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay—were, each in their way, equally preoccupied with the aesthetic consequences of motion. As indeed were a wide range of philosophers, experimental psychologists, and aesthetic theorists, chief among them Paul Souriau, whose 1889 book The Aesthetics of Movement is known to have been read by painters in Léger’s orbit. Of particular concern for Souriau are the ways in which painting can produce effects of actual (rather than depicted) movement through precisely the kind of nuanced paint application that we saw in Léger’s drawing:
For a well-exercised eye, all the nuances of the execution will be visible and make an impression. Approaching the detail, one will recognize also how each mark was made, one will follow the speed of the hand that had traced it as if one had been there at its making…. It is not enough to understand by this that one sees how they were made. Rather, one must say that we see them making themselves, inasmuch as they give the impression of actual movement.16
More than just describing the effect of pictorial movement, however, Souriau distinguishes between two distinct forms motion: one that captures and holds our attention, pulling us into the rhythm of its movement, and another that repeals us, producing a low-grade optical discomfort that registers as displeasure. The first type of motion—which I’ll call absorptive movement—is generally found in slow, flowing movements that move “gracefully” (his term) across our field of vision, often in a downward flow, as with a waterfall or falling snow, or broad circular patterns, like the turning wheels of a windmill. As Souriau writes it:
Which of us has not lingered, in mindless rapture, to watch the sails of a windmill, the eddies in a river, the quivering of a fire? We could stay for hours gazing at a steam engine, the stretching and shrinking of its connecting rods, the turning of its flywheel, the constant coming up and down of the leather strap. It seems as if our eyes are caught by the gear in motion and drawn forcibly into it.17
By contrast, movements that require rapid readjustments by the musculature of the eye produce active displeasure in the viewer. This would include motions that jut abruptly in and out at us, forcing us to repeatedly readjust our focus; two streams of movement that go in opposite directions at that same time, or a rapid on-and-off switching between light and dark, such as the flickering effect of a strobe light. As Souriau describes it: “The most painful movements to perceive will be those that oblige us to readjust quickly. That is why it is unpleasant to watch [types of movement that are] alternately nearer and farther away from us.”18
The relation of these two forms of movement—one of which absorbs, the other of which repels—is of direct importance not only to Léger’s painting, in which its initial “cinematic” flicker quickly gives way to a more immersive flow of movement, but also to Ballet mécanique, in which the opposite move occurs. Indeed, over the course of its roughly 15 or 16 minutes (depending on the version) Ballet mécanique presents us with a veritable catalogue of movements that, following Souriau, repel vision. If this assault sets the tenor of the film as a whole, these visually aggressive movements are contrasted—again, in Léger’s sense—with just enough moments of optical respite to intensify the overall effect of bombardment. At strategic moments in the film, then, Léger lures our gaze into the immersive mechanics described by Souriau (“the stretching and shrinking of its connecting rods, the turning of its flywheel, the constant coming up and down of the leather strap”) only to return with renewed vigor to the visual onslaught.
Note, for instance, the way in which in the opening shot of Murphy’s wife, the dancer Katherine Murphy, swings in and out toward the viewer. Rather than being “unpleasant to watch” in Souriau’s terms, as she moves “alternately nearer and farther away from us,” the scene is clearly intended to draw us in, not simply by its tranquil mood, but through the metronomic rhythm of the swing in motion. This initial “graceful” movement is almost immediately—and literally—turned on its head, however, as the film cuts to a series of flickering juxtapositions that, to recall Gough’s account of the Contrasts of Form series, hypostatizes value “into its two most extreme or contrasted states—brilliant black, brilliant white.” The net effect of Léger’s reified black and white in Ballet mécanique could hardly be more opposed to his painting, however, as eye and mind struggle, physiologically and mentally, to process these abrupt flashes. Katherine then briefly reappears, this time shot from above and slightly behind such that, disconcertingly, she seems to be swinging upside down, further jarring our sense of sight. This opening barrage culminates with a shot of a pendulum swinging back and forth at the viewer in which we can just make out Murphy and Léger reflected in its metal surface. Tying directly back to the first shot of Katherine on the swing, the pendulum—along with several other structurally similar shots in the film—takes the immersive quality of the swing’s “nearer and farther” and turns it against itself.
Clip 1: Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, Ballet mécanique, 1924
Léger could hardly have been more explicit about his use of cinematic “contrast.” Entirely evident in his “graphic de constructions” diagram of Ballet mécanique, published in 1924 in Friedrich Kiesler’s Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik, Léger leaves little doubt that he conceived the structure of the film as a dialectical synthesis of opposing speeds and movement: “fast vertical masses” and “decelerating vertical masses” punctuated by “accelerating penetration” and “decelerating penetration” combine to form an overarching “tension towards speed.” This internal “tension,” between both the speed and the optical impact of contrasting movements, is of vital importance as—and here is where I part ways with every account of Ballet mécanique that I know of—it sets Léger’s film against film itself. Or more specifically, it produces an anti-absorptive effect within cinema against an otherwise non-dialectical—and accordingly overly facile or “spectacular”—experience of absorption typical of cinematic experience at this time. Michael Fried’s view of the merely immersive quality of film, in which “the absorption or engrossment of the movie audience sidesteps, automatically avoids, the question of theatricality” would, I think, have struck a sympathetic note with Léger.19 In the absence of any theatricality to defeat—in the absence of a visual modality that actively resists or pushes us away—the experience of cinematic absorption is, for Léger, a lapse into mere spectacle. The immersive experience of cinematic spectacle, in other words, is structurally devoid of the tension required by modernist painting to produce a genuinely compelling—I’m tempted to say authentic—mode of absorption.
The Contrasts of Form paintings and Ballet mécanique thus each use cinematic effect to entirely opposite ends. In the case of his painting, the initial surface intensity adds to the overall absorptive effect of the tableau. With Ballet mécanique the inverse occurs. Following the seductive opening movements of Katherine Murphy on the swing, increasing aggressive bursts of optical intensity are punctuated with occasional breaks in tempo to produce more than simply “a study in comparative motion,” as Iris Barry described it in an early review from 1925, but an opposition that systematically frustrates the viewer’s absorption in the film.20 “I wanted to amaze the audience first,” Léger writes of his film, “then make them uneasy, and then push the adventure to the point of exasperation.”21 Even the inclusion of the letterpress “headline” that appears at one point in the film—“On a volé un collier de cinq millions” [“Stolen, a five million franc necklace”] was, as Barry writes in her review, “upsetting because one’s mind, hampered by literature, concludes there must be meaning in it, whereas there isn’t.”22 Writing in July 1924 for the final issue of L’Esprit Nouveau, this is how Léger sums up his and Murphy’s film: “We ‘persist’ up to the point that the eye and mind of the viewer ‘can’t take it anymore’ [‘ne l’accepte plus’]. We exhaust its spectacle value right up to the moment that it becomes unbearable.”23
If Ballet mécanique aspires to exhaust its own “spectacle value”—which is to say, exhausts the spectacle value of filmic absorbtion—Léger’s painting adopts a much different approach. Far from walling itself off from spectacle, modernist painting, Léger argues, must maintain “an affinity with its own age,” constantly adapting to ever new and increasingly pernicious visual forms that ingratiate themselves into our vision. In a 1913 essay, for example, Léger uses the example of the historical painter Édouard Detaille to describe how Manet’s modernism both incorporates and opposes the theatrical aspects of Salon painting.
In addition to certain forms of spectacular Salon painting, Manet’s work also assumes what Fried and T. J. Clark describe as the “hard instantaneity” of photography and the modern advertising poster.24 By the early-twentieth century, however, the spectacle of salon painting cedes to a number of much more formidable adversaries, including, as Léger writes, “modern mechanical achievements such as color photography, [and] the motion-picture camera.” But if these various forms of “spectacle” prove to be tenacious adversaries for modernist painting, they are the kiss of death for the theatrical painters that Manet and his generation positioned themselves against. Next to cinema, Detaille hasn’t a chance. “I earnestly ask myself,” Léger writes, “how all those more or less historical or dramatic pictures shown in the French Salon can compete with the screen of any cinema…. The few workers who used to be seen in museums, planted in front of a cavalry charge by Detaille… are no longer there: they are at the cinema.”25 The only viable means by which modernist painting can avoid the fate of Detaille is thus to homeopathically incorporate these new visual forms and effects, not to surpass them but to overcome them—to “dominate” them as Léger puts it—rendering them authentic through a dialectic of renewal. The modern painter, he writes, “has only one chance left to take: to rise to the plane of beauty by … select[ing] the most plastic and theatrical values possible from the whirlpool that swirls before his eyes; to interpret them in terms of spectacle; to attain theatrical unity and dominate it at any price. If he does not rise high enough, if he does not reach the higher plane, he is immediately in competition with life itself which equals and surpasses him.”26 Modernist painting can only defeat spectacle, in other words, by incorporating and defeating the effects of spectacle itself. But if this fails—if the painter is unable to “dominate” its “theatrical unity”—unable to reach what he calls “the higher plane”—then painting lapses into simply another form of dead surface—another form of spectacle.
In the case of Ballet mécanique, however, it is no longer a question of competing with or dominating spectacular vision from within painting. Opting for a different strategy, Léger works against cinematic absorption and the pseudo-intensity of cinema from within cinema itself. Ballet mécanique, Léger writes in his 1924 essay on the film, represents “the painter’s and poet’s revenge.” And so I’ll end with an ending: the animated figure of Charlie Chaplin—or the “Charlot Cubiste” as it has become known—that opens and ends Léger’s film. Chaplin, along with few select others (Abel Gance and Erich von Stroheim most notably), is one of the few filmmakers Léger regards with particular admiration. “You can figure out too often what Douglas Fairbanks is up to, you can rarely guess with Chaplin,” he writes in 1925. Ballet Mécanique opens with an animated sequence of the Chaplin figure springing up from the bottom of the screen, raising his hat—one of Chaplin’s trademark gestures—and sinking back down again, as if pushed by the open title, “Charlot présente le ballet méchanique” a reference not only to Chaplin’s little tramp character, known as “Charlot” in France, but also to André Charlot, one of the film’s financers. This opening shot literalizes Walter Benjamin’s observation that when Chaplin walks away from us at the end of his films, his unique and instantly recognizable gait transforms into the kind of company trademark typically seen at the beginning and end of Hollywood films. Here, however, rather than a roaring lion or snow-caped mountain, Charlot becomes the opening and closing “trademark” for Léger’s production.27
As Charlot jerks his way across the screen at the end of the film, his animated movements come as close to actual dance as this particular Ballet gets. Again, the quality of these movements is important. For as it so happens, Henri Bergson used the example of dance to describe, in terms very similar to Souriau’s, the difference between “graceful” movements that absorb us and “mechanical” jerky movements that push us away. Watching a skilled dancer, Bergson argues, we anticipate movements before they occur as our vision harmonizes with the fluidly of the dancer’s motion. The pleasure in watching dance thus stems from the fact that we are able to predict—or at least retroactively feel as if we predicted—the dancer’s movements in advance of actually having taken place. Movement spills into movement, drawing us—absorbing us—into the visual rhythm of the dancer’s motion. By contrast, dance that is discordant, mechanical, or jerky—which is to say the kind of dance we see at the end of Léger’s film—does the opposite: unable to predict the flow of one movement into the next, the viewer feels aggravated by the disjunction. This is particularly the case, Bergson claims, when the dancer moves out of sync with the rhythm of the music, as would most likely have occurred had George Anthiel’s unrealized—indeed, until very recently unrealizable—soundtrack been appended to the film. Composed with such complete disregard as to how it aligned with the movements on the screen that it actually exceeded the length of the film by a good ten minutes, Antheil’s discordant composition would have further exacerbated the already discordant movements of Chaplin’s dance.
Clip 2: Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, Ballet mécanique, 1924
Léger, I think, would almost certainly have agreed with Walter Benjamin’s claim that the quality of Chaplin’s movements allegorically reflect back onto the mechanical nature of cinema itself: “Chaplin’s way of moving,” Benjamin writes, “is not really that of an actor…. His unique significance lies in the fact that, in his work, the human body is integrated into the film image by way of his gestures—that is, his bodily and mental posture…. Each movement he makes is composed of a succession of staccato bits of movement. Whether it is his walk, the way he handles his cane, or the way he raises his hat—always the same jerky sequence of tiny movements applies the law of the cinematic image sequence to that human motorial functions.”28 Most film actors according to Benjamin aspire to the opposite: to dominate the cinematic apparatus, triumphantly asserting their humanity in the face of the machine. Hence the appeal of the movie star. Oppressed by the machine in their workaday world, “[The] masses,” he writes, “fill the cinemas to witness the film actor take his revenge on their behalf.”29 Like so many of Léger’s paintings from the 20’s and indeed like dancing figure of Chaplin that ends his film, the machine is encrusted onto the human body. But it isn’t film that resists this dehumanization, for Léger, it is painting. Far from the actor enacting his or her revenge on the part of the cinemagoer, it is the painter who takes his revenge on film.