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The Cubist City – Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger

By Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant
Robert Delaunay, The Eiffel Tower, 1911, oil on canvas, 79 1/2 x 54 1/2 inches (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)
Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower seems to slash up through the canvas, bending and distorting the surrounding city as it climbs into a fractured sky. This is one of many paintings in which Delaunay attempted to convey the dominating and disorienting presence of the famous nineteenth-century Paris monument — a product of modern engineering and a symbol of modernity.
In this painting we see the tower from different angles, looking simultaneously up at the supporting legs and arch, and down at the central portions of the tower. Some sections seem to dissolve, while others morph into extra supports and towers as if a different side view has been attached to the main form.
Although the details of the structure are often confused, the overall triangle formed by the central tower projecting from its splay-legged base is clear and shapes everything that surrounds it. The tall buildings on the sides of the painting curve and sway as if responding to the tower’s contours. The sky shatters into crystalline angles, and clusters of round shapes — suggesting trees or clouds or smoke — solidify the space around the tower into a cacophony of shifting planes.

Modern style for a modern subject

This is a vision of the modern city in the most modern painting style of the day, Cubism. Delaunay exhibited with many other Cubist painters in the Paris Salons, where his work was notable for its focus on Paris as a subject.
Although the group of Cubists with whom Delaunay was associated, the Salon Cubists, were dedicated to modern artistic techniques, their subjects were often not especially modern. Delaunay was unusual in his devotion to representing the experience of the modern city, and he was particularly drawn to the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of modern Paris.
Postcard of the Eiffel Tower, c. 1910
Constructed as a temporary monument for the 1889 Universal Exposition, the Eiffel Tower was intended to display advanced structural engineering. It was, and remains, completely out of scale with the surrounding buildings. It is also remarkably different in kind from the city’s buildings; it has no external walls and no solid form. Although massive in scale, it seems light and airy because of its open structure, through which the sky is visible. In the early twentieth century, it was a center for modern communications and scientific technology, serving as a telegraph relay station as well as a post for studying weather and aerodynamics.
Robert Delaunay, The City, 1911, oil on canvas, 57 1/16 x 44 1/8 inches (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)
Delaunay often depicted Paris and the Eiffel Tower as viewed through a window. In The City, curtains are visible on the sides as light, curved forms framing the central scene. The dark shadowed buildings and rooftops of the city rise up from below and stretch into the distance, where the red and black silhouette of the Eiffel Tower can just be seen surging up into the faceted sky. In addition to the Cubist fracturing of forms and space, Delaunay here used a Neo-Impressionist-like technique of small brushstrokes to create the effect of shimmering highlights on the surface of the canvas. The following year he would devote himself to an analysis of color and light partly derived from Neo-Impressionism that would lead him to non-representational painting.

Unanimist spectacles

Delaunay’s depictions of the Eiffel Tower as a conjunction of fragmented and discontinuous views have been linked to the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s early twentieth-century theories about the way memory informs perception to combine past and present experiences. The unification of different views of the tower in a single image has also been connected to the contemporary French literary movement Unanimism, which celebrated the collective soul of individuals united by group experiences.
In Delaunay’s paintings, the Eiffel Tower becomes a focus for all of the city’s inhabitants. The simultaneous depiction of different viewing angles can be understood as a way of representing the union of all the different people’s viewpoints, and perhaps even the people’s spiritual unification, as they look at the tower.
Robert Delaunay, The Cardiff Team, 1913, oil on canvas, 198.8 x 135.2 cm (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven)
In The Cardiff Team the Eiffel Tower form is joined by two other aggressively modern subjects, a biplane and the enormous Paris Ferris wheel, which hover over the ball players and billboards in the lower half of the canvas. The title refers to a recent Paris-Cardiff rugby match, and the active figures in the foreground are based on a contemporary newspaper photo. The spectacle of modern team sports is an example of a popular group activity that created a Unanimist experience of collectivity.
The painting’s billboards advertise Astra, an airplane construction company, and “Magic Paris.” (In another version of the painting “Magic Paris” is replaced by “Delaunay,” indicating how closely the painter identified with the Eiffel Tower rising above the sign.) The contrasting planes of brilliant colors that structure the painting reflect Delaunay’s contemporary exploration of abstract color relationships, but this work is clearly a representation of Paris as a modern urban spectacle.

The Urban Experience

Fernand Léger, The City, 1919, oil on canvas, 231.1 × 298.4 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Delaunay’s friend and fellow Salon Cubist, Fernand Léger, also painted the modern city in a modern style. His huge painting The City, painted after World War I, is an amalgam of the chaotic visual experience of the twentieth-century urban environment. A cacophony of brightly colored geometric shapes and letters compete for attention. Vertical rectangles create a rhythm across the surface of the canvas, while depth is suggested by layering and diagonal planes jutting into the painting from the lower corners.
In the upper half of the painting there are two simplified shapes of a human head and torso, one green and one purple and red. These immediately recognizable human silhouettes are figures in advertising posters, similar to those in Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team, a nod to another aspect of modern life — the increasing presence and stridency of commercialism.
While most Cubist painters tended to depict traditional subjects, both Delaunay and Léger found the flat, hard-edged geometric style of Cubism an appropriate vehicle for representing the modern world of machines and mass production. Léger’s highly abstract style contrasts with the more legible, painterly, and nuanced representation of the city in Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team, but there are nevertheless important similarities.
Both artists represent the modern city by combining disparate elements, including letters and billboards, in complex abstract compositions based on ambiguous spatial relationships and color patterns. Léger’s painting builds on Delaunay’s earlier work and even has a coded homage to his fellow artist in the form of the initial R on the left paired with the bisected target shape, which forms a D. These are surrounded by open ironwork scaffolding that suggests fragments of the Eiffel Tower. The target shape also echoes Delaunay’s investigations of color in disc-shaped abstract paintings.
Robert Delaunay, Disc (The First Disc), 1913, oil on canvas, 53 inches in diameter (private collection)

Transforming people

A striking aspect of these paintings of the city is the treatment of the human figure, which is starkly impersonal. The rugby players in The Cardiff Team are part of the modern spectacle. They have no faces, and in the case of the main central figure, no head at all.
Similarly, in the lower center of The City are two charcoal-gray figures. The featureless face of one confronts us at the bottom of the canvas, while the other is on a dark-gray and white staircase in the background.
Fernand Léger, The City, detail, 1919 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The anonymous, geometric rendering of these figures shows that Léger, like Delaunay, had no interest in depicting human beings as individuals. It may even suggest that modernity is transforming not only the environment, but also humankind, to match its own mechanical rationality.
Delaunay and Léger used Cubism’s abstract language of fractured forms and spatial dislocations to express the unique qualities of the modern urban experience. Their paintings focused on the distinctively modern aspects of Paris and depicted the way in which people are absorbed into and perhaps even transformed by modernity. Neither artist saw this as a bad thing; their paintings celebrate the union of modern humans and their new environment.

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