"Smoke Over Rooftops," Fernand Leger, 1911

“Smoke Over Rooftops,” Fernand Leger, 1911

Philadelphia’s Museum of Art’s massive show, “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” brings to mind Banksy, the poltergeist graffiti artist who bombed New York City recently with what has been described as a brilliant self-promoting PR campaign by some and a cleverly creative outburst of ephemeral art by others. Either way, the art (or vandalism, if you prefer) could not exist without the city as canvas.

And so it is with Fernand Leger (1881 – 1955) and his 1920s Paris circle. The metropolis—its movement, mechanization, hustle, clamoring billboards, buildings reaching skyward—shaped their ideas about art, artists, and modern life. The show opens with film footage of the Eiffel Tower made in 1900 by Thomas Edison. As the viewer rises with the camera, the city’s streets, buildings and parks flicker behind the geometric girders in a surreal montage—a fitting introduction.

"The City," Fernand Leger, 1919

“The City,” Fernand Leger, 1919

Nearby hangs “Smoke over Rooftops,” 1911, Leger’s first Paris cityscape—the view from his studio. Billowing smoke rises over the hard edges of the rooftops. Only nineteen when he first came to Paris, Leger encountered there an upheaval of technology: telephones, radios, the press, electric lights, and more.

After recovering from being gassed in the Great War (Leger went to the front for four years), he returned to “gobble up Paris” and “stuff it in my pockets.” Declaring that he “got myself out of the grays as quickly as possible,” he created “The City” in 1919. Owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “The City” is the centerpiece of the show. This large piece (about the size of a cinema screen of the day) reveals none of the moody atmosphere of the earlier work. Instead, the intentionally horizontal composition hustles us along, as if down the street. Meant to be viewed like a billboard, each element appears to be equal in importance: the scaffolding, the pole, the signs’ punchy colors.

"Razor," Gerald Murphy, 1924

“Razor,” Gerald Murphy, 1924

By drawing on contemporary advertising images—here the recently invented safety razor—Gerald Murphy’s “Razor,” 1924, had enormous influence on later painters, especially pop artists in the 1960s. Murphy, a “Lost Generation” compatriot with F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, et al, hosted Leger on his first trip to the United States in 1931. The accompanying notes tell us that in this image Murphy intentionally exploited the French view of America as being “hyper-modern and mechanized.”

"Ballet Mecanique," Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, 1924

“Ballet Mecanique,” Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, 1924

For this viewer, the 1924 experimental film produced by Leger and film maker Dudley Murphy, with help from Man Ray, was a surprise that was worth the price of admission. A Dada tour de force, its riot of images is enlivened by the accompanying music, which used mechanized player pianos, airplane propellers, electric bells and sirens. While many of Leger’s paintings appear to this eye as flat, orderly, and a tad sterile, this film succeeds in bringing the spirit of mechanization and modern life together in a radical-for-the time work of art. Take a look:

Curtain from "Skating Rink" ballet, Fernand Leger, 1922

Curtain from “Skating Rink” ballet, Fernand Leger, 1922

Leger, a lover of all mass entertainments—the circus, skating rinks, theater—collaborated with the Ballets Suedois on “The Skating Rink,” 1922. Watercolor designs for the ballet’s costumes hang before a curtain which was recreated from the original 1921-22 design by Leger. In choreography also inspired by Leger, the dancers move in stilted, jerky ways that would seem at odds with the gliding, elongated movement of ice skaters.

"Model for Private House," van Doesburg and van Eesteren, designed 1923, built 1982

“Model for Private House,” van Doesburg and van Eesteren, designed 1923, built 1982

The final room—devoted to “space”—gives us the utopian vision of Leger and his followers, as embodied in De Stijl architects Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren’s “Model for a Private House,” 1923, reconstructed, 1982 by Tjarda Mees. The architects thought of a house not as an enclosed cube, but as a series of intersecting planes painted in bright Mondrian colors which would create spaces that opened up to the environment as well as sheltered its inhabitants.

"Composition for Hand and Hats," Fernand Leger,  1927

“Composition for Hand and Hats,” Fernand Leger, 1927

“Composition for Hand and Hats,” 1927, shows us how far Leger has come from the earlier smoke and rooftop composition. This cerebral composition carries, at least for this viewer, none of the emotional wallop found in some of Leger’s contemporaries, among them (and also on view here): Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. The gathering of so many important artists is impressive and gives the viewer a heady dose of the ideas and influences at work of the time. Whether the curators’ intention of revealing Leger’s painting, “The City,” as the impetus for this outpouring is still, in my view, an open question.

Go see for yourself! The show will be on view until January 5, 2014.

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Hobby Horse, 1965, by Gloria Caranica

Down the hill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the companion Perelman Building, a 1927 Art Deco gem with light pouring into its cathedral-like entrance, expansive galleries, and an inviting café with outdoor dining space. Take the shuttle bus (walking across the busy boulevards in this part of town can be hazardous to your health), to see “Design for the Modern Child,” a fresh look at children’s design: furniture, wallpaper, dishes and eating utensils, toys, books, and—of course—video games.

Often the most “modern” design seen here is 50 or 60 years in the past, as with Gloria Caranica’s 1965 Hobby Horse, designed for Creative Playthings in Princeton, NJ. This traditional toy has been reduced to its most basic elements, with all but the fun removed.

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Child’s Chair, 1957, by Kristian Vedel

Many items have more than one use, encouraging the child to engage with the piece in a creative, fluid manner. A 1957 beech plywood laminate “chair” can be used as a table, rocker, nightstand or display shelf by fitting the removable panels into five different pairs of slots. Designed by Kristian Vedel, a Dane, this morphing piece of furniture is still in production and can be found at Module R for a mere $560.00. Or maybe on e-Bay? Another classic, the polyethylene stacking chair by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, 1961, can also be used as a construction toy, and is the signature image for the show.


Giant House of Cards, 1953, by Ray and Charles Eames

Equally simple and appealing is the giant house of cards by American mid-century design icons, Ray and Charles Eames, 1953. Also still in production, these cards can be put together to form 3-D shapes to suit any child’s fancy. The striking designs on the cards are meant to “inform” and “inspire” the child, but the average parent or grandparent might find that a bit far-fetched. Hey, they’re just fun to play with! (A new version is available on for $55.00)

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Bo Boo Fabric, 1975, by Katsuji Wakisaka

The Bo Boo fabric, printed cotton by Katsuji Wakisaka is as charming as it was in 1975 and is also still sold in Merimekko stores and on-line.

Pursuit Plane, 1941, by Viktor Schrecangost

Pursuit Plane, 1941, by Viktor Schrecangost

Who can resist the “Pursuit Plane,” 1941, hanging from the ceiling? Made of metal, rubber, and plastic, it was designed by Viktor Schroechengost (American), and, actually a pedal car, it was destined to remain solidly on the ground.

“Sixteen Animals,” by Enzo Mari (Italian) in 1957, are beautiful standing alone, but they also cleverly join together to form a single rectangle. Merging and joining seems to be a theme here, as with the “Klick” desk, a more recent design (2007) made of birch plywood in which the chair and desk form a cube when fitted together.


Wardrobes, 2004, by Marie-Louise Groot

Of the newer designs, a stand-out was the 2004 wardrobes designed by Marie-Louise Groot to echo the shapes of the townhouses in her native Holland. I am in love with these things and wish there was some way to shoe-horn them into my house, or my grandson Sam’s room, but alas…no room for more houses. . .


Sibis Max Push Car and Lorette Trailer, 2004, by Wolfgang Sirch

Looking like soul-mates to toys from a much earlier era, the Sibis Max Push Car and its adorable trailer, were designed in 2004. Made from ash, rubber, and plastic, by Wolfgang Sirch (German). Both can be found at the Cooper Hewitt Store. Not cheap, admittedly, but then you don’t need to buy gas.

Wolfgang Sirch makes another appearance along with Chris Bitzer (also German), with the low-slung and ultra-modern “Villa Sibi” dollhouse (complete with garden, pool house and lap pool,

"Villa Sibi," 2004, Dollhouse by Wolfgang Sirch and Christopher Bitzer

“Villa Sibi,” 2004, Dollhouse by Wolfgang Sirch and Christopher Bitzer

2004. Made from birch, Plexiglas and beach wood (for the ultra-simple furniture—often nothing more than a suggestion of a bed, a simple slab with a bolster made of round doweling), this elegant yet austere abode may or may not inspire a young child’s fancy.


Dollhouse, 2009, by Linda Sternberg (after Arne Jacobsen)

Another creation seemingly aimed to please adults is Linda Sternberg’s (Danish) dollhouse, 2009, made from wood, metal, after Arne Jacobsen’s house. This ultra-minimal, Bauhaus-y construction is filled with—what else?—Jacobsen’s “egg” and “tulip” chairs. Aside from a couple of abstract designs on the dining room walls, much is left to the child’s imagination, or the wink and nod of the die-hard mid-century buff.

As you’re wandering among these delightful objects, the clanging, beeping, twanging, and boinking of the electronic games causes you to finally investigate. Running in succession are Tetris, Super Mario Brothers (I flashed back to my step-daughter Laura on our sofa with her—was it a Game Boy?) and, the latest entry, Angry Birds. Up until I saw the very irritable birds (various species, various guises) smashing and crashing into brick walls, turrets—every imaginable construction—to unseat and presumably vanquish some hapless pigs, I had only seen my grandson Sam’s inert plastic toy birds.


Birds, 1959, by Kristian Vedel

Ho hum, unless I’m missing something, I’ll stick to their charming 1959 doppelgangers. “Birds,” made of oak and designed by Kristian Vedel. They are not angry. At all. (Available for purchase in the Perelman’s gift store, or at for $49.00 apiece.)

On view until October 14, 2013.