The Mechanic (1920) by Fernand Leger
Interpretation of Tubist Figure Painting

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The Mechanic
By Fernand Leger.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

The Mechanic (1920)


Analysis of The Mechanic
The Classical Call to Order in France


Name: The Mechanic (1920)
Artist: Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Modernist figure painting
Movement: Tubism
Location: National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of pictures
by modernist artists
like Fernand Leger, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


An important figure in 20th century French painting, Fernand Leger was one of the key Cubist painters after the trio of Georges Braque (1882-1963), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Juan Gris (1887-1927), and an active member of the Section d'Or Cubist Group (active 1912-14). However, Leger's Cubist aesthetic - perhaps due to the influence of Cezanne - differed from mainstream Cubism, in that it retained the three-dimensionality, volumetric form and picture space, which was largely jettisoned by Braque and Picasso. So although he too was briefly fascinated by monochrome abstract art (1910-14), his preference for cylindrical forms as well as his use of machine-like elements and motifs, distanced him from the austere intellectualism of analytical Cubism and drew him closer to Futurism - an Italian movement which shared his own optimism concerning the socially beneficial power of scientific progress and "the machine". These characteristics prompted the art critic Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943) - the man who coined the terms "Cubism" and "Fauvism" - to christen Leger's style as "Tubism." Leger's most famous Tubist pictures include: Nudes in the Forest (1909-10, Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo), Contrast of Forms (1913, Guggenheim Museum, New York), and Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917, Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo).

In addition to his experiments with Cubism, Leger later adapted his Tubist idiom as part of the Classical Revival of figurative painting. See, for example, works like Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel); and Two Sisters (1935, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin).



Analysis of The Mechanic by Fernand Leger

This painting came about as a result of two main factors. First, Leger's service as a stretcher-bearer in the French army during The Great War, which inspired him to create a type of art that would appeal to all social classes. Second, his fascination with the world of machines. Even during the war, during which he was gassed at Verdun, he was dazzled by the steel workings of the French 75 mm field gun. In simple terms, Leger hoped to produce a style of modern art that would capture the machine-based dynamic of modern life and inspire the public. Thus, once free of the war, and in response to the Classical Revival, he veered away from abstraction towards a type of socially relevant representational art, featuring factory workers, bargemen, and other urban figures, like The City (1919, Philadelphia Museum of Art), and The Mechanic. This is not to say that he abandoned the Cubist idiom entirely - his continued deconstruction of objects into their fundamental parts ruled this out - but his use of tubular and spherical forms, his articulation of space, and his inclusion of industrial and factory-like motifs aligned him more with Futurism than Cubism.

The Mechanic portrays a working man set against a semi-abstract industrial background of factory chimneys and railways. But this monumental 'machine-man' - really a symbol of the future - is not depicted as an impersonal ant-like worker toiling in a noisy factory, surrounded by oily machinery. On the contrary, it is an idealized depiction of the 'new worker' - the future beneficiary of progress to come - smoking a cigarette and contemplating his surroundings, during his leisure break. His individuality is further enhanced with the addition of a mustache, tattoo and rings. His well-groomed hair, muscular arms, and jaunty pose all reflect his obvious self-confidence, and illustrate the artist's vision of an industrial society that elevates and exalts the working man, not one that debases or dehumanizes him.

The Classical 'Call to Order' in France

The classical 'Call to Order' which gathered momentum during World War I in France and Italy, and spread rapidly after the Armistice, led to a variety of figurative styles. For instance, for a different style to that of Fernand Leger's - one which adheres more closely to the art of classical antiquity - please see: Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso (c.1906-30).

In particular, see: Two Nudes (1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Paris); Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris); and Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris).


• For the interpretation of other Cubist-style paintings, see: Homepage.

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