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At Rattner museum, French artist Fernand Léger embraces chaos of circus life


The circus is in town. No, not the literal big top such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, or even Cirque du Soleil, which arrives in a few days.

This one is in the galleries of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, a riotous whirligig of the circus as imaged by French artist Fernand Léger.

Léger (1881-1955) is best known for his tightly constructed cubist paintings that emphasize the geometry of an object or even a person, sometimes making them more abstract than representational.

Later in life, he started loosening up, becoming more fluid in his style. And nowhere do we see that transition more fully than in these lithographs that were inspired by his time in the United States during World War II and his immersion into American culture. He especially loved the circus.

Circuses, the kind we think of today, first became popular in the 18th century in Europe. They have historically fascinated artists because of the collective pageantry of their performances and the individual eccentricity of their performers.

Léger joined the bandwagon near the end of his life, after his American sojourn. He created a limited-edition portfolio of 56 prints that he began in 1945, after returning to France. It was published in 1950. The circus had become for him a metaphor for the joy of living.

"Go to the circus," he wrote. "Nothing is as round as the circus . . . Nothing stops, everything is connected . . . Go to the circus . . . Leave your rectangles, your geometric windows, and go with the country of circles in motion."

So, here we go.

Léger's take is bold and graphic. He outlines his people and animals in thick black, then adds chunks of color, never blended, for punctuation.

Dare we invoke the hallowed Henri Matisse? You'll see a kinship between the two in the volume Léger gives his subjects, along with the reductive purity of his lines that ask our own eyes to connect the dots. Still, he isn't the editor of his images that Matisse was. He enjoyed more plenitude. Why portray one parrot when he could do a page full of them? Same with painted clown faces. It's the menagerie that's interesting.

Léger was always interested in portraying the human condition in a mechanized world, but in his circus series, he takes a break, abandoning for a moment the "geometric windows" and abjuring the soulful insights Picasso's harlequins provide after the tent has been packed away.

Léger's sense of humor has its sly side. In one print, he suggests sleight-of-hand card tricks, using only hands, eyes and the king of hearts tucked into a purple sleeve. A dancer looks a lot like Josephine Baker in her famous skirt of bananas.

Take a break, like me, he seems to urge us; enjoy the show.

It's good advice: Go to the circus.

• • •

Also at the Leepa-Rattner Museum, "Mid-Century Modernism: 1950 to 1965" takes us back (for those of a certain age, like me) to a decorative style known as "atomic." It could be interpreted as either minimalist or kitschy, examples of both here illustrating the extremes.

I, for example, recall with affection the shrine created to this aesthetic in the home of my childhood best friend, whose father was a doctor and mother an artist. We sat on the floor a lot because it was the most comfortable place in rooms filled with Arne Jacobsen molded plywood Ant chairs, Henry Bertoia's unforgiving metal Diamond chairs and several styles by Charles and Ray Eames. They're on view, and I wasn't tempted to ignore the request not to sit in them.

There is also the truly dreadful but deeply nostalgic Satellite floor lamp, composed of blobs of red and yellow plastic bulb covers planted in a mass of plastic foliage. And who can forget the Starburst china pattern, looking like an orbiting Sputnik? I think my mom got an entire set using Green Stamps.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]

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Fernand Léger and the Le Cirque Portfolio

Mid-Century Modernism: 1950 to 1965

The exhibitions are at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 Klosterman Road on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, through July 10. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 adults and $4 seniors. Children, students, military personnel and their families, free with ID. Free admission to all on Sunday with docent tours at 2 p.m. (727) 712-5762 or

At Rattner museum, French artist Fernand Léger embraces chaos of circus life 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 4:30am]
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