The cult of the skyscraper and by extension the architect (Léger’s original profession until he transitioned to painting seriously in his mid-20s), is one that captivated writers and artists on every side of the political and social divide, from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943) to Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964), and Lunch atop a Skyscraper (1932) remains an iconic photograph of Manhattan even today (see fig. 1). Léger had spent time in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, including visits to New York City, but it was seeing men swaying on steel girders high above him on a French construction site that famously inspired this series. "I saw man like a flea; he seemed still lost in his inventions with the sky above him. I wanted to render that; the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all that metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets” (Fernand Léger quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 158).
This contrast of materials is evident in the present work, but the scale and dizzying perspective which had initially inspired him is notably absent: man is emphatically not flea-sized. Instead we find those “massive figures, with calm expressions, which are, in fact, veritable painted sculptures” that Kahnweiler identified in his paintings of the 1920s onward and it is in fact the humanity of the Constructeurs which is most often commented on (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 92, 1950, p. 68). To an extent this can be ascribed to intensification of his socialist views in the wake of the war, but his positive sense of the dignity of the individual in the mechanized age was not new. By 1913 Léger had already identified specialization as a characteristic of modern life. Rather than lament the onset of automation however, he believed that confining each man to the pursuit of a single aim only intensified the character of his achievement. With his trademark disassociated color planes and flattened perspective, Léger shifts the focus in Les Constructeurs away from the inhumanity of monolithic structures to the inventiveness of man and the central role of the worker.
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