Philadelphia Museum of Art
Through Jan. 5

Pablo Picasso may have some new company on early modernism’s mountaintop, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Until now, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has stood alone as the great banner of the era’s new way of seeing, an 8-foot-tall declaration that cubism was bursting out of the studio. But this energetic show “sets a significant idea in motion” by focusing visitors’ attention on Fernand Léger’s The City. A 7-by-10-foot canvas made 12 years after Picasso’s 1907 breakthrough, it fused cubism and futurism in a way that Léger and his circle had aimed to do for years. Where Picasso’s fierce prostitutes had opened new territory for personal artistic expression, Léger found a way to depict a collective contemporary consciousness. Not only does The City capture and celebrate the visual energy of Paris’s tightly clustered buildings, billboards, and passing crowds, it taps into “the very metabolism of popular culture.”

“One can see right away” why Léger is called “the father of pop art,” said Jerome Przybylski in His colorful paintings are so “devoid of Lost Generation funk” that one begins to wonder whether his obvious optimism about 20th-century urban culture was heroic or insane. Even war didn’t dull his enthusiasm, said Sarah E. Fensom in Art & Antiques. Born the son of a Normandy cattle farmer in 1881, Léger arrived in Paris in 1900 and never looked back. In his 30s, he served on World War I’s front lines and almost died in a mustard-gas attack, but he returned talking about being “dazzled” by the sight of a 75 mm gun catching the sunlight. He wasn’t kidding: In two 1922 paintings, Three Women by a Garden and Two Women, his female figures have “cannonball-like breasts” and their limbs resemble missiles.

Léger wasn’t alone in his ambitions, said Bob Duggan in About two thirds of the work in this enlightening show comes from friends and contemporaries of Léger’s who were just as excited about mass culture and mechanical progress. Léger’s vision of the modern city “can be disorienting” at first. His “oppositions in line, form, and color force the eye to move continually,” thus mimicking the multitude of choices that any city presents. But wander around to take in Léger’s films, advertising posters, and theatrical backdrops, and his zeal begins to look both omnivorous and familiar. In fact, “if Léger were painting today, perhaps The City would be The ’Net—an entity “just as complex, diverse, and multifaceted, and perhaps just as life-affirming and inspiring as Paris in the 1920s.”