According to a catalogue accompanying the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s landmark London exhibition Fernand Léger: The Later Years, edited by Nicolas Serota, the great French abstractionist advanced a radically colorful proposal for the layout of the 1937 Paris international exhibition that would feature
…a yellow square, a red and blue avenue, an Eiffel tower with a camouflaged silhouette…that would all be lit up at night, instead of fireworks.
Much to the painter’s chagrin, this proposal would only be partially realized. The Eiffel Tower — that iconic remnant from arguably the greatest of all world’s fairs, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 — would again be electrified and lit up, just as it had been for the 1925 bonanza. Even then, there’d be fireworks. In intermittent flashes, these served to illuminate its ferrous skeleton from behind the promenade.
Outlines of the exhibition’s virtual frontispiece, which featured Hitler’s Deutscher Pavillon, designed by Albert Speer, set against Stalin’s Советский павильон, designed by Boris Iofan, were cast as a grim prefiguration of the unsurpassed bloodshed the two nations would experience over the next decade at each other’s hands.
Regardless of how things played out with the actual exhibition in Paris, what is more interesting is that Léger’s proposal was merely a reworking of the theme he’d hashed out some twenty years earlier. This flamboyant vision first arose out of conversations with the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotskii, who was then living in exile in Montparnasse. Léger dubbed this program for renovating the traditional Russian capital (Petrograd was still the seat of government at the time) “a polychrome Moscow.”
In a 1943 essay “On Monumentality and Color,” included in Sigfried Giedion’s semi-autobiographical intellectual history Architecture and Me, Léger recalled this fortuitous encounter from his cubist years with great fondness:
The exterior volume of an architecture, its sensitive weight, its distance, can be reduced or increased as a result of the colors adopted.
The “exterior block” can be attacked in the same way as the interior wall.
Why not undertake the polychrome organization of a street and of a city?
During the First World War, I spent my furloughs in Montparnasse; there I had met Trotskii and we often spoke about the thrilling problem of a colored city! He wanted me to go to Moscow because of the prospect of a blue street and a yellow street had raised some enthusiasm in him.
A fascinating anecdote, to be sure. What’s stranger, however, is that I recently came across some illustrations by the Dutch communist designer Mart Stam from the early 1930s that roughly approximated Léger’s colorful vision. Granted, these colored sketches by Stam were intended as blueprints for the new socialist settlements of Orsk and Magnitogorsk, respectively. But they strike me as close enough to warrant a posting. Enjoy!