How Léger Painted the 20th (and 21st) Century City

“How I’ll gobble Paris up, if I’m lucky enough to go back there!” painter Fernand Léger wrote in a 1915 letter home from the front lines of World War I. Where others may have feared the great modern city, especially during that era of massive mechanized death, Léger loved it to the point of wishing to consume it and make it a part of him. In Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, which runs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 5, 2014, Léger’s electrified urbanism powers a fresh look at how his epic painting The City (from 1919; shown above) not only captures the spirit of the age that embraced this new type of living space, but also points the way forward for artists to engage with the metropolises rising around them. A delicious banquet of multimedia that transports you back to 1920s Paris, Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis simultaneously shocks you with a new perspective on modern life.

Léger left the war not with a dread of the future but with an optimism about where technology could take humanity. He wasn’t alone. As the exhibition shows in its opening, Léger cast off the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism of his earliest work and soaked up the ideas of fellow artists and friends such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Robert Delaunay, Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz, and others. Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Dada all soon fell into the mix in Léger’s head. The show includes striking examples of Léger’s contemporaries struggling with the same ideas as he was, thus proving visually just how important coming to terms intellectually and artistically with the city was to them. As much as The City and Léger are the stars of the show, the context of how Léger became Léger is just as important.

But if Léger such a major player, why don’t we know him as well as we know, say, Picasso? Curator Anna Vallye addresses that problem early on in the exhibition’s masterfully scholarly catalog. “If Léger’s work has proven at all intractable, it is to the extent that it confounds the roster of binary oppositions we tend to view as fundamental to the history of modern art,” Vallye explains. By “upend[ing] the categorical distinction often drawn between ‘modernism’… and the ‘avant-garde,’” Léger emerges “an artist of radical impurity” in Vallye’s estimation that resists the labeling of art purists. If nothing else, Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis and its companion catalog help us accept that “radical impurity” not as a flaw but rather as a feature of life in the big city as an artist of the big city.

Although the show includes 179 works in various media by both Léger and his contemporaries, the 800-lb. gorilla in the corner is undoubtedly Léger’s The City. “Like a clarion call, the work resonates across a decade of vital experimentation,” Vallye writes. As big as a billboard, a mural, or (back then) a movie screen, The City was too big to fail to catch the attention of fellow artists, if not collectors and critics. As Christian Derouet describes in his essay, “The Slow Triumph of The City,” The City confounded critics at first. Too big for the taste of most buyers or dealers, The City languished for 6 years in Léger’s studio. Between 1927 and 1935, Léger rolled and unrolled the canvas for exhibitions around the world until A.E. Gallatin purchased The City for his “Museum of Living Art” in 1937. In 1943, when Gallatin donated The City to the PMA, Léger attended the grand opening and even posed in front of his painting as if cheerfully strolling, hat in hand, through his own painted city.

Standing in front of The City can be disorienting. As when standing before a real city, when standing in front of Léger’s City the senses are overwhelmed by choice. Léger proposed a “law of contrasts” in his painting where oppositions in line, form, and color force the eye to move continually but always within the structure itself. Thus, Léger arrived at a style that mimicked the verve and variety of a real city. “The metropolis shook [Léger] like an electrical current in water,” poet Yvan Goll (one of Léger’s contemporaries quoted at length in the catalog) commented in 1922. “In that dynamic experience his energies exploded and tore everything apart.” But, to disagree with Goll, everything didn’t come apart in Léger. Instead, Léger brought it all together. Vallye sees The City’s power coming from “Léger’s invention of an intermediary condition for the work, at once painting and not-painting, in which painting begins to assume the qualities of cultural forms less venerable and less elite—the ‘minor’ and ‘commercial’ arts, and the mass media.” Léger thus invites a “fateful and exhilarating contamination” that opens the door to Pop Art and everything since. Today, we’re all Léger, but he did it nearly a century ago.

The exhibition truly pops when you see how Léger and his like-minded contemporaries embraced the multimedia of the time beyond just painting and sculpture. Advertising posters, theatrical backdrops and scenery, oddly fascinating Cubist puppets, and costume designs surround you. As you walk through the show you hear the music of Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, and others provide the soundtracks to the different experimental films of the time, which are projected high on the walls. Léger traced his love of the cinema seeing a film by Charles Chaplin, or as the French called him, “Charlot,” while on leave from the front. Léger announced Chaplin as “The Man-Image—the first man-image” inseparably linking modern film technology and the individual, just as Léger wanted to link the modern city and the individual. Léger used a marionette “Charlot” in the opening of his 1924 film Ballet mechanique as an emblem of the human form made into another object in the set of objects comprising city life. I’m not sure the Chaplin of 1936’s Modern Times would agree with Léger’s interpretation, but Léger seemed more interested in his idea of Chaplin than in the man himself or what he had to say.

Another film that caught my eye was Marcel L’Herbier’s L’inhumaine (“The Inhuman One,” from 1924), for which Léger created set designs and advertising posters for. In that film, a scientist (played by Jaque Catelain) tries to resurrect his beloved, an opera diva (played by Georgette Leblanc) poisoned by a rival for her heart. The scientist frantically races about a futuristic laboratory designed by Léger as his love lies still on a high platform like a princess awaiting her awakening prince. L’inhumaine is the anti-Frankenstein, a film that wouldn’t be made for another 7 years. Where James Whale later took Mary Shelley’s novel, Colin Clive obsessive mania, and Boris Karloff’s ponderous menace to add up to a straightforward condemnation of playing god via science, L’Herbier and Léger wrote a valentine to the idea of using that same technology for good, for life. Similarly, The City aims to put a friendly face on something we often see solely as monstrous.

But what does Léger’s art mean for the 21st century and the modern city? Critics often joked that Léger’s tubular shapes weren’t Cubism but “Tubism.” For whatever reason, that made me think of late Senator Ted Stevens’ belief that the internet was “a series of tubes.” I don’t think Léger would have agreed with Stevens’ politics, but I think he’d enjoy his analogy in the sense that it stresses the connectivity of the internet, the way that it can bring people together. Today, the biggest city, the biggest community, is the internet. If Léger were painting today, perhaps The City would be The ‘Net, just as complex, diverse, and multifaceted, and perhaps just as life-affirming and inspiring as Paris in the 1920s.

“To be free and yet not to lose touch with reality,” Léger once said, “that is the drama of that epic figure who is variously called inventor, artist or poet.” Léger never gave up that pursuit of freedom grounded in the reality of the city. When he travelled to America in the late 1930s, he created in New York City a series of works for a never-realized mural that features The Statue of Liberty, that French gift to America now synonymous with freedom. The last work chronologically in the show by Léger, done just a year before his death in 1955, is titled simply Man in the City. Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis shows us that there is a place for humanity in the city and the new “metropolis” of the internet in the 21st century, if only we stretch our imaginations to find one.

[Image: The City, 1919. Fernand Léger, French, 1881-1955. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 7 inches x 9 feet 9 1/2 inches (231.1 x 298.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the image above from, press materials for, a review copy of the catalog to, and a pass to see the exhibition Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, which runs through January 5, 2014.]

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.

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