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The Machine, Calder, Léger, and Others



In this 1948 essay, available in English for the first time, the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa considers the machine, the quintessential industrial object, in dialectical relation to the modern work of art. Finding precedents in "primitive" and Byzantine arts, Pedrosa goes on to consider how the machine is stylized, repurposed, and mastered in the work of Fernand Léger and Alexander Calder. He declares the latter to be the preeminent American artist for his keen understanding of mechanical functions, which he applies towards the creation of artworks that for Pedrosa signify freedom from a functionalist, profit-driven culture. Pedrosa, who was a close friend of Calder and authored several texts devoted to his practice, first became taken with the artist's work during a visit to the artist's monographic exhibition at MoMA in 1943. The last in a series of essays by Pedrosa published on post, this text is the only one that is not included in Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents (2015), which collects the key writings of the legendary Brazilian critic.

Installation view of Alexander Calder: Sculptures and Constructions, September 29, 1943–January 16, 1944. Photographic archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Were there any doubt that an aesthetic sense—or a sense of beauty, if you will—is an acquired thing, or was acquired as far back as the primitive ages through protracted intimacy with the instruments and tools of human labor, [Alexander] Calder would help us to dispel that doubt.

Indeed, he made use of the instruments and mechanical objects, of the gadgets that are so important to the everyday lives of Americans, in order to provide them with an unexpected fate.

First and foremost, he added to them a decorative sense that they did not already possess. By this utilitarian use of industrial tools, he ultimately follows the ancient procedure according to which all the artistic activities of the past originated.

The primitive almost never separates the everyday objects that he builds from their primarily utilitarian purpose. Yet when the savage, little by little—as he repeatedly embellished the form of his bow or of his oar, emphasizing a curve here or polishing a surface there—wound up making the instrument a work of art, one may conclude: the artist begins to emerge from the craftsman’s leftovers, which maintains itself within the strict limits of functionality.

Driven by the decorative instinct, the craftsman-savage oftentimes exceeds the utilitarian purpose and, through the formal elegance that he gives the bow or any other utensil, he renders it impractical for work. At this extreme point, either the craftsman retreats so as not to disrespect the fixed boundaries of functionality, or he engages in a different activity, the central concern of which will thenceforth be the creation of a new object that will be sufficient unto itself—abstract.

The craftsman becomes an artist.

Like so many other modern artists, Calder resorts to craftwork and makes use of modern industrial instruments. However, from the outset he gives them seemingly inconsequential purposes. Thus he imparts to mechanics a gratuitousness that it does not have, nor belongs to its nature. In so doing he transcends the very utilitarian civilization from which it comes.

In the foundry where he works, Calder naturally does not follow primitive man’s artisanal logic. On the contrary, in adopting the Surrealist procedure, he redirects the object from its specific or conventional destiny. The difference is that, with this, Sandy is not seeking out the anodyne, the bizarre, or the romantic, but simply creating a new object, a new form.

Calder the artificer, who soon lost his way, seduced as he was by the fleeting beauties of Abstraction, was condemned to be the most terrible violator of functional mechanics. In dialectical opposition to American civilization, based on business for the sake of business, on profit, he is, for this very reason, the artist most representative of the United States, as is—in the field of architecture—[Frank Lloyd] Wright who, in his old age and in spite of his glory, became the prototype of the artist who rebelled against the social milieu. It is precisely such an opposition that makes Calder an exponent of that culture, revealing what may be sane and liable to development within it.

When Calder discovered the disembodied beauty of “volumes, vectors and densities,”1 the Constructivist movement was in full bloom. Artists the world over were seduced by new mechnical forms; new sources of nontraditional materials were discovered: steel, glass, celluloid, and plastics. Even before the War, Brancusi had revealed the beauty of modulation in polished metal surfaces.

Also circa 1927, Norman Bel Geddes opened a studio in New York to redesign stoves, refrigerators, automobiles, and other serially produced objects. Aerodynamic trains belong more or less to the same period. In Germany, the Bauhaus reeducated the new generation in the severe taste of pure lines and associated style and comfort for the first time—an essentially modern accomplishment. These everyday objects of modern life, their clear and shiny, abstract and comfortable formal personality already discovered, undoubtedly constitute one of the greatest formal and aesthetic revolutions in the history of civilization.

The denaturalization of structure, and every mechanical invention in every new object, conforms to a gradual process on the march to a form of pure objectivity, in the course of which the originally Impressionist character of invention is lost. The initial form is one of naturalist inspiration, the final one is abstract.

When any new object is constructed, it borrows outlines and designs from another one. Usually that other is the one most akin or closest to it. Only after this entire process of formal gestation does the perfect integration between the final abstract structure and the fully developed functionality of the new object or invention take place. It then ceases to “resemble” this or that thing in order to resemble itself alone. This march of the natural to the formally abstract is a constant of our civilization, the mark of one of modern culture’s deepest traits. Thanks to it, the art of today has been able to influence—as possibly only the art of the Renaissance was able to before it—the industrial production of its time.

In no one more than in Calder—and in this he may have been the most faithful of the Constructivists—the dividing line between artistic creation and industrial design is less marked. His art is without inhibition in resorting to the principles of engineering and industrial design. Without the slightest ceremony, he swipes not only the materials but even the instruments and processes of mechanics in order to express himself. And he boldly avails himself of wheels, gears, levers, stems, pistons, sheets of metal, glass, and wire. No one in the realm of the visual arts has ever made use of these acquisitions with greater spontaneity, exuberance, and imagination than he. And without the slightest vestige of doctrinaire intentionalism or concern with belonging to any school. For this very reason his studio is no longer a studio but a combined blacksmith/cabinetmaker/spinner/mechanic/locksmith/ welder/devil’s workshop.

The machine is one of the modern world’s most fearful hobgoblins. Many of today’s artists still haven’t freed themselves from it. In order to rid themselves of their terror or obsession, they seek to exorcize it, like the savage before the incomprehension of the exterior world. The machine is still to these artists as nature was to prehistoric man, who perpetually yearned to fix something perennial, something permanent in geometric terms, in response to the disconcerting fluidity of the natural phenomena that struck them as terrifying, capricious, and incongruent.

Calder does not share this obsession. For him the machine is not an enchanted, magical, fascinating thing—albeit one that is mysteriously dangerous in its transformative miracles—nor is it something misunderstood. Even for him, it has lost its power as fetish. In itself it is no longer worthy of adoration. He knows it from within. He learned early on how to disassemble it. He long ago digested the mechanical subjects that are conjoined in it. And because of this he knows of what this modern deity is made. Hence his familiar treatment of her. For some time his “works of art” have had “volumes, vectors and densities.”

However, next to Calder, let us examine the attitude of another artist—a great artist called [Fernand] Léger who, in fact, belongs to the same spiritual Family as the American.

The latter finds himself dominated by the machine to such an extent that he cannot forget it. He once wrote: “Speed is the law of the day. It rolls over us and dominates us.”2 The great French painter thus confesses himself to be a slave to speed, that is to say, of mechanics. To him, the machine is beautiful but strange and inhuman.

In distributing volumes, masses, or even pieces that, together, would recompose the total unity of the machine, Léger does so only to exhibit them, simultaneously, upon a single plane. He outlines them on the canvas or paper with a fetishism that recalls that of prehistoric man carving his drives and obsessions upon stones or cave walls and transforming them into signs for exorcizing impenetrable nature. His way of revealing the secret of the machine is also symbolic. The painter of Paris sees in his figures and objects symbols of all that is powerful, impersonal, intense, and superhuman in the modern mechanical creation supreme. These figures, masses, and volumes reflect the machine’s inhuman nature.

This symbolism gives Léger’s work an element of stylization quite similar to that of Byzantine art, meaning that even when his symbols signify elements of the human body his motives indeed constitute inorganic forms intentionally distorted in the exclusive interest of rhythm. All the ancient stylizations conceal an already faint symbolic background, like worn-out currency. Behind this symbolic background hides a dominant, single, absorbing category—a god, a sacred animal, a taboo—a machine, a machine out of time and of space.

It is this that gives the whole—the drawing—a certain symmetrical rigidity. One feels in its composition the absolute empire of proportion and of harmonic relationship—characteristics of the arts of stylization of the past.

In contrast, Calder neither represents nor abstracts nor “stylizes” the machine. None of his structures is made up of purely geometric forms and volumes, analytically presented. His drawings and compositions are pure forms, converging toward an organic whole. His objects are machines, but . . . of poetry and improvisations. His stabiles and mobiles create fanciful, arbitrary, non-mechanized relationships. Occasionally monsters (or what one might call prehistoric animals), contemplative or timid vegetables, or new, ironic insects with a diabolical air issue from these geometric constructions. Yet all are alive and carry within themselves their realization and purpose.

In Calder’s hands the machine becomes volatile, gaining in virtualities that transcend functional contingencies, ceasing, for this very reason, to be a machine. Even in the motorized mobiles, the inspiration is not the machine’s reflex but its dynamic element, motion framed at the service of formal relationships and of colors, that is, of painting. Inside these panels what we see are spirals that swirl in a tortured ascension; cylinders rotating rhythmically like dancers; colors, and prisms that evolve rhythmically, unrestrained and with the grace of a bird. These pieces are mechanical extras in a scene, showing themselves off to us men.

In the non-motor-driven mobiles, then, he laughs at the machine, for he has already tamed it and left it behind. It is no longer its contained and controlled energy that is of interest to him. Rather it is the apprehension of the uncontrolled forces of the cosmos, the irreducible movement that feeds the motor of the universe, the eternal flow of forms in space.

Indeed, he seeks to capture—for it would be impossible to discipline them— within a painting that he himself set up and, in limited time, all the formal virtualities liable to be drawn in space, moved by whatever may be—by a man’s panting breath, by a gust of air, by some vibration or tremor, by chance, or even by a shove of the foot. He puts one in mind of a butterfly hunter. His objects are instruments for hunting down all the possibilities of formal beauty that the unstable balance of things can offer us in a moment.

Calder subordinates his art to a kind of automatism. However the latter is determined by a large formal plane chosen by the constructor himself. Like a boy who sets his cage upon the branch of a tree to attract a little bird, he puts his mobile in the window or in the garden outside to wait for winds that will entangle and hold them prisoner in the stems, branches, leaves, and balls of his objects that will then become animated—dancing, singing, and seized with plenitude.

Calderian automatism is controlled by experience, unlike the psychological automatism of the Surrealists. Whereas for the Surrealists the individual is a prisoner of his ego, of unconscious mechanisms, for Calder the individual feels free and rational for the first time in the face of life and the world. And—to his aesthetic whims—he toys like a god with the laws that rule the universe. The mechanism that ultimately gives rise to artistic expression is no longer unconscious or subjective but armed objectively from without.

The machine’s automatic perfection is a perennial source of enchantment for every contemporary artist. It was not only Léger who felt the weight of its fascination. In him, however, this enchantment revealed itself with particular strength. Hence the fact that his reaction to that perfection was most typical of the modern sensibility.

Léger transposes the machine’s volumes and lines statically, in search of their still perfection, devoid of virtuality. Machine and mechanical perfection are defined by the sensation of force, speed, and precision that they arouse. Isolating their forms from one another, he draws the machine’s final synthesis from them in exchange for a purely analytic presentation. In Calder, objects are the effective result of experience before this very mechanical perfection, and they assert themselves with the machine’s same synthetic autonomy.

Its ruthless placidity no longer terrifies the Calderian soul. The speed, the power, and the inhuman precision of the mechanical system do not overpower him.

Calder grew up with the machine and, for this reason, he already gazes at it from above. Today, he finds the scary, fascinating animal of the beginning of the century amusing. Holding it by the rein, he slaps the monster’s hind quarters with ironic and cordial joy, inviting all men to the same liberation.

We know well that Léger never intended to copy the machine. As he explains, he intended only to invent images of machines, just as others have invented landscapes. He uses it as others have used the nude or the still life. He seeks to express its inherent sense of strength and power. Through this path a reverse neo-academicism is forged: the machine is its model, rather than the body. Thus the world is limited to its dimension, to the effects of its perfect, adjusted strength.

However, Calder transcendentalizes and overcomes the machine. In it he seeks the only thing it cannot give—creative energy. For the machine does everything but it creates nothing. The only thing about it that interests him is the inspiration that forged it. He extracts motive power, the secret of its model behavior from the highly material, objective, fierce, and immediately utilitarian animal. The power that breathes life into it no longer represents anything supernatural to him, just as the wind or storm “machine” that frightened the savage did not either. The artist is enchanted by this only for its power of acting upon the things that surround it, its ability to trasmit and transform.

However, machine fetishism has not yet been overcome by all the artists of our time. At the end of World War I, Dada’s iconoclastic mechanism itself was unable to tame it. Desperate, [Marcel] Duchamp and [Francis] Picabia—the enfants terribles of Dadaism—wanted at least to identify themselves (similing, jesting, without solemnity or piteousness) to the victorious monster. With the usual whistling, they pretended they did not fear the dark night. In order to remain men, to preserve the human, they degraded themselves, and that is why the humor of Dada was derision above all else.

At last, it was later verified by André Breton that, unlike man, the machine could neither build nor fix itself, neither perfect nor destroy itself. Whoever possesses the power to destroy himself has the power to reconstruct and perfect himself. And thus has the power to create. Man once again felt relieved and superior to the machine. And a new humor succeeded that of Dada in modern art—a dark humor, a black humor. It was that of Calder, among others.

Humor in Picabia and Duchamp was black and despairing. When Dada emerged in Europe—and how far away those times are!—it was an explosion. It came to negate the object because it was unable to replace it with another. However, Calder’s humor is above the explosion, just as it is above despair and conventional optimism. He reconciles himself with poetry and makes it his companion in the extraodinary adventures of everyday life. Furthermore, Calderian humor is an individual result; it arises from the artist who is not separated from man’s direct and immediate reaction (from the human, simple artist) to the academic solemnity of inaccessible Art, excellently represented by the reigning climate of the paternal home.

The humor of the European Dadaists was of a general, collective nature, the expression of an entire generation that had arrived at a dead end; it was therefore largely social in origin. Hence the differences of humor: despair and nihilist revolt in the former; mockery and childish pranks in the latter.

Above all, Europeans sought to defend the already threatened self, to render it invulnerable to external reality; this humor came from [Sigmund] Freud. Calder’s was an affirmation of the independence of personality; it may have come from [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel and resolved itself at the aesthetic level. It was this humor that led him to take art down from its pedestal without, however, making it bitter, as in the case of European Dadaism. He did away with its capital letter, its particle of nobility, and took it everywhere, from the New York subway to the corner drugstore. He Americanized it, so to speak.

This made Calder a representative of the art of America, or of the future, a notion with which many pretend to confuse that geographic entity.

His art feels at ease in any climate but, especially, before whatever social and technological transformations that may present themselves. It is at ease amid machines and forests of chimneys. Whereas Léger’s requires an effort to adapt itself to today’s mechanical universe, Calder’s blossoms and thrives within it. It needed it in order to sprout.

Not in vain is the former a Frenchman and the latter an American. Calder was born with his foot on the gas pedal; he already belonged to the age when children could point to the bird in the sky and call it an airplane. That is why he grew accustomed to seeing in the machine domestic animals such as a dog or a cat. He pets it or plays with it, as one might throw a ball for a kitten to pounce upon or a stick for a faithful dog to retrieve.

The majority of the more modern artists may still be far from this detachment, from this unconscious self-control before natural mechanical forces, that is to say, which belong to this second nature that envelops us all in the twentieth century of us. In this sense representing the majority, Léger is still grappling with the new mechanical world. It was not until much later that he learned to drive an automobile . . .

This Calderian art does not reflect societies, nor does it sublimate subjective nightmares. Rather, it is a door to the future. It is already the stance of one who, scornful of the present day—dark as it may seem to us—makes out from where he stands the distant horizons of utopia, of the utopia he is forever laying out before us. Yet it is not a vehicle for the artist to escape spiritually, to isolate himself within society, without vital contact with the latter, surrendering fully to the expression of his own extreme and hermetic subjectivism after having given up all hope of communicability. As far as communication is concerned, he communicates only with men of future generations, for they may ultimately have enough energy for the effort needed to integrate art and life itself.

Moreover, upon such an effort—as Herbert Read would have it—the permanence among men of the very principle of freedom depends. And without it, man will not survive. The machine will have won the game. A desert will cover the Earth as an epilogue to the history of the human race upon the globe.

Text published on the occasion of Calder’s exhibitions at the recently inaugurated Palácio Gustavo Capanema, seat of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Rio de Janeiro (where Pedrosa gave a lecture titled “Calder e a música dos ritmos visuais” [“Calder and the Music of Visual Rhythms”]), and at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Originally published as “A Máquina, Calder, Léger e outros,” Política e letras (Rio de Janeiro), September 16, 1948.

Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents is the latest volume in MoMA’s Primary Documents publication series, which is devoted to making source materials related to the visual arts of specific countries, historical moments, disciplines, and themes available to English-language readers for the first time. Mário Pedrosa is the first publication to provide comprehensive English translations of Pedrosa’s writings, which are indispensable to understanding Brazilian art of the twentieth century.


Phrase taken from the title of Calder’s first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Percier, 1931. See exhibition catalogue (for which Léger wrote an introductory note): Alexander Calder, Alexandre Calder: Volumes, vecteurs, densités. Dessins, portraits (Paris: Galerie Percier, 1931).


“La vitesse est loi actuelle. Elle nous roule et nous domine.” Fernand Léger, “Couleur dans le monde” (1938), in Fonctions de la Peinture (Paris: Denoel, 1984), pp. 86–87.

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