Artistic echoes of the conquest of the air: Roger de La Fresnaye and modernity

Artistic echoes of the conquest of the air: Roger de La Fresnaye and modernity

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Home ›Studies› Artistic echoes of the conquest of the air: Roger de La Fresnaye and modernity

© Center Pompidou photo MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Philippe Migeat

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

The conquest of the air fascinated many artists at the beginning of the 20th centurye century. Engaged in a search for new plastic means adapted to the times, the avant-gardes see in aviation an iconography in keeping with modernity: to represent this innovation emblematic of the technological progress made since the 19th century.e century is to echo the emerging new civilization, the speed, machines and factories that characterize it.

Among these artists, Roger de La Fresnaye offers his vision of the subject: in 1913, he painted a large canvas entitled The Conquest of the Air (235.9 x 195.6 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and has also made several engraved transpositions, including the work studied here. At that time, the conquest of the air came out of the time of the inventors to become a viable reality which is of increasing interest to the industrial and military sectors.

Image Analysis

Affiliated with cubism, Roger de La Fresnaye adopts in this painting the geometrization of forms typical of this movement: the clouds are reduced to spheres, the sailboat on the right to a trapezoid, and the characters to elementary volumes. The representation of space also follows the plan breaks specific to Cubist paintings: each element of the painting has its own point of view and its scale (the houses at the bottom left, the two figures, the trees, the lake and its boat …), So that the space represented in the canvas, discontinuous, does not reproduce reality.

At the iconographic level, the work offers a set of references to air: for example clouds and a hot air balloon moved by the action of the wind, the flag, the sailboat or the trees. If the absence of an airplane is surprising at first, given the title of the painting, it is explained by the allegorical character of the painting: the two main characters are conversing around a table, the painter having wanted signify the action of thought, the speculative spirit which made possible the conquest of the air by man and the invention of airplanes.


The allegory can thus be read as an equivalence of the plastic novelties of cubism and those of technology, all born of the conceptual capacity of man and his thirst to invent new technical processes and to conquer new ones. areas. By representing the conquest of the air by means of the formal cubist system, Roger de La Fresnaye implies that, if aviation represents the most emblematic modernity of the time, cubism is also for the field of l 'art.

Roger de La Fresnaye thus makes visible the way in which the geometrization of forms and the distortion of cubist space were perceived. The reduction of drawing to simple forms recalled the appearance of industrial products and machines, offering a sort of mechanized view of humanity, while spatial discontinuities evoked the experience of speed and its effects on perception, offering a visual and allegorical transposition of the acceleration characterizing not only the new means of locomotion, but also the rhythm of modern society and life. Cubism is thus linked to the latest advances in science and technology - which aviation symbolizes; he even comes to embody the visual representation of abstract concepts such as the discontinuity of matter, notions of space-time or the fourth dimension.

Still, Roger de La Fresnaye offers a relatively peaceful and calm vision of this modernity by comparison with the canvases of other artists such as Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia or Marcel Duchamp and especially those of the Futurists, who produce works in colors, with more dynamic shapes and compositions. If he embraces novelty, he also wishes to link it to tradition - which explains the choice of allegorical representation, generally little appreciated by the avant-garde -, consequently producing more classic works than some of these colleagues.

  • aviation
  • cubism
  • Third Republic
  • hot air balloon


CHADEAU, Emmanuel: The dream and the power. The airplane and its century, Paris, Fayard, 1996.The epic of aviation, History of a century, 1843-1944, Paris, DEFAG, L’Illustration, "Les grandes dossiers de l'Illustration", 1987. MOUSSEIGNE Alain: The conquest of the air. An adventure in the art of the 20th century, Toulouse, les Abattoirs, 2002.

To cite this article

Claire LE THOMAS, "Artistic echoes of the conquest of the air: Roger de La Fresnaye and modernity"

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