The great French modernist painter Fernand Léger turned the forms of industry into metaphors of contemporary life.

Fernand Léger, the great French painter, was a working-class hero. Born in 1881 to a peasant family in Normandy, and built like a wrestler, he had a lifelong horror of bombast and sentimentality. He loved the music hall, the circus, and Charlie Chaplin; and he hated the big gestures of those (like the Renaissance old masters) "who make art instead of expressing themselves simply." He once claimed to have learned more from a 75mm gun barrel gleaming in sunlight than from all the museums in the world, and he thought nothing of exploring the tensions between the 17th-century classicism of Nicolas Poussin and the pictures in an automobile magazine.

"I . . . mass-produce my canvases," Léger announced cheerfully in the 1920s, claiming that "the young and the workers have always been my real audience." When, years later at a planning session for Leonardo da Vinci's 500th birthday celebrations, he was mistaken for a down-at-heels carpenter, Léger was almost certainly delighted. For that was exactly how he'd always thought of himself: as a craftsman involved in a struggle with his materials, blessed—as he once put it—with the freedom to act and suffer as a tramp.

He'd have been delighted too, I think as I arrive at Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou on a sunny morning in July, by this, the first venue for a traveling retrospective of his work. (The exhibit opens at New York's Museum of Modern Art in February.) For the Pompidou Centre is in the once-grimy heart of the city that he loved; and today, in the surrounding district, the stores seem full of echoes of him. There are hats and metal struts and rows of featureless mannequins in many of the shop windows. And even the huge Centre itself looks as if it's just touched down from Léger Land: a no-frills machine constructed on a gigantic scale out of his trademark tubes and disks.

The Centre is closed to the public today, so I'll have the exhibition to myself. An official leads me—almost without speaking—by a staff elevator to the fifth floor. And suddenly—apart from a German camera crew engrossed in filming one of the pre- World War I works—I'm alone with Léger.

It is, I have to say, an odd but very exhilarating experience. It's been 44 years since the last great Léger retrospective (at MoMA, in 1953, two years before his death), and since then, little by little, he's become lost in the wash of his own creations, submerged in the tide of influence that billowed outward from his work—into industrial design, poster graphics, Pop Art, and the so-called Nouveau Réalisme. The boldness of his colors, the flatness of his picture surface, and his preoccupation with simplicity of line and form were turned into a kind of universal shorthand: "Léger-like" and "Légeresque" became portmanteau words into which everything from brutalist architecture to the absence of depth and chiaroscuro in a painting could be bundled.

Seeing Léger's work bare—without any people and without any of its endless echoes and associations—is to meet the man himself as if for the first time: muscular, cheery, a tireless mechanic in the engine-room of 20th-century iconography, and the master of what should probably be called Légerdemain. For the truth contained in this remarkable show is that whatever routines Léger borrowed from others—however much he veered toward cubism, surrealism, or geometric abstraction—he still remained through all of it recognizably, remarkably, Léger.

His story up to the time of the first works in the show (smaller, for reasons of space, in New York than in Paris) is quickly told. He left school early and was apprenticed by his family to an architect in Caen. Acting on a sudden impulse to become a painter, he moved to Paris in 1900, where he worked again in an architect's office and as a photo-retoucher before finding himself a space in the La Ruche studios in Montparnasse—where, at one time or another, Lipchitz, Chagall, Soutine, and Léger's future friends, Delaunay and Archipenko, had all worked. He destroyed most of his early work in 1909, but on the evidence of the two pieces that survived (neither of them in the show), he seems at first to have been influenced by the Impressionists. In 1907 he saw the first Cézanne retrospective, which taught him "to realize the importance of form and space." He threw himself into his own turbulent versions of the sort of experiments in cubism Picasso and Braque were conducting in Montmartre. By the time of the first pictures in the show, he had emerged as a more-or-less full-blown cubist—albeit one born from the brows of Cézanne and Le Douanier Rousseau—but with all the directions he was to take in the future somehow already in place.

In Woman Sewing (1909—10), for example, an old woman, reminiscent of Rousseau's Madame S., has hands like large bolts and a torso of machined metal. In his Nudes in the Forest (1909—10), which otherwise owes a debt to Cézanne's Bathers (1895—1906), color has been rejected for hefty geometrical form, and the distinction between mass and space has been abandoned. Forest and figures are equally weighty, equally metallic. In these paintings, what Léger called "a battle of volumes"—a danse macabre of polyhedrons and cylinders—seems to belong every bit as much to the industrial age as it does to something more basic and primordial. Other pictures in this early series are equally forceful and premonitory. The Marriage (1911) is a densely rhythmic composition in which direct observation of nature has taken a backseat to the purely pictorial possibilities of combining interpenetrating "takes" on a village wedding. And Woman in Blue (1912), though almost completely abstract, has something of the artist's later bright and sheeny color finish.

"The evolution of new means of production has imposed a new visual state," Léger was to reiterate all the way through his long life. And that "new visual state" demanded new pictorial methods, one of which was abstraction. ("Abstraction? It represents a liberation, an inevitable step in modern art. We start from scratch.") For two years after Woman in Blue Léger stripped his pictorial language of virtually everything but the most basic elements: line, color, and form. Influenced, perhaps, by the "geometric power" of an aircraft show he visited in 1912 with Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp (a fellow Norman), Léger turned out a series of canvases and gouache-highlighted drawings—known collectively as Contrasts of Forms—in which man and machine have become interchangeable, reduced to brutal and basic shapes like the cone. In the formal sense this series, which includes Reclining Woman (1913) and Exit the Ballets Russes (1914), is an extended experimental exercise that takes analytical cubism to its logical conclusion in virtually complete abstraction. But it is also a commentary on the impersonality of big-city life, in which people have been transformed into jaunty, swarming automata. Léger had found what was to become one of his big themes.

The poet Blaise Cendrars, who took long walks through Paris with Léger, once said that he was "the only painter of his generation to really live in the century, like the peasant that he was." But, perhaps paradoxically, what eventually drew Léger back from going even further into abstraction was World War I. Enlisting in 1914, Léger served as a sapper and stretcher-bearer. Later he remembered being "dazzled by an open gun breech in the sun, the magic of light on white metal. . . . Once I had bitten into that reality, the object never left me." It was in a regiment, too, that he "discovered man"—and with man, perhaps, his lifelong socialism. "I [found] myself amidst peasants, navvies, miners, boatmen. . . . Their free speech, their dialect, [was] my language. [And] I [wanted] my work as a painter . . . to be as well-founded as that dialect, to have the same directness and honest cleanliness."

One result of this was The Card Game (1917), Léger's first attempt "deliberately to extract my subject from the times," painted while he was recovering from a gas attack. In The Card Game three soldiers play cards with grim implacability, their metal-plated bodies splayed and twisted, their pipes sending out puffs of gunsmoke. For all its evocation of impersonal, mechanistic violence, however, it's still rooted absolutely in a recognizable human situation. And it's the leaping-off point for a dazzling series of postwar pictures, from Bargeman (1918) to Reading (1924), in which Léger—filled, it seems, with a new, unbounded optimism—followed his half-robot soldier friends back into the abrasive disharmonies of city life and became their chronicler. In the process color came back into his work with a bang, and he became the nonpareil iconographer of the modern metropolis, as well as the founder of an energetic new popular classicism.

Léger effected this by creating picture-constructions—even picture-machines—out of a synthesis of three-dimensional art and engineering. With the precision of a welder and with all the enthusiasm of the pre-Renaissance Primitives and his beloved Rousseau, Léger translated industrial civilization into a rhythmical visual framework in which all the elements are tightly contained within the picture-space, without support, perspective, or illusion of volume. In Acrobats in the Circus (1918), the acrobats, helmeted like soldiers, are not flying through the air; rather they're pressed up tight against the paint-surface, frozen in mid-gesture, part of a precisely modeled decorative scheme. In the two versions of The Typographer (1919), the typesetter has become posterized like some hoarding in the Place Clichy, transformed into the mechanized product of his trade. And in the monumental The City (1919), the civilianized soldiers have been reduced to dwarfed, peripheral figures in a towering complex panorama of lettering, girders, gangways, struts, and other scattered architectural elements; they appear only as truncated, bisected cutouts or as gray anonymous figures climbing a central stairway.

It strikes me as I wander through the huge, empty gallery that what makes these images so dynamic and original is not their subject matter. After all, in their very different ways Wyndham Lewis, the Futurists, and de Chirico also tackled the alienation and bustle of the modern city. What marks Léger out is his attack, his absence of melancholy, his lucidity, clarity, and control—particularly his almost eerie mastery over color contrasts.

Even when recognizably individual human figures begin to emerge in his paintings—either one eye at a time, as in Woman Before a Mirror (1920), or two at a time, as in Three Friends (1920)—this brisk limpidity remains. By the time the figures arrive center-stage in The Mechanic (1920) and, above all, in the plump metal-haired priestesses of Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) (1921), they have, for all the busyness of their industrialized settings, the coolness and certainty of Assyrian reliefs or of Poussin.

As it happened, the Assyrian and French galleries at the Louvre had reopened just a year before the painting of Three Women: Léger was quite deliberately co-opting the art traditions of the past to find a new and discordant slant on modern reality.

A second new perspective was to come later, from a 1924 journey to the mosaics in Ravenna and from a short film he made in the same year, the Ballet Mécanique. Léger discovered for himself, in closeups and through the blank eye of the camera, the dramatic possibilities not only of people but also of things in themselves. In the film, Léger gave equal billing to humans and objects: to Man Ray's mistress Kiki de Montparnasse and to an egg-beater, to a smiling woman on a swing and to gleaming pistons. From here on ordinary objects become a new focus for the artist, treated with the concentrated, reverent attention of an icon-painter from a thousand years before. In paintings like The Siphon (1924), based on a Campari advertisement, and Umbrella and Bowler (1926), he starts to turn a basilisk and hieratic, but increasingly more affectionate, eye on the world of ordinary things around him.

By the mid-1920s, then, Fernand Léger's repertory—his whole batterie de l'art—was virtually complete. As can be seen in the MoMA show, he experiments briefly with surrealism in works like Mona Lisa with Keys (1930) and with more and more abstract forms. His backgrounds tend to become color-grounded, his figures less carefully modeled and often outlined in black. By the 1930s a certain fixed vocabulary of shapes and lines begins to creep in. His people seem to be made increasingly of standardized units—lips, eyes, noses, and forearms—and the human figure with metallic hair comes back repeatedly in only slightly altered versions. There's a pompous grandiosity about these pieces, as if Léger had lost his experimental curiosity and, with it, his enthusiasm, his bounce. It is as if some sense of mission, his duty as a self-consciously socialist "People's Artist," had started to contaminate the work and encourage him to repeat himself. Only the drawings in this period—like Old Gloves (1930) and the beautiful girl's face and hands in Fragment of a Face (1933)—reveal the old artisanal care.

There was, however, one redeeming last act. At the beginning of World War II, having been made the darling of France's socialist left, the nearly 60-year-old Léger fled from the Nazis to the United States. He'd always loved America. ("Bad taste," he wrote approvingly, "is a distinctive character of this country. Bad taste, strong colors.") And America had always been good to Léger, handing him not only recognition and exhibitions and patrons, but also a new access of energy on each of his previous visits. It was to be the same way again. At first he worked on a new series called The Divers (1941—44), based on the divers he had seen spinning into Marseilles harbor as he was leaving France. But then he turned to more specifically American themes—reflecting not on the angularity and clamor of the cities, as one might have expected, but on the jazzy, large-handed innocence of the people. A string of last great masterpieces had begun.

The first of these, The Big Julie (1945), suggested by a half-forgotten song of his youth, is a tribute to the great American outdoors in the shape of a monumental, short-skirted, flower-carrying cyclist. (He saw in America, he later wrote, "girls in sweaters, their skin a fiery hue, girls in shorts, dressed like circus acrobats.") The second masterpiece, Good-bye New York (1946), is a celebration of liberty and quite different. In it streams of red, white, and blue (like the "free" colors of the neon lights he saw in Times Square) flow across simplified, almost cartoonish shapes that point the way to Pop Art and the work of Roy Lichtenstein in particular. The third, Leisure, Homage to David (1948—49), which was painted in France after Léger's return, reevokes the world of Big Julie. It's a heraldic group portrait of what could well be Julie's (perhaps circus) family posing with bikes in the countryside. Doves of peace wheel overhead.

At this point—in both life and the exhibition—the series falters. It gives way to Construction Workers (1951), an idealized portrait in oil and ink versions of heroic pylon-workers. To me it seems not much better than socialist realism. (This, at a time when Léger was trying to persuade Stalin of the virtues of modern art and was about to marry his former student, Nadia Khodossievitch.) Only in the very last picture of his life, the huge Great Parade (1954), does Léger finally return to glorious form.

The Great Parade is like a culmination, a justification, of everything that's gone before. Once more a family of circus people—complete with horse—sit, stand, or loll across the center of the painting, some of them appearing to wave goodbye. And once more they are wrapped in flamboyant, undulating bands of spotlight color—red, orange, and green. The painting has its roots in the lost Eden of the Circus Medrano, which Léger painted 30 years before in Acrobats. But it is still, I think, an essential part of his American series. For this is how he described Americans: They had, he said, "the supple and smiling discipline of acrobats, of clowns, of animals." And that's exactly what's depicted here.

I stand in front of the huge mural-like painting for a while. Then I let myself out past a guard and go downstairs in the staff elevator. There's no one around to thank or say goodbye to. So as I walk across the plaza, I stop, look back up at the Centre Georges Pompidou, and say quietly: "C'est certainement costaud" ("It sure is beefy"). Always the tough peasant, this was Fernand Léger's favorite term of approval.

The Fernand Léger exhibition, which opened at Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou last spring, will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art from February 11 to May 19, 1998. 11 West 53rd Street, New York; 212-708-9400.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the Amalfi Coast in Departures' special Italian issue (September/October).