Fernand Leger’s Soldiers Playing Cards exemplifies his goal as an artist to create works inspired by his specific moment in time, whilst also expressing his personal take on Cubism. The consequence is this unique, celebrated painting which portrays simultaneously, the human and the machine in the context of World War I. In this article, Singulart discusses Soldiers Playing Cards in the context of Leger’s life and artistic quest.
Who was Fernand Leger?
Fernand Léger (1881-1955) was a French painter, sculptor and filmmaker. Born in Argentan, Normandy, Léger grew up on his father’s cattle farm. Between 1897 and 1899 he trained as an architect before moving to Paris in 1900 and completing military service in Versailles in 1902-3. He began painting seriously at the age of 25 and his first works were influenced by the Impressionists and the Fauvists. After seeing the Cezanne retrospective in 1907, his work became more focused on geometry and on the representation of a three-dimensional object on a two dimensional support.
In 1910 he exhibited alongside the Cubist’s at the Salon d’Automne, although he described his own form of Cubism as “Tubism” as he was more preoccupied with cylindrical forms than flat planes. From this point his works became increasingly abstract as he pushed the boundaries of Cubism into pure abstraction. Léger was mobilized in 1914 and like many artists of his generation, World War One had a profound effect on his subsequent works: they became more mechanical and returned to a more formal subject matter. Léger’s interest in modernity also led him to develop a passion for filmmaking and he designed the sets for several films. During World War Two he moved to the USA and taught at Yale. Upon his return to France in 1945 he joined the Communist Party and his work became more figurative. Despite oscillating between abstraction and figuration throughout his entire career, Léger’s goal was always to prioritize the object over the subject, as is demonstrated in Nudes in the Forest.
What’s happening in The Card Players?
Léger was conscripted in 1914, at the start of World War I and deployed to the front to build the trenches. During this time he made multiple sketches that he later used for inspiration for Soldiers Playing Cards , which he painted on convalescence in Paris, while recovering from a gas attack. Soldiers Playing Cards depicts a group of soldiers playing cards in an abstract, machine-like environment. The soldiers are identifiable only by their helmets and arms, the figures are otherwise fragmented into cylindrical forms, so they seem to resemble robots or machines more than men. The background, in shades of silver and grey, also adds to the illusion of being inside a machine, whilst the interlocking forms and geometrical shapes add a sense of movement to the composition. Aside from the grey, Leger chose a palette of mostly primary colours for the rest of the composition.
In Soldiers Playing Cards Leger combines the subject matter of war, with the aesthetic of the machine and his unique style of Cubism. With the influence of Cezanne’s paintings from the 1890’s, Leger sought “deliberately to extract subject from the times”. Indeed, Leger was heavily influenced by his contemporary moment, to such an extent that he would become a precursor for pop-art. He stated: “Let us gaze wide-eyed at present-day life, which rolls, moves and over-flows alongside us.” This sense of movement and indeed the fast pace of life as a soldier is vividly expressed in the dynamic composition of Soldiers Playing Cards. Leger’s experience on the front and his exposure to the harsh juxtaposition of machinery alongside the loss of human life is expressed in Soldiers Playing Cards, where man and machine become indistinguishable from one another.
The Card Players exemplifies Leger’s personal style of Cubism that came to be known as Tubism, a label coined by a French critic. Similarly to Cubism, Leger fragmented the compositional elements in order to incorporate a variety of viewpoints into one. However, Leger developed this further by using mainly cylindrical and conical forms and including a sense of three-dimensionality to his work that aptly expresses the movement and chaos of the dynamic subject matter. Consequently, with Soldiers Playing Cards, Leger succeeds in evoking the complexities of his contemporary moment and of the warfare that characterised it. By combining the subject of soldiers playing cards with his machine-like, fragmented, Cubist style, the viewer gets a sense of the chaos of the experience and the contrast between the relentless machine and the fragility of man. Leger stated: “My experiences at the front and the daily contact with machines led to the change which marked my painting” and this change can clearly be seen in Soldiers Playing Cards.