Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917) by Fernand Leger
Interpretation of Abstract Cubist/Tubist Painting
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Soldiers Playing at Cards
(The Card Party)
By Fernand Leger.
Regarded as one of the
great 20th century paintings.

Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917)

Contents

Description
Background
Analysis of Soldiers Playing at Cards
Post-war Classical Revival

Description

Name: Soldiers Playing at Cards (The Card Party) (1917)
Artist: Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Style: Tubism
Location: Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


ART EVALUATION
For analysis of works
by Cubist artists like
Fernand Leger, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Background

A major contributor to modern art in France, Fernand Leger dabbled with Impressionism before turning to abstract art, under the influence of the Parisian avant-garde, amongst whom Analytical Cubism was all the rage. Thus, from about 1910, his painting began to incorporate familiar Cubist features, such as the deconstruction of objects into geometric shapes, a monochrome palette, and so on. And in due course he gained a reputation as the fourth member of Cubism, after Picasso (1881-1973), Braque (1882-1963) and Juan Gris (1887-1927). But Leger's style of Cubism was different to the mainstream idiom invented by Picasso and Braque, and favoured by the Section d'Or Cubist Group. To begin with, he rejected the flat, overlapping fragments used by other Cubist painters, preferring to use cylindrical and spherical forms, not unlike those seen in some of the late works of Cezanne (1839-1906). See for instance his masterpiece, Nudes in the Forest (1909-10, Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo). It was these cylindrical motifs that led to his style being dubbed "Tubism". He also maintained a strong emphasis on drawing as well as narrative. For example, due to his fascination with machines and their huge potential to improve society, he later introduced into his paintings a growing range of motifs involving machinery and other mechanical symbols of industrial activity, all of which drew him closer to the Futurism movement which was being developed in Paris by Marinetti (1876-1944), Severini (1883-1966) and others.

 

 

Analysis of Soldiers Playing at Cards by Fernand Leger

Leger's painting "Soldiers Playing at Cards" - also sometimes referred to as "The Card Party", or "The Card Players" - illustrates his transition into this 'mechanical' period. Based on sketches of his fellow infantrymen, it was painted while he was hospitalized in Paris after being gassed during the Battle of Verdun, and remains the largest and best-composed of his war paintings. On the surface, there is nothing especially tragic about the work, although it does reflect the deep affinity he felt for his army comrades - a feeling which changed his attitude both to life and art. Above all, it reflects his fascination with the mechanization of war, and what he called the "strange beauty" of machine guns and howitzers.

Although it is difficult at first to identify them, the picture depicts three soldiers sitting around a table playing cards. The most prominent of them (left) wears a medal on his chest, along with the traditional red hat of the French army, which Leger depicts simultaneously from two different viewpoints, in true Cubist style. The head, arms and torso of the man are shown as though they are constituent parts of a geometrical machine. The second card player (centre) is a sergeant, judging by the stripes on his uniform. He too wears a red cap and smokes a pipe while holding his cards in his left hand. Player number three (right) is represented in darker tones and wears a steel helmet instead of a cap. He also has a pipe, but the smoke it emits is depicted as having a solid geometrical form, rather than the vaporous quality of a gas.

Leger's deconstruction of all three card players into geometrical parts of a machine is his way of alluding to both the mechanical nature of trench warfare and to the anonymity of its participants. He transforms his comrades into faceless and expressionless entities - albeit still identifiable as individuals through personal items like a pipe, a cap and sergeant's stripes - devoid of any human feeling. Combined with the dominant palette of metallic grey, it is this absence of feeling that defines this work and turns it into a powerful but undemonstrative critique of the consequences of war.

Post-war Classical Revival

After the war, Leger continued to use machinelike forms in his pictures, but his figure painting became gradually less abstract. This was in line with the Classical Revival in modern art, which spread throughout France and Italy during the late 1910s and early 1920s.

His own contribution to the return to classicism is illustrated by paintings like The Mechanic (1920), Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921); as well as Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel) and his late work Two Sisters (1935, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin).

Picasso was another painter who also explored the art of classical antiquity, although he used more overt references to the antique than Leger. The most notable neoclassical paintings by Picasso include Two Nudes (1906); Seated Woman (Picasso) (c.1920); Large Bather (1921); as well as Two Women Running on the Beach (1922).

 

• For the meaning of other Cubist-style paintings, see: Homepage.


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