Important Art by Fernand Léger
This painting was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 and is considered Léger's first major work showcasing his break from Impressionism and his alliance with Cubism, particularly in his monochromatic palette and his breaking of form into geometric shapes. Léger's focus on drawing and form rather than color also indicates his influence from Paul Cézanne. Léger's Cubism, however, was distinct from mainstream Cubism. Léger does not abandon three-dimensionality and volumetric form to the same degree as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque whose canvases from this period lack all but the merest illusion of space. Léger's interest in nature, his use of cylindrical form, and his focus on machine-like forms further distinguishes his work from that of other Cubists, while the latter aligns him with Italian Futurism, reflecting the period's optimism about the benefits of urbanization and an industrialized society. These unique qualities led the critic Louis Vauxcelles to dub Léger's style as "Tubism."
Contrast of Forms was a title given by Léger to a series of paintings completed between 1912 and 1914 in which the artist experimented with the boundaries between abstraction and representation, flatness and three-dimensionality, problems that would occupy him throughout his career. Léger shows his ability to represent volumetric form without the illusion of three dimensions, abstracting both human and mechanical forms. The works exemplify what Léger referred to as the "law of contrasts" in which the greatest opposition or dissonance in line, form, and color are sought. Like Picasso and Braque in their Synthetic Cubist phase, Léger also brings color into these works, particularly blue, red, and yellow; these were typically added very sparsely only after the line and without a smooth finish. These paintings were the first non-representational works to emerge from Cubism and seem to burst with volume and pattern, while giving an overall impression of floating shapes on a flat surface. The painting again exemplifies Léger's unique contribution to Cubism in its use of shading to depict spatial recession and his reliance on mechanical forms.
Léger worked on this painting as he was recovering from a gas attack during World War I. The work shows the continuing influence of Cézanne, who painted several canvases devoted to this subject matter in the 1890s, as well as Léger's burgeoning interest in the human figure after the trauma of his war experience that gave him an appreciation for ordinary men and crude reality. In referring to the work in 1954, Léger says it was an attempt "deliberately to extract subject from the times" and indeed the helmets and medals of the men mark them as soldiers. His interest in subject matter and three-dimensionality again sets him apart from other Cubists. His color palette remains largely primary and he continues to show his skill in depicting movement, which is highly advanced in The Card Players as the work almost appears as a film sequence.