Since paint and canvas were hard to obtain at the front, Léger produced ink and pencil sketches such as the present work whenever possible, sometimes even piecing together collages of torn paper onto the back of empty ammunition boxes. He drew his subjects from his new and chaotic surroundings. The scale of World War I had created a completely different relationship between men and machines, and close daily contact with artillery pieces began to alter Léger’s own perception: “I felt the body of metal in my hands and allowed my eye to stroll in and around the reality of objects. I thought back again on my first abstract studies and a quite different idea concerning the means, the use and the application of abstract art took root in my mind” (quoted in André Verdet, Fernand Léger et le dynamism pictural, Geneva, 1955).
Executed on a military postcard in October 1916 at Verdun, where Léger was serving as a stretcher-bearer and the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war, Le Soldat à Verdun depicts a soldier at rest, leaning against the obusier—or howitzer, a cannon with a comparatively short barrel that was used for firing shells at steep angles—that he manned. The artist’s treatment of volume and the figure in particular presages that of his most celebrated paintings of the period, Soldier with a Pipe (1916) (see fig. 1) and The Card Players (1917), both of which were executed away from the trenches whilst the artist was on leave or convalescing, and marks the beginning of Léger’s "mechanical period," during which the figures and objects he painted were characterized by sleekly rendered tubular and machine-like forms.
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