Summary of Purism
A decade after Cubism rocked the art world with its deconstruction of subject matter into simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes, Edouard Jeanneret (known as the modern architect Le Corbusier) and Amédée Ozenfant tweaked its lexicon for use in French painting and architecture. They coined this fresh variant Purism, which at its most basic function, proposed a new kind of art in which objects were represented as powerful forms devoid of any extraneous detail. They published this stripped down theory in their 1918 book Après le Cubisme (After Cubism). As the movement formally developed in the period following World War I, it is also viewed as part of Interwar Classicism, a movement that emphasized classical principles as a "return to order" of social and cultural forces.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Purism reduced subject matter to the relationships of its geometric angles and shapes, further emphasized through color toward a unified effect. These "pure" forms were composed of their intrinsic qualities and absent of any representational meaning. This infiltrated all aspects of the arts including painting, design, and architecture.
- Along with the burgeoning advent of technology and the machine age, Purist artists aimed to infuse mechanical and industrial subject matter with a timeless quality. This influenced work in which shapes were lent references to ancient, classical forms absent of decoration or additional ornamentation.
- The still life painting became a popular form of articulating Purist philosophies. In this genre, artists would take objet types, or reproducible everyday objects from their own environments, and reduce them to aesthetically pleasing, shapes and forms that emphasized the simple beauty of the modern world.
- Short lived, Purism climaxed at Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau (Pavilion of the New Spirit), built in 1925 for the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris (the exhibition was very large, and ironically, it was the birth of Art Deco movement). A perfect time capsule of the movement, the exhibition presented Le Corbusier, Ozenfant, Fernand Léger, alongside Cubists Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz, after which Ozenfant and Le Corbusier ended their partnership.
- Purism rejected the over-embellishment that was signature to the society's bourgeois notion of beauty at the time. The movement, and in particular Le Corbusier's advocacy for the simplification and modulation of form, would go on to influence generations of artists and architects interested in mass production and classical order in art, building, design, and even the construction of city plans.
Overview of Purism
Le Corbusier, the founding father of Purism, is a contentious figure. He has been presented as both a "fascist-leaning ideologue whose plans for garden cities were inspired by totalitarian ideals, and a humanist who wanted to improve people's living conditions". Nevertheless, the art and architecture he created alongside Amédée Ozenfant was revolutionary.
Important Art and Artists of Purism
This relatively early Purist work shows a number of objet types, including a string instrument, two bottles, a stack of white plates, and a funnel, arranged in an orderly composition to emphasize the solidity of the elementary forms. These objects, taken from the kitchen, the living room, and the building fixtures, are depicted without any extraneous detail to create a modern aesthetic that reflects both functionality and a rational environment. The architectonic influence is apparent in the columnar neck of the instrument and the arrangement of the plates, as the top plate, its white oval turned toward the viewer, resembles an industrial duct, an effect enhanced by the tubing in the lower center. As a result, the painting is unified by its architectural structure, as the background rectangles of walls and window are echoed by the plane of the foreground and the serene volume of a building block in the lower center of the canvas. The painting embodies what art historian Kenneth Frampton has called Purism's "iconic ethos." The objects become dignified, even stately, conveying the artist's view that the mass productions of the modern world were aesthetically beautiful.
The palette, as art critic Christopher Knight wrote is "also derived from Cubism...Line is elevated instead, in forms whose crispness is enhanced by sharp edges, clear curves, and clear planes of light. The life of the senses is superseded by the life of the mind." Le Corbusier's paintings have been primarily studied, Knight noted, as "theoretical excursions into territory that would find its most compelling expression in the built world of architecture."
This still life shows a number of objects, including a bottle, a glass, and a fruit bowl situated on a pedestal, arranged on the intersecting geometric planes of a table. Hues reflect the color palette of Synthetic Cubism with warm tones of red, yellow, and brown contrasting with cooler greens and blues. Employed in broad areas that are delineated as if they were cut outs, the color fields create a bold graphic effect that also suggests collage. Relationships between geometric angles and shapes take center stage, further emphasized by color. The vibrant interaction between the objects reflects the café as a locus of social interaction.
While not completely identified with the Purist movement, Gris' development of his Cubist works around 1920 and beyond led to his exhibiting with the movement. Simplifying Cubism's multiple fractured planes in favor of an emphasis on geometric planes, he began composing objects to a unified effect on a flattened pictorial plane. Ozenfant and Le Corbusier viewed his work as reflecting the Purist impulse in Cubism and as an important precursor that lent validity to their own movement. Accordingly, Gris' work was included in the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau in 1925.
This painting, emphasizing a few objects, a guitar's body, a musical instrument's neck, and three bottles against a background of grey, white, and nearly-black planes, reflects Purism's emphasis on the solidity and simplicity of formal elements. Unlike traditional still life, which often included plants, flowers, and organic forms, this work focuses on an entirely manufactured environment. The dark bottle and light glass in the foreground are shown in profile while their openings are shown from above, a Cubistic treatment transformed into Purism's emphasis on geometry in the repeating circles.
Ozenfant employs his distinctive architectural allusions, as art historian Kenneth Silver wrote, "although the extreme abstraction of Purist paintings - the compression of space, simplification of forms, implied transparencies - accounts for their 'modern look', a rather old-fashioned notion of hierarchies (specifically, Charles Blanc and André Michel's academic concept of architecture as the primary discipline from which the other arts descend) endows the paintings with their monumental sense of wholeness. Ozenfant's forms, particularly the fluted bottles and glasses he painted so often, begin to resemble Roman arcades and Doric columns." As a result, as Christopher Knight wrote, "Purism shifted the avant-garde orientation of Cubist painting toward the past - specifically toward the neoclassical tradition so prominent in French painting for 300 years." At the same time, aesthetic value is conferred upon these manufactured objects, as if they were a modernist equivalent of the classical ideal.
Useful Resources on Purism
- Foundations of Modern ArtBy Amédée Ozenfant
- OzenfantBy Amédée Ozenfant
- Le Corbusier Before le Corbusier: Architectural Studies, Interiors, Painting and Photography, 1907-1922By Stanislaus van Moos and Arthur Ruegg
- Fernand Léger (MoMA Artists Series)By Carolyn Lanchner and Fernand Léger
- With the Purist IntentionsBy Suzanne Muchnic / Los Angeles Times / April 22, 2001
- Getting a Clearer Picture of PurismOur PickBy Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California / April 30, 2001
- Le Corbusier's Architecture and His Politics Are RevisitedBy Rachel Donadio / The New York Times / July 12, 2015
- William N. Copley on Serge CharchouneBy William N. Copley / Artnews / February 19, 2016