By Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant
Charles Edouard Jeanneret, Still Life, 1920, 31 7/8 x 39 1/4 inches (MoMA)
A rational and scientific art
The Purists, Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (now better known as the architect Le Corbusier), rejected the image of the modern artist as an intuitive, expressive genius. In their view modern artists and their art should be rational and scientific, and Jeanneret’s Still Life shows exactly what they meant by that. It depicts a collection of man-made objects simplified into basic geometric forms: circles, cylinders, rectangles, and regular curves. These forms are precisely placed in a rhythmic composition that was organized using a pre-determined geometric system to achieve a harmonious balance. Colors are dark and muted to enhance the shapes of the objects without creating decorative distractions.
The painting is absolutely precise, with sharp, clear edges and unobtrusive brushwork. It has been purified of anything extraneous and accidental, and its parts create a perfectly ordered whole along horizontal and vertical axes. It is as if we are seeing each object in its ideal Platonic state in a conceptual geometric space, rather than from a human point of view that could change. The repeated perfect circles are clear indicators of this idealist perspective. They represent the forms of a white plate, the mouths of two glass bottles, the rim of a drinking glass, and two pipe bowls.
Pieter Claesz, Still-life with Wine Glass and Silver Bowl, 17th century, oil on panel, 42 x 59 cm, (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)
In a naturalistic still life, like the one above, these would be depicted as ellipses to indicate perspectival depth, but here they are drawn to show their true circular shape, without regard for how they might be perceived in real life. The lighting also indicates the painter’s disregard of naturalism. Lighting is used only to indicate the shape of the volumes; some objects are lit from the left, others from the right. There are no cast shadows, with the possible exception of the top of the guitar neck on the right, which has an echoing black geometric shape underneath it.
The Purists presented their paintings as the next stage of modern art’s evolution after Cubism. Purism replaced what they described as Cubism’s decorative, vague, and contingent forms with mathematically-designed compositions of perfected ideal forms. Purist paintings were, however, clearly indebted to Cubism, particularly the geometrically-organized paintings of Juan Gris. The guitar in Jeanneret’s Still Life was one of the Cubists’ favorite subjects, and Jeanneret used compositional rhymes throughout as Cubist painters often did.
Juan Gris, Guitar and Glasses, 1914, paper, gouache and crayon on canvas, 36 1/8 x 25 1/2 inches (MoMA)
As you can see, Juan Gris’s Cubist Guitar and Glasses creates a pattern of circles from glasses and the guitar’s sound hole, quite similar to the compositional use of circles in Jeanneret’s painting. The comparison of these two paintings also shows how the Purist painting rejects Cubist ambiguity in favor of solidly placed, fully depicted objects — note how many of Gris’ objects fragment and disappear into the background.
Purist still-life objects were not intended to represent the spatial ambiguities of three-dimensional objects presented on a two-dimensional plane; they were presented as “type objects.” These are objects — like plates, glasses, bottles and musical instruments — that humans have been making for generations and that have evolved through a process of mechanical selection and refinement to become pure economical forms.
Amédée Ozenfant, Still Life with Bottles, 1922, oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 38 1/4 inches (Los Angeles County Museum)
Unlike Cubism, which was invented, gradually refined, and reinvented by Picasso and Braque in the process of working, Purist theory preceded the creation of Purist artworks. In addition, individual Purist paintings were fully conceived before being made; they are rational constructions, not idiosyncratic personal expressions.
The Purists saw their art as both modern and classical. It was modern in its dedication to evolutionary science, industrial technology, and a machine-age aesthetic of economical forms. It was classical in its devotion to rationality and order. According to the Purists, the modern machine age was able to realize the goals and ideals of the Ancient Greeks — a perfectly harmonious society and environment.
Their paintings alluded to Ancient Greek models in their depiction of ideal platonic forms, their employment of the harmonious mathematical proportions used to build Greek temples like the Parthenon, and in their generalized references to Greek architectural forms. Ozenfant’s Still Life with Bottles is one of many Purist paintings that use faceted glassware to suggest the fluted columns of Classical architecture.
L’Esprit Nouveau No. 10 (July 1921), pages 1140 and 1141
The Purists communicated their ideas through their magazine, L’Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit), which was published from 1920 to 1925. In addition to essays on contemporary art and architecture, they published articles about modern music, literature, theater, politics, city planning, industrial practices, and recent scientific discoveries.
This broad scope demonstrated the Purists’ engagement with the developments of modern industrial society and the process of mechanical evolution. For them, all human-made objects, from paintings to architecture and machines, participated in the same fundamental evolution toward more efficient and rational forms. In one of his most famous essays from the Purist period, Jeanneret compared the evolution of Ancient Greek temple designs to that of modern automobiles, both of which became lighter and more efficient in terms of structure and use of materials.
Celebrating mass-produced objects
The Purists celebrated the efficiency of assembly-line production in modern factories and claimed that modern factory workers were proud of the well-designed, efficient objects they helped to produce. Purist paintings reflect this attitude in both subject matter and style. The same objects appear repeatedly in their paintings, as though mass-produced. In addition, the forms of the paintings rely on mechanical tools such as rulers, compasses, and french curves; tools that are associated with engineering and mass-production rather than with the fine art of painting.
Ozenfant and Jeanneret were the only true Purist artists, but Fernand Léger was closely associated with them during the early 1920s. He also embraced a machine aesthetic in his paintings and celebrated the achievements of modern technology and industry.
Fernand Léger, The Siphon, 1924, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 18 /18 inches (Albright-Knox Art Gallery)
The Siphon depicts modern glassware in simplified legible forms. The glass, siphon, and hand were derived from a contemporary newspaper advertisement for Campari, but Léger made them into anonymous refined objects and placed them against a background of ambiguous geometric forms and abstract rectangles. Although the style is notably different from that of the Purists in its greater abstraction and attention to bold graphic design through the extensive use of black, the subject matter and simplified forms of modern mass-produced objects is in explicit accord with Purist theories.
The Esprit Nouveau Pavilion
The most famous work associated with Purism was the Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the 1925 International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris. The Purists were one of several movements in the 1910s and 20s that sought to deploy their style not just in isolated individual works of art, but in total designed environments. Indeed, Jeanneret, under his pseudonym Le Corbusier, later became a renowned architect.
Reconstruction (replica) of the L’Esprit Nouveau Pavilion, constructed by Jose Oubrerie and Giuliano Gresleri in Bologna in 1977 (original, 1925 ) (photo: Steve Silverman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Ozenfant and Jeanneret conceived the Esprit Nouveau pavilion and its furnishings as a model of standardized industrial design for the masses. The building was to be made of inexpensive modern materials while the lighting fixtures and glassware were mass-produced items, the latter made for chemistry laboratories. Paintings by the Purists and Léger decorated the walls, their idealized compositions of abstracted objects the perfect complement to the basic geometric forms of the structure and its furnishings.
Purism reflected the optimistic attitudes of the post-World War I period of reconstruction in which France worked to rebuild its industries and war-torn land. The movement’s theories embraced machine-age industrial production and looked forward to an era of health and prosperity for the masses. In this modern age, Purist art was made to complement a rationally designed environment that efficiently met the needs of everyone.
Carol Eliel, L’Esprit Nouveau: Purism in Paris, 1918-1925. Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 2001.