The Purist Movement was founded by Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret (hereafter referred to as Le Corbusier) and was part of the Return to Order Movement, in which artists attempted to repair the devastation caused by World War I. Purism was not only a backlash to the chaos of the war but also to the over-decoration of Cubism. In 1918, Ozenfant and Le Corbusier published Après le Cubisme (After Cubism), in which they claimed Cubism had become too ornamental. This excessive detail in Cubist art diverted people’s attention from the overall meaning of the artwork. Fernand Leger is one example of a Cubist who experimented with abstraction until he became disillusioned by the war and began searching for more meaning in his artwork. Leger remained separate from the other two Purists because he experimented with a variety of styles; however, his works directly after the war represent the Purist aim of discovering and conveying a deeper meaning that was lost during the war and Cubism. Purists attempted to simplify artwork to reform and rejuvenate post-war society.
Purists attempted to reform France by simplifying their artwork. Purist works included clean lines and lack of ornamentation as well as natural or primary colors that diverted from Cubist abstraction, allowing viewers to see the work as a whole rather than individual aspects of that piece of art. This simplistic design allowed Purist works to transcend time, because they lacked features that could be easily dated. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation also created order that was reminiscent of classical mathematical precision, which was important to the Purists who thought it was a way of reaching transcendence. Purism consisted of utopian ideals of uplifting people by appealing to them on a spiritual level through Purist artwork. The movement was intended to help restore and modernize France by appealing to people’s unconscious appreciation for order, which Purists exhibited through mathematical precision and balance.
Balance was an important theme in Purism. Purist artists attempted to reconcile the inherent differences between classical and modern artistic techniques to achieve balance in their artwork. For instance, they emphasized industrialism and modernization using classical methods and classical proportions, such as the golden ratio, to create mathematically precise artwork that glorified modern man. Not only does the use of classical proportions to depict modern themes create a balance between two diametrically opposing styles, classical and modern, but it also creates a physical balance inherent in classical proportions. Purists thought that by maintaining balance in their modern artwork through the use of classical techniques that they made their artwork mathematically precise.
Mathematical precision was used both as an artistic technique and as an artistic theme. Purists glorified modern machinery as well as industrial, mass produced products as a way of improving society by creating affordable and accessible objects. Because of their emphasis on mass produced items, and objects in general, Purists often painted still lifes, such as Ozenfant’s Guitar and Bottles. This painting contains ordinary, mass produced items which reflect the Purist emphasis on industrialism as well as mathematical precision. The generic looking guitar and bottles reflect the Purist emphasis on making peoples’ lives better and more comfortable through modernization and affordability. This painting also demonstrates the Purist glorification of geometry. For instance, the background appears to be a grid, dissecting the painting into vertical and horizontal lines, which allows the viewer to see the painting as a whole rather than focus on one aspect. This division of the painting makes it appear more balanced thus more orderly than Cubist abstraction. Ozenfant’s emphasis on patterns and regularity is demonstrated not only by the grid pattern but also by the recurring round shapes. Circles were considered perfect and orderly, so they represent the stability Purists were trying to attain after the war.
Purists embraced architecture as the most orderly form of art, in which they could modernize people by transforming their environment. Le Corbusier was more famous as a Purist architect than painter, and he was as renowned for his ideas about architecture as for his actual buildings. He designed the Maison Dom-Ino System to explore the possibilities of building prefabricated houses, so that they were aesthetically pleasing and functional. Le Corbusier intended to create affordable houses that were accessible to the public and would modernize France. He was concerned with maintaining balance and upholding Purist standards in his buildings, which is evidenced in his Five Points of Modern Architecture: a roof garden, a pilotis, a free plan, a free façade, and a strip of horizontal windows. Le Corbusier utilized these innovations in the Villa Savoye, in which he created balance that upheld Purist standards. For instance, the roof garden and windows created an illusion of being outside, which balanced modern technology with the natural world. Similarly, his free plan and free façade created a harmony between aesthetic and function as the rooms were spacious and versatile. Le Corbusier referred to his architecture as a machine for living, meaning that his buildings were intended to make the home more efficient as well as offer a comfortable escape from the harsh realities of post-war life.
Purist works were largely didactic, as they attempted to advise people about how to improve their lives after WWI, which is evidenced in The Mechanic by Leger. Because Leger experimented with other art movements, he was not as committed to Purism as Ozenfant and Le Corbusier; however, he actually fought in the war which gave him a different perspective than the other two artists. The Mechanic is one of Leger’s most famous Purist paintings. This painting is more refined than his Cubist paintings and reveals that Leger thought France should embrace modernization. The figure in the painting looks robotic, representing Leger’s admiration for modern mechanization. The figure in The Mechanic represents Leger’s version of a heroic male figure. Leger idealizes the figure by representing him with large muscles as well as assigning him a profession that deals with modernization. This figure is surrounded by an industrial city consisting of several geometric shapes, so that Leger uses Purist conventions to depict a modern man in a modern city. The prevalence of modernization in The Mechanic illustrates Leger’s belief that France should urbanize. He believed that urbanization would allow France to recuperate from the destruction caused by the war and hopefully protect the country from future devastation. Leger’s attempt to reform France through his artwork is important to Purism, because he is the first artist besides Ozenfant and Le Corbusier to take the movement seriously.
Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and Leger attempted to make France more innovative and modern after World War I. Although their artwork and subject matter sometimes differed, they used similar methods, such as clean lines and primary or natural colors, to portray Purist ideals of industrialism, balance, and mathematical precision. The purpose of their artwork was to re-emphasize meaning in art and revitalize a struggling country. They highly regarded their artwork as the catalyst that would enhance the lives of individuals which would in turn improve the condition of the nation.