Amedee Ozenfant, Father of Purism
By Luke Younger
Born in the year 1886 in France, Amedee Ozenfant was not only an artist, but was a racer of automobiles, and an avid student of Egyptian, Chinese, and Negro Art. However, Ozenfant is best known as a founding father of a school of art known as Purism. After becoming frustrated with many aspects of the Cubist school of art, Ozenfant developed and spread the idea of Purism through a number of manifestos and other publications. Skilled not only not only as an artist but as a writer, It was through these publications that Ozenfant developed a reputation as “one of the most provocative theoreticians of modern art.”1 Through correcting aspects of Cubism where Ozenfant believed the school had gone astray, and through the implementation of simplicity through mathematics and nature, Ozenfant sought to achieve the goal of art, which he believed was to “partake in the nature of happiness.”2
Despite being formerly associated with the Cubist school, Ozenfant separated himself as he found himself in ever increasing disagreement with the direction in which the school was heading. Openly attacking the school in one of his many contributions to the French publication L’ Espirit Nouveau, Ozenfant wrote that Cubism “had degenerated into nothing more than into a form of elaborate decoration.”3 Ozenfant explained this claim by stating, “Cubism has only showed their accidental aspects, to such an extent that on the basis of this erroneous idea it even re created arbitrary and fantastic forms.”2 By this Ozenfant means that Cubist painters have so completely skewed or exaggerated minor aspects of objects that the objects are no longer recognizable, and in the process the viewer is left with nothing to associate with. In other words, the art is good for nothing more than a decoration.
An example of this exaggeration of accidental aspects is captured in Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians, (1921). The work, just as the title suggests, is suppose to depict three musicians playing instruments. However, the only truly recognizable objects in the painting are 3 not- so- human figures, some type of flute, and a guitar. There is also sheet music, but the notes appear to be rising off of the paper and are suspended in midair. Just as Ozenfant noted that arbitrary and fantastic forms are created due to the abstraction, the musicians do not appear human their bodies are blended with tables, instruments, and the background. Perhaps the most arbitrary and fantastic element of this painting is the faces of the three musicians, which appear more extra-terrestrial than human. There is also no symmetry or mathematical qualities, which Ozenfant believed created peace and satisfaction for the viewer, as symmetry and mathematics are ultimately the one thing that viewers are most easily able to associate with. This is due to the fact that mathematics and symmetry make up nature, which surrounds us. All of these exaggerated and unrealistic features, paired with the lack of mathematical and geometric symmetry making up this work this work are examples of how Ozenfant believed Cubism had taken away the viewers ability to associate with a work of art, and in doing so leaving the viewer unable to partake in the nature of happiness.
Ozenfant believed that the ability to make familiar associations upon viewing art was centerpiece to the purpose of art itself. It is for this reason that so many of Ozenfant’s paintings depict realistic images of still life. Ozenfant states “To succeed in assuaging reality a work of art should respect the profound and innate sense in us of nature’s fundamental reactions, and not too much outrage them: for we are then led to compare the work with its subject, which brings us back to the literal reality.”2. Through accurately and realistically depicting objects Ozenfant achieves this respect for nature, and in the process does not create any arbitrary, fantastic, or erroneous forms. Many of Ozenfant’s ideas concerning symmetry are based on the Greek Fibonacci numbers, which attribute symmetry to nature. “Biological systems, though operating at the edge of chaos, are extremely ordered.”4 Ozenfant, in a publication of L’ Espirit Nouveau, illustrated this idea by using the example of a bees building perfectly symmetrical cone nests.
Next, Ozenfant explored the idea of machines taking part in natural selection just as the order of nature is determined by natural selection. However, Ozenfant uses the term “mechanical selection”2 to describe this evolution of machines. “Mechanical selection began with the with the earliest times and from those times provided objects whose general laws have endured; only the means of making them changed, the rules endured.”2 Therefore just as the strongest organisms survive in natural selection, the most efficient and strongest machines survive in the world. Ozenfant believed common tools such as glasses, bottles, and instruments to be some of these timeless machines, so much so that they are almost extensions of the human body. It is then that machines and nature coexist in mathematical and symmetrical harmony, which is why so many attribute Ozenfant’s ideas as contributions to a return to order after the war.
All of these ideas are illustrated in Ozenfant’s Guitare et Bouteilles, 1920. This is truly a stereotypical Purist work, as the key subjects of the panting are still life. Specifically, there is a guitar and bottles. There is also a slender glass as well as several other geometric figures. The color of the painting conforms to the ideals of the Purists, as each shape in the work is clearly defined by a distinct and natural color. There are also obvious planes of geometry, separated by horizontal lines. Different items in the painting rest on these various geometric planes.
Ozenfant chooses to depict a guitar and bottles not only in this work, but also in many other paintings, as they are his way of incorporating machines that in his eyes have become part of nature, as extensions of the human body. Ozenfant respects the nature of these items, and illustrates the objects so that they are easily recognizable and do not create erroneous forms like the Cubists. The viewer is now able to make associations with previous personal encounters or experiences. It was through these simplifications and modifications to the Cubist school that Ozenfant developed a new way of Painting, a technique in which the viewer is able to participate in the nature of happiness upon viewing and making associations with the work.
1-Arnason, H.H., and Marla F. Prather. History of Modern Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1998.
2- Harrison, Wood, Charles, Paul. Art In Theory, 1900-2000. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1992.
3- Preaching Painter.” Time 32, no. 1 (July 4, 1938): 28. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 27, 2012).
4- Hill, V. J., & Rowlands, P. (2008). Nature’s Code. AIP Conference Proceedings, 1051(1), 117-126. doi:10.1063/1.3020651