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With the Purist Intentions

After Cubism, two artists sought a pared-down aesthetic. LACMA revisits the overlooked period.

April 22, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer.

Artistic movements nearly always spring from a desire to throw out the old and bring in the new. That's certainly true of Purism, a post-World War I, Paris-based movement that promoted an aesthetic of refinement and clarification.

The founders of Purism, artists Amedee Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known by his pseudonym, Le Corbusier), titled their manifesto "Apres le cubism" ('After Cubism") and dismissed their Cubist predecessors' work as outdated decoration. Then they laid down "the laws" of the new, up-to-date movement. What was needed, they wrote, was a rigorous, precise, pure art attuned to the science and industry that permeated modern life.

Ozenfant and Jeanneret were so dedicated to their ideal and collaborated so closely that "they" became "we," Ozenfant later wrote. The movement ran its course in seven years, from 1918 to 1925, but Ozenfant's zeal to make every aspect of his life conform to the tenets of Purism was so intense that he later referred to that phase of his career as his "period of vacuum-cleaning."

"It's the perfect metaphor for this sensibility," says Carol Eliel, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The artists really were trying to pare down and peel off and get rid of the excess." And their efforts weren't confined to painting. "They made no distinction between art, architecture, design and urban planning. Everything existed in a totality," she says.

The French magazine L'Esprit Nouveau (the New Spirit), published from 1920 to 1925, espoused the Purists' philosophy. Eliel has adopted the title for "L'Esprit Nouveau: Purism in Paris, 1918-1925," an exhibition that opens next Sunday at LACMA.

The show features 65 paintings and works on paper by Ozenfant, Jeanneret and their closest colleague, painter Fernand Leger. It also boasts an unusual architectural centerpiece: a full-scale, walk-in reconstruction of the main room of the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau (Pavilion of the New Spirit) in Paris' 1925 International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts. The pavilion was designed by Le Corbusier, who adopted his pseudonym in 1920 and used it exclusively after 1923.

In terms of laying Cubism to rest, the Purists were notably unsuccessful. Today, Cubism is seen as a seminal movement of Modernism; Purism has settled into relative obscurity. Although well known to scholars as a manifestation of the rational impulse that followed Cubism, it has been overshadowed by the more provocative, irrational movements of Dada and Surrealism, which developed around the same time.

That made Purism fertile territory for Eliel, but the exhibition didn't come from a desire to revive a moribund movement. Her initial inspiration was a painting in the museum's permanent collection, Ozenfant's "Still Life With Bottles."

"It's a wonderful Ozenfant, a fascinating picture," Eliel says of the 1922 painting. Exemplifying Purist ideals, the predominantly blue and gray composition merges traditional still-life objects with architectural forms and references to modern industry. The overlapping cluster of bottles and drinking glasses can be read as architectural columns and smoke-stacks.

As much as Eliel liked the picture, she realized she knew little about its creator and the rest of his work. She began filling that gap-with the thought of developing an exhibition of his work-on a trip to Paris in 1995. She was working on a different show, but she visited the gallery that represents Ozenfant's estate and began "poking around a bit," she says. "What became quite clear was that the interesting years of his career were between 1918 and 1925, and that the evolution of his work during that period was intimately connected with Le Corbusier. They were working as closely together during those years as Picasso and Braque did when they were developing Cubism, so I decided to focus on Purism per se."

She could have taken a broad view, by including works by many more artists, such as French painter Jean Helion, and by taking note of related movements, including American Precisionism and its leading practitioner, Charles Sheeler. Instead, Eliel decided to "take a narrow slice and look at it in depth, to give people something to really get their teeth into," she says.

That left her with the three core Purists: Ozenfant (1886-1966), who is mainly known as a Purist painter and theorist; Le Corbusier (1887-1965), an enormously influential architect who painted throughout his career but mostly as a private activity; and Leger (1881-1955), who completed some of his best-known paintings-including "The Mechanic" and "Three Women (Le Grand dejeuner)'-during his Purist phase and continued to exemplify Purism's so-called machine aesthetic on a monumental scale.

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