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Art Review

Getting a Clearer Picture of Purism

New LACMA exhibit sheds light on the movement that followed Cubism and that had an important impact on design.

April 30, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

The Purist movement in France is an episode in early 20th century Modern art that is less fully understood in its own right than vaguely acknowledged (when acknowledged at all) as having influenced subsequent important developments, especially in the field of design. Even its defining 1918 manifesto, "Apres le cubisme" ("After Cubism"), written by the painter Amedee Ozenfant and the painter and hugely important architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret--better known as Le Corbusier--was never translated into English.

That's one reason to greet with enthusiasm the exhibition "L'Esprit Nouveau: Purism in Paris, 1918-1925," which opened Sunday in the Anderson Building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show, deftly organized by LACMA curator Carol S. Eliel, is a survey at once concise and fulfilling. It features 68 paintings and drawings by Corbusier, Ozenfant and Fernand Leger, with Leger's great abstract film, "Ballet mecanique" ("Mechanical Dance," 1923-24), and a reconstruction of the main interior of Corbusier's career-making 1925 Pavilion of the New Spirit for a Paris world's fair. The exhibition lays out the Purist philosophy with a clarity and precision appropriate to the movement's own aim.

However, two other aspects of the Purist movement also make this show unusually timely. One is the central role played by an artist-architect.

As paintings, Corbusier's oils are not very appealing. But they're enormously interesting as theoretical excursions into territory that would find its most compelling expression in the built world of architecture. Corbusier and his work, although stylistically and conceptually different, are situated as an early 20th century model for the deeply art-informed architecture of L.A.'s Frank O. Gehry, who stands at the pinnacle of the profession today.

The second propitious feature of the show is the movement's emphatic grounding in theory. For Purism, in the beginning was the word, not the painting. As art today struggles against the repressive constraints of academic theory, which coincides with an art world now dominated by art school training, the example of Purism offers some revealing lessons.

Ozenfant was Purism's principal theorist. His pictures, like L.A. after a cleansing bout of Santa Ana winds, tend to be as dehydrated as those of Corbusier, his theorist-cohort. The surfaces are dry, the imagery transparent, the color muted. The main appeal is to your intellect.

Leger, on the other hand, was the least theory-besotted of the three. His pictures might vary in accomplishment, but they're never dull, dutiful or illustrative. There are reasons that his adventurous, wildly abstract short film, "Ballet mecanique," begins and ends with playful and amusing cutouts of Charlie Chaplin, whose tatty bowler hat, jaunty mustache and bamboo cane are immediately recognizable, despite Leger's Cubist-derived abstraction of the Little Tramp. The artist is interested in the history-making, tradition-shattering alterations of perception created by mechanization and the industrial art of film. But, he's also just a fan, bewitched by the visceral pleasure of going to the movies.

Leger saw in Purism something both intellectually profound and pragmatically useful for his material practice as a painter. It offered a relevant, exciting conceptual scaffolding for the experiential demands of successful art. In the exhibition, Leger's paintings practically blow Ozenfant's and Corbusier's off the walls.

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At LACMA, the evolution of the Purist idea begins with the almost love-hate relationship it established with Cubist painting. Ozenfant and Corbusier, like Picasso and Braque before them, made paintings that conceive of the canvas as a place of parallel reality, not illusion. Still-life is their most common subject. The association between gregarious sociability and cafe-related objects such as bottles, bowls, cups and musical instruments establishes the painting as a physical catalyst for human interaction.

Limited mostly to a range of browns and grays, the palette in these early Purist paintings is also derived from Cubism. The suppression of color is a suppression of sensuousness. Line is elevated instead, in forms whose crispness is enhanced by sharp edges, clean curves and clear planes of light. The life of the senses is superseded by the life of the mind.

If this indebtedness forms the "love" part of Purism's relationship to earlier Cubist painting, what's the "hate" part? In a word, classicism. For Ozenfant and Corbusier, a fluted wine bottle could easily morph into a Doric column, a tabletop arrangement into an approximation of the Pantheon or the Arch of Constantine. 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.

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