Artworks and Artists of Purism

Progression of Art
Le Corbusier: Still Life (1920)

Still Life

Artist: Le Corbusier

This relatively early Purist work shows a number of objet types, including a string instrument, two bottles, a stack of white plates, and a funnel, arranged in an orderly composition to emphasize the solidity of the elementary forms. These objects, taken from the kitchen, the living room, and the building fixtures, are depicted without any extraneous detail to create a modern aesthetic that reflects both functionality and a rational environment. The architectonic influence is apparent in the columnar neck of the instrument and the arrangement of the plates, as the top plate, its white oval turned toward the viewer, resembles an industrial duct, an effect enhanced by the tubing in the lower center. As a result, the painting is unified by its architectural structure, as the background rectangles of walls and window are echoed by the plane of the foreground and the serene volume of a building block in the lower center of the canvas. The painting embodies what art historian Kenneth Frampton has called Purism's "iconic ethos." The objects become dignified, even stately, conveying the artist's view that the mass productions of the modern world were aesthetically beautiful.

The palette, as art critic Christopher Knight wrote is "also derived from Cubism...Line is elevated instead, in forms whose crispness is enhanced by sharp edges, clear curves, and clear planes of light. The life of the senses is superseded by the life of the mind." Le Corbusier's paintings have been primarily studied, Knight noted, as "theoretical excursions into territory that would find its most compelling expression in the built world of architecture."

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Juan Gris: Bottle and Fruit Bowl (1920)

Bottle and Fruit Bowl

Artist: Juan Gris

This still life shows a number of objects, including a bottle, a glass, and a fruit bowl situated on a pedestal, arranged on the intersecting geometric planes of a table. Hues reflect the color palette of Synthetic Cubism with warm tones of red, yellow, and brown contrasting with cooler greens and blues. Employed in broad areas that are delineated as if they were cut outs, the color fields create a bold graphic effect that also suggests collage. Relationships between geometric angles and shapes take center stage, further emphasized by color. The vibrant interaction between the objects reflects the café as a locus of social interaction.

While not completely identified with the Purist movement, Gris' development of his Cubist works around 1920 and beyond led to his exhibiting with the movement. Simplifying Cubism's multiple fractured planes in favor of an emphasis on geometric planes, he began composing objects to a unified effect on a flattened pictorial plane. Ozenfant and Le Corbusier viewed his work as reflecting the Purist impulse in Cubism and as an important precursor that lent validity to their own movement. Accordingly, Gris' work was included in the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau in 1925.

Oil on canvas - Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Germany

Amédée Ozenfant: Nature morte (Still Life) (1920-21)

Nature morte (Still Life)

Artist: Amédée Ozenfant

This painting, emphasizing a few objects, a guitar's body, a musical instrument's neck, and three bottles against a background of grey, white, and nearly-black planes, reflects Purism's emphasis on the solidity and simplicity of formal elements. Unlike traditional still life, which often included plants, flowers, and organic forms, this work focuses on an entirely manufactured environment. The dark bottle and light glass in the foreground are shown in profile while their openings are shown from above, a Cubistic treatment transformed into Purism's emphasis on geometry in the repeating circles.

Ozenfant employs his distinctive architectural allusions, as art historian Kenneth Silver wrote, "although the extreme abstraction of Purist paintings - the compression of space, simplification of forms, implied transparencies - accounts for their 'modern look', a rather old-fashioned notion of hierarchies (specifically, Charles Blanc and André Michel's academic concept of architecture as the primary discipline from which the other arts descend) endows the paintings with their monumental sense of wholeness. Ozenfant's forms, particularly the fluted bottles and glasses he painted so often, begin to resemble Roman arcades and Doric columns." As a result, as Christopher Knight wrote, "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." At the same time, aesthetic value is conferred upon these manufactured objects, as if they were a modernist equivalent of the classical ideal.

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

Amédée Ozenfant: Nature morte au verre de vin rouge (Still Life with Glass of Red Wine) (1921)

Nature morte au verre de vin rouge (Still Life with Glass of Red Wine)

Artist: Amédée Ozenfant

This still life depicting a guitar, a pitcher, bottles, a glass of red wine, a carafe, and several architectural motifs flattens and fills the pictorial plane, creating an orderly unification of foreground and background. The transparent forms overlap creating strong contours and silhouettes that emphasize the formal qualities of the objects rather than any play of light. The color palette is restrained, reflecting Purism's emphasis on structural form rather than decorative color, as Ozenfant strove for an effect of cool rationality. As art historian Lucy Flint noted, his approach "resulted in compositions that are lucid and geometric."

Purism's movement toward emphasizing the contours of volumetric shapes, becomes more emphasized here, as some of the objects overlap, with the result that they create new formal relationships with the geometric planes in front of and behind them.

Oil on canvas - Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland


Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner)

Artist: Fernand Léger

This work depicting three nudes, two of them in the reclining position of an odalisque, in a modern living room replete with ordinary objects, mechanizes and fragments the human figure in order to emphasize the interplay of geometric form. The artist's geometric order, created by a plethora of contrasts between rectangles, squares, circles, and triangles, conveys the dynamic stimulation of modern life, while his depiction of the human form takes on the cylindrical and conical volumes of modern industry. A sense of polished solidity is conveyed, a moment of geometric poise, as if the engine of modern life were caught in one fragmented instance.

In 1920 Léger's work began to reflect the influence of Purism, as he simplified the elements of his composition in favor of a geometric repose that reflected the era's "return to order." As art critic Christopher Knight wrote, he "saw in Purism something both intellectually profound and pragmatically useful for his material practice as a painter. It offered a relevant, exciting conceptual scaffolding." His figurative treatments, here revisiting a traditional subject of Western art, and his bold color palette were a unique contribution to Purism. This work contains elements of both Purist still life, as seen in the objects arranged on the small table, and architectural motifs, as seen in the industrial like cylinders and cones of the human figure, but translated into his unique and powerful idiom, as Knight noted of a 2001 exhibition of the three Purists, "Léger's paintings practically blow Ozenfant's and Corbusier's off the walls."

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Mural Painting

Artist: Fernand Léger

This painting employs ascending red, blue, black, grey and white rectangles to emphasize the vertical energy of the pictorial plane. Most of the shapes are geometrically regular, while the exceptions - the contoured blue vertical on the right and the red vertical in the lower third of the painting - have a silhouette effect. At the same time, two blue rectangles create horizontal movement, reflecting what the artist called "the law of contrasts," so that the forms seem to overlap, receding or expanding in space.

Léger's use of strong color, and his movement toward abstraction were innovative contributions to Purism. Abandoning the mass-produced object, he turned to "pure colors and geometric forms," and envisioned them as monumental murals for public settings saying, "Abstraction requires large surfaces, walls. There one can organize an architecture and a rhythm." He showed his first mural paintings in the 1925 Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau. He would go on to create these types of "paintings in space" for such iconic buildings as the United Nations Headquarters in New York and private clients such as his fireplace piece for Nelson A. Rockeller.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Purism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 25 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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