Birthed at the threshold of Cubism and directly influenced by the same, Purism was a fleeting but groundbreaking art movement that dominated French art and architecture between 1918 and 1925. The movement was the brainchild of the renowned Swiss-French architectural luminary, Le Corbusier and the French Cubist Painter, Amédée Ozenfant.
As the name quite explicitly suggests, Purism Art Movement was a crisp stand-in for pure and unadulterated forms; the rudimentary and basic forms that were stripped bare of any details or embellishments. The Purists believed in simplicity and geometry that was devoid of distractions. They were driven by the idea that the modern artist must be driven by the scientific and the rational as opposed to being intuitive and expressive—depicting works that showcased an object for being what it truly is at its elemental.
Behind Purism Art Movement
As aforementioned, Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier founded the Purism Art Movement in 1920 and had conceived it as a criticism of Cubism, though rooted in the same.
Much of the pragmatic and straightforward front that this movement seems to possess can be understood by the context in which it was formulated—a post-World War I France that was torn apart by War. Initially conceptualized as a movement of art, Purism was soon perceived as a tool that could also be easily accommodated into the field of architecture; an implication that had played a key role in pushing Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) as one of the greats in the field of architecture.
The Purism Art Movement was intended to restore a sense of regularity and stability in France that had then been ravaged by war. There was the need to help establish methods and forms that would help the country to quickly and efficiently carry out restorations. As seen with the approach followed by many countries of the time, Purism too began by drawing inspirations from the Classical Order backed by the addition of Industrialization. Thus, Purism accepted the ‘order’ offered by Classical works such as the Parthenon and the ‘efficiency’ that modern technology and mass production put forth.
Purism – An Artistic Take
More often than not, works made under the Purism Art Movement have close calls with being confused as a work of Cubism. Though works of the two art movements seem similar at a glance, the semblance is purely superficial. Despite being overtaken by its forerunner on the grounds of popularity, works of Purism though not as sought-after, do have a distinct appearance to call their own.
Most works of the Purism Art Movement have an austere sense of idealism. As depicted in the above comparison of the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Le Corbusier, it can be deduced that works of Purism are crisp and precise, possessing a muted and almost soft palette. The compositions of Purist paintings often depict the object in their ideal elemental states, with simple geometrical circles, rectangles and undulating curves, registering as a truer representation of their original forms.
Most objects are aligned to the vertical and horizontal axes of the canvas and composition is devoid of shadows to draw attention to the subject of the paintings—the objects in their ideal state. They do not represent anything more that leaves a viewer open to interpret what they could mean—only objects in their truest form.
Cubism, on the other hand, is prone to unpredictability and open to the whims of the viewer, with bright colours, artistic brushstrokes and soft edges, it is a far cry from the works of Purism.
Purism – An Architectural Take
The Purism Art Movement had rendered itself in architecture with the same idea of simple forms and geometries as seen with its artistic counterpart. Unlike the artistically crafted version of the Movement, the influence of the works of the Classical Era is more pronounced in the architectural works of this period.
The Purist Art Movement rejected the over-embellishment and the lavish glamourized spaces flaunted by the French bourgeoisie. Apart from the architectural works of the founding father, Le Corbusier, the Crematorium in Nymburk by the Czech architect Bedřich Feuerstein is a classic example of a Purist work. It showcases atypically large but simultaneously simple elements with the elegant repetition offered the peripteral, a feature of Ancient Greek Architecture.
This sketch by Bedřich Feuerstein shows how the Purists accommodated simple lines and curves to create a composition of a structure with ample attention given to the overall simplicity that the structure was to portray.
The above visualization of an unrealized theatre in Brno, Prague by the Czech Architect Josef Chochol depicts spacious expanses of floating glass facade masterfully paired with rectilinearity. The large low-lying dome gives a slight nod to neoclassicism depicting the influence that Purism Art Movement would have on Modern Architecture and other movements like Eclecticism.
Circulation of the Purism Art Movement
Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier had extensively publicized their ideas along with that of poet Paul Dermée through the publication of L’Esprit Nouveau Magazine that circulated from 1920 and 1925 and discussed various artistic disciplines.
To ensure that the movement was carried with precision, Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier had enlisted a manifesto in addition to their discussions within the magazine. Much of the rules enlisted in the manifesto reinstated the conciseness of the Purism Art Movement, its rejection of ornamentation and representation of an element at its roots.
Another means of circulating ideas of Purism was through numerous exhibitions of the period, the most notable of which was the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts (1925). The same hosted Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau (Pavilion of the New Spirit). Many believe that the exhibition marked the end of Purism and ironically, the birth of Art Deco.
Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau was a fitting end to the Purism Art Movement, well-rooted in the manifesto provided by the masters as depicted by the simple geometries and unassuming facade details.
Purism Art Movement – The Legacy
Sometimes labelled as a post-cubist art movement, the Purism Art Movement consisted of a fleeting few years that are miscategorized by history books though innately distinct enough to have left a profound mark. The Movement saw one of the greatest men in the field of architecture establishing a footstool for himself, as an accomplished architect and an artist.
Amalgamated with the genius of Amédée Ozenfant, what had taken place was a threshold that set forth the rules that governed modern architecture. Following his departure from the Purist Art Movement and its eventual decline, Le Corbusier would go on to write Vers une architecture (Toward a New Architecture) in 1925, a literary staple amongst architects, with the book and many of his later works reflecting the ideals of Purism but with the bigger picture of Modern Architecture on the frontier.