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Appliance of science

REVIEW: L'Esprit Nouveau: Purism in Paris 1918-1925 By Carol S Eliel et al. Abrams, 2001. 208pp. £30

War, like prison, gives some people time to think. In the Second World War the welfare state was planned in Britain, and many architects, unable to build, had the opportunity for fruitful theoretical work. In France during the First World War the painter Amedee Ozenfant, prevented by ill-health from serving his country at the front (according to his Memoires), was able to develop a theory of art. This found expression in the staging of an exhibition and publication of a manifesto within days of the armistice.

In January 1918 Ozenfant had been introduced by the somewhat older Auguste Perret to Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, a noncombatant Swiss recently settled in Paris 10 years after spending time there as Perret's assistant. Jeanneret (who had just completed three brick cottages at St Nicholas d'Aliermont, with steep pitched roofs in the vernacular Norman style) latched fervently on to Ozenfant's ideas and personality, providing his project with a powerful boost.

The establishment of a magazine to promote their outlook, L'Esprit Nouveau, followed in 1920 and in it Jeanneret's nom de plume, Le Corbusier, appeared for the first time. They named their ideology Purism, which is the subject of this book published to coincide with an exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (moving to Grenoble in October), which also contains the first English translation of their manifesto After Cubism.

With the publication of After Cubism in translation, another important piece in the jigsaw of Le Corbusier's theoretical world is put in place for the English-speaking world, and a more complete picture made available.

As a manifesto it was ambitious indeed. A complete theory of art was advanced in four chapters, offering a definition of the nature of art, the hierarchy of artistic values, the relationship between art and science, the achievements of Cubism, the character of art in a technological age - with some asides on architecture as well. ('The construction of a new spirit rises everywhere, the embryos of an architecture to come. . . Bridges, factories, dams, and so many gigantic works carry within them the seeds of development.') The authors had not yet fully developed their later pungent aphoristic style, and their criticism of Cubism as 'ornamental' was surely wide of mark, but was probably aimed more at the second rank of practitioners, such as Gleizes or Le Fauconnier, than at the masters, and can be understood in the context of the Purists' aspiration to a very simplified monumentalism.

What is notable is the balance the authors maintained from the start between inspiration from science, and recognition of humane factors: 'Either art will align itself with the scientific era, in which case it cannot remain in its present state; or it will not and will cease to be. For all art that stops being of its era dies.'

But also: 'Anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism: here is another criterion. If we base art on solid human foundations, it will probably tend to liberate us, to bring us closer to a total perception of universal harmony'; and, in capital letters: 'Purism does not aim to be a scientific art, which would have no meaning.'

Certainly the rich grandeur of the Purist paintings reproduced here in colour, a glory of the book, does not suggest the detached abstraction of science.

But many of them have the canonical 100 x 81cm format with which all paintings in the second Purist show in 1921 conformed, and whose divisibility into two Golden Section rectangles was the basis for many compositions.

Art was not seen as imitative of science but as analogous to it in respect of intellectual control - 'A painting is an equation. . . Chance is what art casts out'.

This conviction led to the later stand-off between the Purists and the Surrealists, persisting until Le Corbusier found a way to absorb their imagery in his art and architecture.

Apart from After Cubism there are three essays in this book. The general account of the collaboration between Ozenfant and Jeanneret/Le Corbusier by Carol Eliel is informative, if marred by some banalities, perhaps the result of addressing a general audience. There is an account of Ozenfant's work by Francoise Ducros, hampered by its translation.

Finally Tag Gronberg presents an interesting feminist analysis of the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion in the context of the fashion industry-dominated 1925 exhibition: 'The polemical force of the pavilion depended to some degree on differentiating the city of the engineer from the feminised modern city represented by the boutique.'

But, as Ducros points out, Ozenfant was by then himself running a boutique called 'Dresses by Amedee' - a symptom of his increasing distance from Le Corbusier.

Purism was a movement without any avowed followers apart from its authors - unless you include the whole of Modern architecture.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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