modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism


people, terms, and concepts: the machine aesthetic, brutalism

additional reading:  Ozenfant and Jeanneret, 'Purism'

Many artists responded to the hard-edged geometric shapes in Cubist paintings (and suggested in Cézanne’s famous advice, “Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone”).  Léger and the Purists saw this move toward geometry as the defining characteristic of the modern world:

"Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All human creation mechanical or industrial is dependent upon geometric intentions ... In the mechanical order, the dominant aim is utility, strictly utility. Everything is directed toward utility with the greatest possible severity. The tendency toward utility does not, however, impede the accession to a state of beauty ... The more the machine perfects its utilitarian functions, the more beautiful it becomes."  [Léger, 1924]

Machines are both regular and geometric in themselves, and they tend to produce highly regular, geometric objects:  it is very easy for a machine (and difficult for a human) to produce a perfect circle, a straight line, and a right angle.  Léger also argues that machines and machine-made objects, although designed purely for utilitarian (functional) purposes and ease of manufacture, are also beautiful.  This idea often called the machine aesthetic, and is also exemplified by contemporary photographers such as Louis Hine and Paul Strand.  How does Léger's work The City, below, reflect a modern style based on a machine aesthetic? Think not only of the modern subject matter (city, stenciled letters, truss towers, streets, etc.), but also the regular geometric shapes that make up his forms and the way these forms interlock in the composition. In general, artists after WWI either fell in love with, or developed a strong aversion to, machines and technology (more on this later).

Purism (mainly the two artists Ozenfant and Jeanneret, later to be known as Le Corbusier) shared Léger’s interest in the regular, geometric forms of modern machine production.  Interestingly, they saw this aesthetic not only as suited to this particular moment in Western history, but as a trans-historical and universal human aesthetic need that happened to be particularly well fulfilled by mechanically-produced modern objects such as those that populate their still lives.  Their magazine Esprit Nouveau pointed to the similarly geometric basis of Greek Classical art, such as the “Golden Section” and Pythagoras’s assertion of the fundamentally mathematical basis of musical harmony.  

Ultimately, the Purists (and Corbusier especially) aimed to produce not only paintings, but also design products, houses, and even entire cities based on the “universal” aesthetic values of rationalist geometry.  Although Corbu’s so-called brutalist style of bare concrete and severe geometry had an enormous influence on modern architecture and city planning in the mid-twentieth century, “postmodern” theory and architecture has practically been defined by its rejection of this idea that it is possible or desirable to eliminate all historical and cultural differences and all of the subjective and organic ‘irregularities’ of human life in favor of an objective, rational, and “universal” style.

Léger, The City, 1919

Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Purist Still-Life, 1922

Le Corbusier, Unité d'Habitation, Marseilles, 'Brutalist' Modernism, 1944-52