modernism in art

late impressionism through surrealism

Simultanism and Purism


• SH essay, The Cubist City - Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger

• SH essay, Simultanism: Robert Delaunay

• SH essay, Simultanism: Sonia Delaunay

• SH video, Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon

• SH essay, Purism

• selection from Ozenfant and Jeanneret, 'Purism' (primary source)

key terms and concepts: Simultanism, Purism, the machine aesthetic, brutalism

Along with the Futurists, the Simultanists (or Orphists) and Purists embraced the scientific, technological, and social changes of modernity, and sought to define a style that was responsive to those changes. Most obviously, how do we see this in the subject matter of both movements? More subtly, how do we see it in the style?

Ultimately, a hard-edged, rational, geometric style becomes a key sign of modernity. Think about this quote from Léger:

     "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."  -- Fernand Léger, 1924

In addition to noting the coincidence of geometry and modernity, 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 is often called the machine aesthetic.  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. How does this style turn even the artist into a sort of machine? 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. How did they see this style as not only modern, but also trans-historical, occurring in ancient Greek art as well as modern art and design?  

Jeanneret became more famous as an architect under the nom de plume Le Corbusier. How did he attempt to design living spaces and even entire cities based on the 'universal' aesthetic values of rational geometry? 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, but “postmodern” theory and architecture has practically been defined by its rejection of this idea that it is desirable or even possible 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, (associated with) Purism, 1919

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

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

Robert Delaunay, Homage to Blériot, Simultanism, 1914