PRINT May 1970


L’Esprit Nouveau

L’ESPRIT NOUVEAU, Complete Edition, reprinted by Da Capo Press, NY, 1969. Eight volumes.

In France, as throughout most of Europe, a new spirit reigned during the 1920s which embraced all areas of creative activity. The visual arts, music, literature, philosophy, and politics were but some of the diverse fields affected, and this breadth and vitality was reflected in L’Esprit Nouveau; a publication which brilliantly captured the spirit of this intellectually exciting age. Its editors, predominantly painters, understandably emphasized their chosen art, yet the subtitle justly proclaimed it “an international illustrated review of contemporary activity.” Its articles were short and lively and are as interesting to read today as when first written—though naturally we bring to them a different point of view. L’Esprit Nouveau, therefore, is more than a historical document of cardinal importance, and its reprinting at this time comes as a most welcome event.

Synonymous with L’Esprit Nouveau are the names of Amédée Ozenfant, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), and poet Paul. Dermée. Ozenfant and Jeanneret wrote Après le cubisme in 1918, the year after the Swiss painter-architect settled in Paris, and this collaboration set the stage for the monthly review which first appeared in October 1920; its initial intent was to publicize that which came after Cubism . . . the Purism of Ozenfant and Jeanneret. But Cubism always received a lion’s share of the space devoted to painting, and articles about Picasso, Braque, Gris, Gleizes, Lipchitz, Léger and others abound along with those concerning the most revered of modern masters, Seurat and Cézanne. The Futurists were well represented with a manifesto on dance by Marinetti and material by Carlo Carra and Gino Severini—while among the Dadaists Picabia was the most frequent contributor. De Stijl, except for an occasional word from Theo van Doesburg, was largely neglected. Most of the articles devoted to painting, however, were authored by Ozenfant-Jeanneret and these were collected and republished (1925) under the title La peintre moderne.

Le Corbusier was introduced to the world through the pages of L’Esprit Nouveau, and in its twenty-eight numbers published between 1920 and 1925 he held forth on numerous subjects, test-ran the material for four books, and even executed designs for certain favored advertisers. The pseudonym was adopted to disguise the fact that the Purist painter Charles-Edouard Jeanneret was vitally interested in architecture and urbanism; it was, of course, the mantle under which the greater artist hid. The first eleven articles, completed by 1922, were compiled as Vers une architecture—Toward a New Architecture—which became the most influential, if often misunderstood, dictum on architecture of the past half century. Ozenfant actually coauthored these articles, his pen name being Saugnier—his mother’s name. Yet the Le Corbusier-Saugnier by-line should not infer an equal contribution since the latter name was ultimately deleted from the book.

What is particularly surprising in L’Esprit Nouveau is the near total absence of any discussion of contemporary architecture. Why? Admittedly Le Corbusier disapproved of virtually everything then being built—the best reason for exclusion—yet does this presume non-confidence in his own early work in France? His studio-house for Ozenfant and the villa at Vaucresson were early enough (1922) for inclusion, yet they did not appear, nor did his Citrohan project for a house on pilotis. The latter is generally thought to have been published in L’Esprit Nouveau, but it was not. The article in No. 13 which introduced Le Corbusier’s mass-produced house showed not a single pilotis; the now famous house-on-stilts project was only introduced when the article was republished in Towards a New Architecture. Is, therefore, our date of this oft-mentioned design incorrect? Be that as it may, Le Corbusier did produce architectural designs worthy of inclusion, yet he withheld them; modesty was surely not the reason since his (Jeanneret’s) paintings were frequently illustrated. He did permit (in No. 6) his early (1916) Villa Schwob at La Chaux-deFonds, Switzerland, to be published but admitted, through the reviewer, that the design was actually inspired by his former master, Auguste Perret.

Although reviews of contemporary architecture found no place in L’Esprit Nouveau, Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” (translated from the original German) was published in issue No. 2, and through this medium the now famous dictum received world renown. It set the tone for subsequent articles by Le Corbusier-Saugnier, as well as paving the way for the celebrated Austrian’s arrival in Paris. Under the guise of discussing current exhibitions certain models and drawings (but not executed work) by Mallet-Stevens, Guevrekian, Jourdain, and others were considered, but even this concession began only tardily in issue No. 19.

The Bauhaus was also introduced to the reader in No. 19 (under the unlikely title of “Pedagogy”), the pretext being the publication of Staatliches-Bauhaus wherein the program and objectives of the Weimar based school were set forth. The unsigned article was certainly by Le Corbusier; it was not intended to please Director Gropius. It characterized the young Germans as having “an alliance of ideas with the de Stijl group of Amsterdam, represented by Theo van Doesburg who is a painter but also the theoretician of a young architecture based upon brutally simple aesthetics” (note the implied Jeanneret-Le Corbusier parallel between painters and architectural theorists). This statement alone would have sent Walter Gropius—whose jealousy toward van Doesburg was great—into a rage. Matters were certainly not improved by Le Corbusier’s not-so-oblique suggestion that the Bauhaus was really a school of decorative arts, and that all such schools should be closed: “For a long time, on this important question of pedagogy, we have insisted on the closing of. schools of applied art because we accept only standard industrial products; we do not accept objects of decorative art.” This pronouncement certainly added Le Corbusier to Gropius’s hate-list along with van Doesburg. Small consolation it must have been that in a mere post-script to an article in L’Esprit Nouveau No. 23, signed “L. C.,” we learn that the Bauhaus was “already universally known for the richness of its teaching,” a remark combined with the lament that the political situation in Weimar was making life untenable for Gropius and his school. Only in the penultimate issue of L’Esprit Nouveau were goodwill gestures extended to Director Gropius. In an open letter headed “L’Esprit Nouveau offers its support to the ‘Bauhaus’ at Weimar” (unsigned) some half-hearted regrets were expressed because readers had misinterpreted as critical the earlier pedagogic comments about the Bauhaus which in fact “represents one of the most interesting essays in modern pedagogy” (faint praise). The two-page spread concluded by saying that “L’Esprit Nouveau would be happy if its protestations (against the government’s proposal to close the Bauhaus at Weimar) could have a useful effect.” It didn’t, but Walter Gropius at least was accorded space in the same issue for an illustrated article on “The Development of the Modern Spirit in German Architecture,” where the reader obtained his first view of designs by Mies, Gropius, and Mendelsohn.

Second only to the visual arts was the interest L’Esprit Nouveau showed in literature. Reviews of current work in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia were a regular feature and occasionally essays and poems were printed. At home Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire were the undisputed favorites with the latter being given a special memorial issue (No. 26) containing a fascinating array of documentation which included facsimile reproductions of unpublished letters, and cartoons and portraits of the deceased by Picasso. Jean Cocteau was a frequent contributor, both as author and artist.

To appreciate the breadth of material presented in this lively French review one must really read its pages. There is a series of articles on early cinema, including discussions, of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. Contemporary theatre, dance, and music were ever-recurring subjects; there were articles about Lenin, Woodrow Wilson, and Sigmund Freud.

The character of L’Esprit Nouveau inevitably changed over the years, and its undated numbers appeared ever more infrequently. Paul Dermée was dropped as an editor and more and more the Ozenfant-Jeanneret team came out from behind the scenes. With No. 17 their names were recorded as editors and they contributed an ever-increasing share of the material. In 1925, the year of the great Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris, the publication ceased with its 28th number. These 28 numbers, so rare as to be virtually unobtainable, have now been reissued and bound together in eight volumes by Da Capo Press.

The same format is retained, and the color plates of the original are reproduced with a high degree of fidelity—although the black and white illustrations have less subtlety. Glossy stock was used consistently throughout. As a record of the early twenties, along with the protagonists and ideas which made that decade so outstanding, L’Esprit Nouveau holds a very special place. It is more than a basic document that most libraries will want to have; it remains alive Sand full of interest for the general reader.

H. Allen Brooks