PRINT April 1972

Léger, Le Corbusier, and Purism

The obsession of expressing all emotion in plastic writing, a kind of aggravated malady, or a kind of aggravated state of grace.
—Le Corbusier

DEVIATION, DEVOLUTION, DECLINE, DETENTE have in common, in their shared prefix, a sense of turning away from or tuning down, of a high aspiration no longer prized, a level of resolution no longer striven for, of some kind of relaxation of contraction of the body which shortens its reach. Those are the terms of description that get applied to the Cubism of the 1920s, to the late Cubism of Picasso, Gris, and Léger, to the late arrival of the Purist credo of Ozenfant and Jeanneret/Le Corbusier. We tend to see late Cubism as a bathtub with both the tap on and the drain open: filling the style with the non pictorial accouterments of the modern experience, even as it emptied it out of the formal rigor of an earlier, more stringently self-referential syntax. Perhaps that is an over-statement; but I do not think so. In this same issue of Artforum a review of Léger’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris treats the artist’s career in just that way.

Yet in a smallish anteroom of the Grand Palais there were three ambitious paintings by Léger from a series begun in 1924, a series devoted to pure abstraction which Léger called “mural pictures” and which he conceived of entirely in terms of controlled figure-ground reversals. They are evidence of Léger’s hard and serious examination of de Stijl (an exhibition of which Léger saw in 1923 at his own dealer’s gallery: Galerie de l’Effort Moderne). Like the efforts of that movement, Léger’s are created at an oblique angle to the tradition of the easel picture. For they were intended to come to terms with the environment of a new architecture. In 1924 Léger had opened a school with Ozenfant (at 86 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs) and the following year he painted Le Balustre for installation within Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. A development within the mural series, Le Balustre now contains and hieraticizes a trilogy of recognizable objects.

The walls of the pavilion, carrying paintings by Le Corbusier (signed Jeanneret), Ozenfant, and Léger, cemented the relationship between the three men—with a work of architecture as their shared manifesto. If one sees this manifesto as late Cubist revisionism, or as a piece of machine-esthetic propaganda, one runs the risk of, among other things, not taking seriously the work and thought of the greatest architect of the first half of the century—Le Corbusier—who was himself a painter of extraordinary formal strength and clarity as was demonstrated most recently (although somewhat imperfectly) in a New York exhibition at the Gallery Denise René.

Le Balustre is not about Cubism, if by Cubism we mean a depiction of the modalities of depiction. It is about composition, which Léger himself defined as “the spirit of logic which must obtain the strongest possible results, and I mean by logic in art, that which has the possibility of giving order to sensation.” Composition is understood, then, as the task of making sense of sensation. Which is to say, wresting from the matrix of sense data an object whose unfaultable unity could be made to be seen as self-evident. The object within the painting was a demonstration of the possibility of fusion-through-composition of an object of sense. And the painting was both the ground of this fusion, and yet another object of sense which could itself cohere or fuse. The ground for the painting was, in its turn, the room; just as the ground for the room was the whole work of architecture. Depicted object, painting, room, building: all of them were widening concentric circles in the matrix of sensation; all of them were nested brackets in an equation which was to equal coherence—with the coherence-made-self-evident of the object (ranging in scale from the baluster of a stair railing to the organism of the whole house) as the ground for the very possibility of meaning.

What this had meant for Le Corbusier, as an architect, was embodied as early as 1923 in his la Roche-Jeanneret house complex. There, on an already extremely restricted site, Le Corbusier had insisted on devoting almost one third of the entire interior of the la Roche house to circulation, to spaces whose very function was a directed movement of the inhabitant around and through the space. The entry hall of the la Roche house is a three-story prism, the square footage of which is nearly equal to that of the major living spaces. The visitor mounts a stairway at the far corner of this hall. At the top of this stairway is a balcony which projects (on the second floor level) out over the open space of the entry hall. From that balcony it is possible to survey the space through which one has just ascended. The visitor is then led along a passerelle towards the major living space and, turning a corner, he is given from yet another balcony, another more complex view of the entry hall prism and its stairway structures. In this way Le Corbusier insists that any comprehension of even simple geometries must be the product of motion around and through them.

This motion—a combination of promenade and prospect—is choreographed by Le Corbusier with extreme care. The picture gallery which projects out from the main block of the la Roche house is a two-story space equipped with a ramp rising in slow consonance along the swollen curve of one of the gallery’s long walls. The visitor mounting this ramp experiences in one inextricable perception, the sensuous particularity of the structure and the lucid abstract geometry of the space. (Le Corbusier was to elaborate and heighten this strategy in the plans for the Stein Villa at Garches through a snakelike deployment of balconies over and around the spaces which produced an activity he called “walking on the walls.”) At the top of the ramp in the la Roche picture gallery a third balcony punches through the exterior wall of the house. From the prospect of this balcony, it is possible to survey the rigidly flattened, hieratic geometry of the entry facade against the counterpoint of the curving gallery wall which fills the foreground of the perceptual field.

Through what I having been calling the use of “prospect” in this house, Le Corbusier insists upon the rigid frontality of all objects experienced from a distance, and further, that frontality and distance combine to allow knowledge of the real only by inference. Against this he pits the separate kind of knowledge one can have of proximate space by means of rotation through it. So that, for Le Corbusier, the counterpoint between frontality and rotation equals the contrast between ideation and experience. And what Le Corbusier demands of architectural composition is that it should acknowledge the mutual interdependence of the one on the other.

Given this notion of real space comprehended Only as the fruition of a lived perspective, Le Corbusier’s view of pictorial space is not surprising. Pictorial space is that which cannot be entered or circulated through; it is irremediably space viewed from a distance, and is therefore eternally resigned to frontality.

The paintings and drawings from the mid-and late ’20s display the terms of Le Corbusier’s pictorial frontality. These terms are three-fold. First, the object (a standard repertory of bottles, glasses, and musical instruments) is registered as pure extension, as flat; crisply contoured shape which never breaks rank with the picture’s frontality to suggest a turning of one of its facets into depth. Second, the constellation of objects wedge together in that insistent continuity of edges which the Purists called “mariage de contour.” Third, color and texture are handled in a manner which calls attention to the inherent superficiality of these “secondary qualities”—so that distance or depth in the painting becomes no longer a matter of representing the space separating one object and another in the real world. Instead distance is transformed into a representation of the cesura between the appearance of the object and the object itself. Le Corbusier seems to have come to the conclusion that this conceptual distance was the only kind that could logically pertain to a world (the picture) which was itself inherently frontal. He therefore did not permit himself the luxury of using black in the way, for instance, that Gris had used it in the synthetic pictures of the late teens and ’20s. In order to structure the picture field, Gris had deployed patches of flat black which either registered the silhouette of an object or the emblematic presence of cast shadow. In both cases, Gris’ use of black allowed a sense of three-dimensional space to invade the painting. As cast shadow, the black.shapes became signs of an implied depth over which the shadow s cast. As the shape of objects, black was juxtaposed against areas of white (or a color of very light value) so that the extreme contrast between figure and ground served to pry apart the surface of the picture at the point where the contrast occurred. Contrast became an optical metaphor for the mutual externality of one object to another within three-dimensional space. Le Corbusier consistently denies himself recourse to the use of black and in the three extremely fine paintings from 1925–26 at the Denise René Gallery, one sees how he insisted :on adding white lead to his pigments instead. In his way, the chalkiness of his color could enforce the sense of a continuous skin of paint that spans the surface from edge to edge, without break. Depth where it appears is always a descriptor of texture: of the grinding of shallow facets at the base of glass objects, or narrow ridges bent into steel, or a break in the flatness of color that signifies the distinct density of wood. It is these textural integers that appear against the ground of contour that defines the object to which they belong. Isolated, fragmented, but fused within the material continuity of the surface, shape and texture mutually inform and support the legibility of one another. Yet they do so only from the opposite sides of that narrow but incredibly calibrated distance which was the mastery of Le Corbusier’s early work as a painter.

By 1925 in Le Balustre, Léger shared some but not all of these concerns. He continued to admit black into the painting insofar as he could control and frontalize it. His colors, as seen in the strident scarlet of the vase to the left of the baluster, were far more intense than either Le Corbusier/Jeanneret’s or Ozenfant’s. But he shared with them the concept of frontalization that made the surface of the painting a concatenation of grounds against which texture, as the memory image of depth, appeared to lie at a certain remove. It was the visible closing of the distance between these two poles of vision that gave birth in experience to a perception of the object ordered by the flatness of the surface.

I am not claiming that Le Balustre is the best of Léger’s paintings of the 1920s. Only that it represents the intense assimilation of his art towards a concept of picture-making which is distinct within late Cubism, and which has been seriously underrated. Further, it seems to me that only within the bounds of the aspirations of Purism can Léger’s painting of the mid-’20s be understood.

Rosalind Krauss