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26 June, 2013
Neo-Plasticism & Purism
A few days ago, in expounding on the multitude of "isms" in 20th century art, I mentioned a couple I doubt many people are familiar with. In many ways they are similar but at the same time, they also have one major difference. I'm referring to Neo-Plasticism and Purism. Both art movements came during the years between the two World Wars and to some extent, were reactions on the part of their founders to the irrationality and chaos of "the war to end all wars." Both movements sought to impose upon art a sense of careful, compositional, and chromatic order. Neo Plasticism was the brainchild of Piet Mondrian. Purism, that of Amedee Ozenfant, and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret who later called himself Le Corbusier (pronounced Lay Cor-BOO-see-ay). Today, rather than his painting, we are most familiar with his architectural work employing many of the principals of Purism.

The Purism Manifesto, Apres le Cubisme was published in 1918. It proclaimed the great human pleasure in organising things and being a part of that organisation. Nearly all of their paintings were still-lifes and nearly all of them depicted clearly delineated everyday objects, arranged with a "grammar of sensibility" celebrating simplified forms and standard, time-tested compositional devices and unity. Purism was the antithesis of accidental or emotional art, favouring instead the synthesis of line, planes, shapes, and colour first coming from Picasso's and Braque's Synthetic Cubism, but drawing back from the near total disintegration of recognisable content which was evolving from Cubism. With the Purism movement came the magazine, L'Espirit Nouveau, published until 1925. It became a standard bearer for Avant-garde art, and probably did more to promote the broader modern art movement than any of the rather cold, dry Purism paintings depicted on its pages.

As for Neo-Plasticism, merely mentioning the name of Piet Mondrian probably says more in describing the painting of this movement than any long, descriptive discourse on individual works. One could basically say it was a more extreme version of Purism. The most obvious difference was the total renunciation of recognisable subject matter. It was an austere exploration of design elements to the exclusion of all else. Mondrian's extended discourse Neo-Plasticism in Painting (plus three other manifestos on the subject) hit the news-stands about the same time as Purism's mouthpiece magazine and manifesto. Artists such as van Doesburg, Severini, Lissitzky, and Arp teamed with the Bauhaus school, hoping to see adopted a universal language of art, and its integration into every aspect of daily life. The movement worked (with considerable success) to influence everything from painting to architecture, furniture design, interior design, consumer products, advertising, and even urban planning. It was utopian. It was socialistic, and it had a strong influence in Germany. Ironically, though it collapsed in disarray amidst the turmoil of Hitler and the Second World War, it was not without influence amongst the utopian planners of the Third Reich.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 June 1999

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