Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant’s “Purism” (1921)
INTRODUCTION: Logic, the human factor, fixed points.
THE WORK OF ART: Its goal, hierarchy, order.
SYSTEM: Primary sensations, secondary sensations, ornamental art, symbolic art, the theme-object, natural selection, mechanical selection, choice of theme-object.
COMPOSITION: Choice of surface, geometric locations, regulating lines, modules, values, color.
Logic, born of human constants and without which nothing is human, is an instrument of control and, for he who is inventive, a guide toward discovery; it controls and corrects the sometimes capricious march of intuition and permits one to go ahead with certainty.
It is the guide that sometimes precedes and sometimes follows the explorer; but without intuition it is a sterile device; nourished by intuition, it allows one “to dance in his fetters.”
Nothing is worthwhile which is not general, nothing is worthwhile which is not transmittable. We have attempted to establish an aesthetic that is rational, and therefore human.
It is impossible to construct without fixed points. We already sought in an earlier article to determine some of these.
The Work of Art
The work of art is an artificial object which permits the creator to place the spectator in the state he wishes; later we will study the means the creator has at his disposal to attain this result.
With regard to man, aesthetic sensations are not all of the same degree of intensity or quality; we might say that there is a hierarchy.
The highest level of this hierarchy seems to us to be that special state of a mathematical sort to which we are raised, for example, by the clear perception of a great general law (the state of mathematical lyricism, one might say; it is superior to the brute pleasure of the  sense; the senses are involved, however, because every being in this state is as if in a state of beatitude.
The goal of art is not simple pleasure, rather it partakes of the nature of happiness.
It is true that plastic art has to address itself more directly to the senses than pure mathematics which only acts by symbols, these symbols sufficing to trigger in the mind consequences of a superior order; in plastic art, the senses should be strongly moved in order to predispose the mind to the release into play of subjective reactions without which there is no work of art. But there is no art worth having without this excitement of an intellectual order, of a mathematical order; architecture is the art which up until now has most strongly induced the states of this category. The reason is that everything in architecture is expressed by order and economy.
The means of executing a work of art is a transmittable and universal language.
One of the highest delights of the human mind is to perceive the order of nature and to measure its own participation in the scheme of things; the work of art seems to us to be a labor of putting into order, a masterpiece of human order.
Now the world appears to man from the human vantage point, that is, the world seems to obey the laws man has been able to assign to it; when man creates a work of art, he has the feeling of acting as a “god.”
Now a law is nothing other than the verification of an order.
In summary, a work of art should induce a sensation of a mathematical order, and the means of inducing this mathematical order should be sought among universal means.
One cannot, therefore, hope to obtain these results by the empirical and infinitely impure means that are used habitually.
Plastic art, modern architecture, modern painting, modern sculpture, use a language encumbered by terms that are confused, poorly defined, undefinable. This language is a heterogeneous mix of means used by different and successive schools of aesthetics, nearly all of which considered only the release of the sensations of immediate feeling; it does not suit the creation of works which shall have what we demand.
We established in our article “On the Plastic” that there are two quite distinct orders of sensation:
1. Primary sensations determined in all human beings by the simple play of forms and primary colors. Example: If I show to everyone on Earth — a Frenchman, a Negro, a Laplander — a sphere in the form of a billiard ball (one of the most perfect human materializations of the  sphere), I release in each of these individuals an identical sensation inherent in the spherical form: this is the constant primary sensation.
The Frenchman will associate it with ideas of sport, billiards, the pleasures or displeasures of playing, etc. — variables. The Laplander or the Negro may not associate any idea with it at all or, on the other hand, they might associate it with an idea of divinity: there is thus a constant, fixed sensation released by the primary form.
[2.] There are secondary sensations, varying with the individual because they depend upon his cultural or hereditary capital. Example: If I hold up a primary cubic form, I release in each individual the same primary sensation of the cube; but if I place some black geometric spots on the cube, I immediately release in a civilized man an idea of dice to play with, and the whole series of associations which would follow.
A Papuan would only see an ornament.
There are, therefore, besides the primary sensation, infinitely numerous and variable secondary sensations. The primary sensation is constant for every individual, it is universal, it can be differentiated by quantity, but it is constant in quality: there are some people who have thick skins. This is a capital point, a fixed point.
What we have said for the cube and the sphere is true for all other primary forms, for all the primary colors, for all the primary lines; it is just as true for the cube, the sphere, the cylinder, the cone and the pyramid as for the constituent elements of these bodies, the triangle, the square, the circle, as for straight, broken, or curved lines, as for obtuse, right, or acute angles, etc. — all the primary elements which react unthinkingly, uniformly, in the same way, on all individuals.
The sensations of a secondary order graft themselves on these primary sensations, producing the intervention of the subject’s hereditary or cultural contribution. If brute sensations are of a universal, intrinsic order, secondary sensations are of an individual, extrinsic order. Primary sensations constitute the bases of the plastic language; these are the fixed words of the plastic language; it is a fixed, formal, explicit, universal language determining subjective reactions of an individual order which permit the erection on these raw foundations of a sensitive work, rich in emotion.
It does not seem necessary to expatiate at length on this elementary truth that anything of universal value is worth more than anything of merely individual value. It is the condemnation of “individualistic” art to the benefit of “universal” art.
It then becomes clear that to realize this proposed goal it is necessary right now to make an inventory of the plastic vocabulary and to purify it in order to create a transmittable language.
An art that would be based only upon primary sensations, using  uniquely primary elements, would be only a primary art, rich, it is true, in geometric aspects, but denuded of all sufficient human resonance: it would be an ornamental art.
Am art that would be based only upon the use of secondary sensations (an art of allusions) would be an art without a plastic base. The mind of some individuals — only those in intimate resonance with the creator — could be satisfied with it: an art of the initiated, an art requiring knowledge of a key, an art of symbols. This is the critique of most contemporary art; it is this art which, stripped of universal primary elements, has provoked the creation of an immense literature around these works and these schools, a literature whose goal is to explain, to give the key, to reveal the secret language, to permit comprehension.
The great works of the past art those based on primary elements, and this is the only reason why they endure.
Superior sensations of a mathematical order can be born only of a choice of primary elements with secondary resonance.
Having shown that the use of primary elements by themselves lead only to an ornamental art, we think that to paint means to create constructions: formal and colored organizations based on the theme-objects endowed with elementary properties rich in subjective trigger actions. Thus it will be well to choose those theme-objects whose secondary trigger actions are the most universal. The list of these objects would have at its head: man, the beings organized by and the objects fabricated by man, particularly those which one might consider as complements of the human organism.
Man and organized beings are products of natural selection. In every evolution on earth, the organs of beings are more and more adapted and purified, and the entire forward march of evolution is a function of purification. The human body seems to be the highest product of natural selection.
When examining these selected forms, one finds a tendency toward certain identical aspects, corresponding to constant functions, functions which are of maximum efficiency, maximum strength, maximum capacity, etc., that is, maximum economy. ECONOMY is the law of natural selection.
It is easy to calculate that it is also the great law which governs what we will call “mechanical selection.”
Mechanical selection began with the earliest times and from those times provided objects whose general laws have endured; only the means of making them changed, the rules endured.
In all ages and with all people, man has created for his use objects of prime necessity which responded to his imperative needs; these objects  were associated with his organism and helped complete it. In all ages, for example, man has created containers: vases, glasses, bottles, plates, which were built to suit the needs of maximum capacity, maximum economy of materials, maximum economy of effort. In all ages, man has created objects of transport: boats, cars; objects of defense: arms; objects of pleasure: musical instruments, etc., all of which have always obeyed the law of selection: economy.
One discovers that these objects are true extensions of human limbs and are, for this reason, of human scale, harmonizing both among themselves and with man.
The machine was born in the last century. The problem of selection was posed more imperatively than ever (commercial rivalry, cost price); one might say that the machine has led fatally to the strictest respect for, and application of, the laws of economy.
M. Jacques-Emile Blanche will think that these considerations lead us far from painting. On the contrary! It is by the phenomenon of mechanical selection that the forms are established which can be called permanent, all interrelated, associated with human scale, containing curves of a mathematical order, curves of the greatest capacity, curves of the greatest strength, curves of the greatest elasticity, etc. These curves obey the laws which govern matter. They lead us quite naturally to satisfactions of a mathematical order.
Modern mechanization would appear to have created objects decidedly remote from what man had hitherto known and practiced. It was believed that he had thus retreated from natural products and entered into an arbitrary order; our epoch decries the misdeeds of mechanization. We must not be mistaken, this is a complete error: the machine has applied with a rigor greater than ever the physical laws of the world’s structure. To tell the truth, contemporary poets have only lamented one thing, the peasants’ embroidered shirts and the Papuans’ tattoos. If blind nature, who produces eggs, were also to make bottles, they would certainly be like those made by the machine born of man’s intelligence.
From all this comes a fundamental conclusion: that respect for the laws of physics and of economy has in every age created highly selected objects; that these objects contain analogous mathematical curves with deep resonances; that these artificial objects obey the same laws as the products of natural selection and that, consequently, there thus reigns a total harmony, bringing together the only two things that interest the human being: himself and what he makes.
Both natural selection and mechanical selection are manifestations of purification.
From this it would be easy to conclude that the artist will again find elitist themes in the objects of natural and mechanical selection. As it happens, artists of our period have taken pleasure in ornamental art and have chosen ornamented objects.
A work of art is an association, a symphony of consonant and architectured forms, in architecture and sculpture as well as in painting.
To use as theme anything other than the objects of selection, for example, objects of decorative art, is to introduce a second symphony into the first; it would be redundant, surcharged, it would diminish the intensity and adulterate the quality of the emotion.
Of all recent schools of painting, only Cubism foresaw the advantage of choosing selected objects, and of their inevitable associations. But, by a paradoxical error, instead of sifting out the general laws of these objects, Cubism only showed their accidental aspects, to such an extent that on the basis of this erroneous idea it even recreated arbitrary and fantastic forms. Cubism made square pipes to associate with matchboxes, and triangular bottles to associate with comical glasses.
From this critique and all the foregoing analyses, one comes logically to the necessity of a reform, the necessity of a logical choice of themes, and the necessity of their association not by deformation, but by formation.
If the Cubists were mistaken, it is because they did not seek out the invariable constituents of their chosen themes, which could have formed a universal, transmittable language.
Between the chosen theme-object and the plastic organism which the creator’s imagination derives from it, there intervenes the necessary labor of total plastic re-creation.
Our concept of the object comes from total knowledge of it, a knowledge acquired by the experience of our senses, tactile knowledge, knowledge of its materials, its volume, its profile, of all its properties. And the usual perspective view only acts as the shutter-release for the memory of these experiences.
Ordinary perspective with its theoretical rigor only gives an accidental view of objects: the one which an eye, having never before seen the object, would see if placed in the precise visual angle of this perspective, always a particular and hence an incomplete angle.
A painting constructed with exact perspective appeals nearly exclusively to sensations of a secondary order and is consequently deprived of what could be universal and durable.
There are, then, good grounds for creating images, organizations of form and color which bear the invariable, fundamental properties of object-themes. It is by a skillful, synthesizing figuration of these invariable elements that the painter will, upon bases of primary sensations, make his disposition of secondary sensations that are transmittable and universal: the “Purist” quest.
The Purist element is like a plastic word duly formed, complete, with precise and universal reactions.
Of course it must not be assumed that Purist elements are like so  many stencils that one could juxtapose on the surface of a painting; but we do wish to say that the Purist element, a bottle-element for example, ought always to embody the characteristic and invariant constants of the object-theme, subject to the modifications demanded by the composition.
Purism would never permit a bottle of triangular shape, because a triangular bottle, which eventually could be produced by a glass-blower, is only an exceptional object, a fantasy, like the idea behind it.
We have already said that the goal of art is to put the spectator in a state of a mathematical quality, that is, a state of an elevated order. To conceive, it is first necessary to know what one wishes to do and to specify the proposed goal; to know if one wishes to settle for pleasing the senses, or if one wishes the painting to be a simple pleasure for the eyes, or to know if one wishes to satisfy the senses and the mind at the same time.
There are obviously those arts whose only ambition is to please the senses; we call them “arts of pleasure.” Purism offers an art that is perhaps severe, but one that addresses itself to the elevated faculties of the mind.
This is stated to make it clear that the creator should put himself in a certain state of mind before picking up his paintbrush.
Conception is, in effect, an operation of the mind which foreshadows the general look of the art work.
Possessed of a method whose elements are like the words of a language, the creator chooses among these words those that he will group together to create a symphony of sensations in the spectator, a symphony that will place the spectator in a state of a particular quality, joy, gaiety, sadness, etc.
Often there is a confusion between conception and composition. These are two entirely different things, conception being a state of mind; composition, a technical means.
Conception is the choice, the decision of which emotion to transmit; composition is the choice of means capable of transmitting this emotion.
Composition is our stock-in-trade; it involves tasks of an exclusively physical order. Composition comprises choice of surface, division of the surface, co-modulation, relationships of density, color scheme.
A painting is an association of purified, related, and architectural elements.
A painting should not be a fragment, a painting is a whole. A viable organ is a whole: a viable organ is not a fragment.
Space is needed for architectural composition; space means three dimensions. Therefore we think of the painting not as a surface, but as a space.
It is customary to choose the format of the painting rather arbitrarily. Many painters unthinkingly adopt very elongated surfaces, fragmentary surfaces which pass beyond the eye’s normal field.
Now there is a correlation between the eye’s visual cone and the painting it covers.
The eye should be confronted with a space which gives the impression of a whole. A landscape seen through a high window, a bull’s eye or a square window gives a painful impression because it is fragmentary: the window of a sleeping-car offers a satisfying visual field corresponding to normal vision.
If Ingres paper and Whatman paper have a fixed format, and if canvases of 40 x 32, for example, have a format unchanged for so many years, it is because their proportions satisfy physiological needs. These formats correspond to the visual cone and the whole extent can be grasped in a single glance; a natural philosopher would perhaps demonstrate that these slightly oblong proportions harmonize with the visual cone which is not circular, but slightly oval, and one could thus explain that vertical paintings are less satisfying than horizontal.
The square format is a particular case resulting in a truncated space. Moreover, it is deprived of one of the fundamental plastic necessities, that of rhythm, precluded by the equal sides.
For physiological reasons we cannot develop here, one could also verify that the vertical line has dynamic properties opposed to the static properties of the horizontal. The eye becomes tired climbing up the vertical, and comes rapidly back down. This explains the dynamic property of the vertical line, contrary to the horizontal which generates feelings of stability, calm, and repose, sensations resulting from the slight energy necessitated by the journey. This explains why surfaces of vertical extent possess properties very different from those of horizontal surfaces.
Moreover, the painter should not concentrate on particular surfaces which necessarily determine sensations of an accidental order. A painting surface should make one forget its limits, it should be indifferent.
As for us, we have chosen surfaces similar to the 40 x 32 canvas, considering it to be of an indifferent order of surface.
Further, this surface has important geometric properties; it permits various regulating lines which determine geometric locations of the highest plastic value. These regulating lines are those of the equilateral triangle which neatly fits on a canvas and determines on its axes two right-angle locations of the highest constructive value.
The painting is thus divided into segments with like angles and contains lines which lead the eye to the most sensitive points. These sensitive points constitute truly strategic and organic centers of the composition.
This is a capital fact for plastic art because in all ages and times, great works of architecture as well as of painting of have been composed by imperious regulating lines of this nature.
Compositions thus endowed, instead of following the caprices of an effervescent imagination, will have generous directives in the subdividing of the painting which will determine its concordances, amplify its resonances, discipline the grouping of its masses, and locate its capital points.
The choice of surface for such geometric determinations have been a preoccupation of every age. Memory of it remains in the famous term golden section which haunts studios like the specter of the philosopher’s stone. The golden section is not a portion of the surface. It is a mathematical section permitting the division of a straight line so that a harmonious relation reigns between the two segments.
A triangle is constructed on the division called the golden section triangle, and this triangle, peddled in cardboard in all the studios, is used as a unifier of angles; it has some benefits, but pushing it about on the painting without a coherent orientation with the format that does not realize the plastic condition, which demands that the directive lines of a painting proceed from the geometric properties of the surface.
The old masters used the golden section, as well as others, such as the harmonic section, to modulate their works: but they used them as divisions of lines, not of surfaces.
Once the composition is built upon the formal bases of this firm geometry, there is still unity to attain, the factor of order. The module comes in at this point.
Unity in plastic art, the homogeneity of the creator’s ideas with his means, is the homogeneous relationship of the surface or volume with each of the elements brought into play. The modular method is the only sensible way of bringing about order; it lets the smallest element measure the largest (give or take the necessary corrections and optical illusions); it provides what the old masters called proportion.
“Co-modulation” permits organization; without it, there is no plastic art, only piles of stones or spots of color.
Values: Once the composition is solidly built upon directives imposed by the format of the canvas, co-modulated by the intervention of a unifying agent, one must still determine the exact play of densities and the values of light and shade. This play of values is composed of two factors: shadow and light; it creates a rhythm whose relationships shall be dictated by the nature of the feeling to be stimulated.
An analysis of old works shows certain constants in the distribution of density of light and shade, following the intention of the painting, constants that we have easily shown to exist by a method of weighing (used also in astronomy, but which we have applied to painting).
When one says painting, inevitably he says color. But color has properties of shock (sensory order) which strike the eye before form (which is a creation already cerebral in part).
Now painting is a question of architecture, and therefore volume is its means.
In the expression of volume, color is a perilous agent; often it destroys or disorganizes volume because the intrinsic properties of color are very different, some being radiant and pushing forward, others receding, still others being massive and staying in the real plane of the canvas, etc.; citron yellow, ultramarine blue, earths and vermilions all act very differently so differently that one can admit without error a certain classification by family.
One can by hierarchy determine the major scale, formed of ochre yellows, reds, earths, white, black, ultramarine blue, and, of course, certain of their derivatives; this scale is a strong stable scale giving unity and holding the plane of the picture since these colors keep one another in balance. They are thus essentially constructive colors; it is these that all the great periods employed; it is these that whoever wishes to paint in volume should use.
Second scale. — The dynamic scale, including citron yellow, the oranges (chrome and cadmium), vermilions, Veronese green, light cobalt blues. An essentially animated, agitated scale, giving the sensation of a perpetual change of plane; these colors do not keep to one plane; sometimes they seem in front of the surface plane, sometimes behind. They are the disturbing elements.
Finally, there is the transitional scale, the madders, emerald green, all the lakes which have the properties of tinting, not of construction.
This analysis leads to a formal conclusion; on the use of one or another of these categories, or their intermixing, rest the three great methods of plastic realization which have shared the favor of artists, who pursued different goals according as their aesthetic was more or less architectural.
There are in effect two strong, and totally different manners of pictorial expression, either using the exclusive aid of light and shade and uniting all objects by the unique of luminous intensity, or else  accepting objects in their qualifying color and painting them in this local qualifying hue (local tone). A painting cannot be made without color. Neither Cubism — black-and-white period of Picasso, among others — nor the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel were able to do without it. The painters resolved this formidable fatality of color in both cases by harmonizing it with the first great need of a plastic work, unity. Artists of the manner mentioned above, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, El Greco, Delacroix, found harmony by judiciously arranging tinted light; the others, Raphael, Ingres, Fouquet, accepted local qualifiers and attempted to maintain the expression of volume, despite the disaggregating force of color. Thus, with El Greco, the same yellow lightens the edge of an angel’s wing, the knee of a figure, the lines of a face, and the convexities of a cloud; the same madder red colors clothing, ground, or buildings; the same thing in Renoir’s case. With Ingres, as with Raphael, a figure is in flesh tone, a drapery is blue or red, a pavement is black, brown or white, a sky is blue or gray. As for Cézanne, who practiced the obstinate and maniacal search for volume with all the confusion and trouble which animated his being, his work became monochromatic; all his beautiful, vivid greens, all the precious vermilions, all the chrome yellows and azure blues of his palette were in the end broken to such a degree that his painting is one of the most monochromatic of any period: the paradoxical activity of an orchestra leader (this latter a really contemporary figure) who tries to make violin music with an English horn, and bassoon sounds with a violin.
Finally there are painters of recent times who have mixed the two manners and who, not possessed of an architectural aesthetic, use indifferently all the families of colors, happy that they produce a vibrato adjudged pleasant but which in the long run brings their work back to the aesthetic of printed cloth (virtue of dyes).
In summary, in a true and durable plastic work, it is form which comes first and everything else should be subordinated to it. Everything should help establish the architectural achievement. Cézanne’s imitators were quite right to see the error of their master, who accepted without examination the attractive offer of the color-vendor, in a period marked by a fad for color-chemistry, a science with no possible effect on great painting.
Let us leave to the clothes-dyers the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.
As for us, we find that the major scale alone furnishes unlimited richnesses, and that an impression of vermilion can be given not just sufficiently, but yet more powerfully, by the use of burnt ochre. In accepting this discipline, we have the certitude of confining color to its hierarchical place; even then, with this carefully picked scale, what discernment it takes to mat the colors!
To conclude the problem of color, it is well to specify certain purely rational investigations which add reassuring certitudes based upon our visual functions, our experience, and our habits. Our mind reacts to colors as it reacts to basic forms. There are brutal colors and suave colors, each appropriate to its object. Moreover, given the play of memory, acquired in looking at nature, logical and organic habits are created in us which confer on each object a qualifying, and hence constructive color; thus blue cannot be used to create a volume that should “come forward,” because our eye, accustomed to seeing blue in depths (sky, sea), in backgrounds and in distant objects (horizons), does not permit with impunity the reversing of these conditions. Hence a plane that comes forward can never be blue; it could be green (grass), brown (earth); in summary, colors should be disciplined while taking account of these two incontestable standards:
1. The primary sensory standard, immediate excitation of the senses (red and the bull, black and sadness).
2. The secondary standard of memory, recall of visual experience and of our harmonization of the world (soil is not blue, the sky is not brown, and if sometimes they may seem so, it would only be an accident to be disregarded by an art of invariables).
At last we come to sensitivity.
Until now, if M. Jacques-Emile Blanche has been willing to follow us, he must have found in all this a good many “platitudes,” and little place for exquisite and noble sensitivity.
Until now, we have spoken only of the means of making works of art, because it is there that ideas must command respect. For the question of individual talent, there is really little that can be said; it is a gift of God and not of aesthetics. We are here in harmony of thought with M. J.-E. Blanche: that an art deprived of sensitivity does not exist, and that sensitivity gives life to a work of art. All the same, we affirm that the mind claims imperative rights in what is called a work of art, the work of art being one of the highest manifestations of the human mind. In admitting this postulate, we acknowledge the necessity of architectured painting; we have sought to push aside all factors of futility or disaggregation; we have sought to bring together the constructive means; we have kept to physical questions and have tried that way to throw out bridges toward mathematical order.
The highest delectation of the human mind is the perception of order, and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of collaboration or participation in this order. The work of art is an artificial  object which lets the spectator be placed in the state desired by the creator. The sensation of order is of a mathematical quality. The creator of a work of art should utilize means for specified results. Here is how we have tried to create a language possessing these means:
Primary forms and colors have standard properties (universal properties which permit the creation of a transmittable plastic language). But the utilization of primary forms does not suffice to place the spectator in the sought-for state of mathematical order. For that one must bring to bear the associations of natural or artificial forms, and the criterion for their choice is the degree of selection at which certain elements have arrived (natural selection and mechanical selection). The Purist element issued from the purification of standard forms is not a copy, but a creation whose end is to materialize the object in all its generality and its invariability. Purist elements are thus comparable to words of carefully defined meaning; Purist syntax is the application of constructive and modular means; it is the application of the laws which control pictorial space. A painting is a whole (unity), a painting is an artificial formation which, by appropriate means, should lead to the objectification of an entire “world.” One could make an art of allusions, an art of fashion, based upon surprise and the conventions of the initiated. Purism strives for an art free of conventions which will utilize plastic constants and address itself above all to the universal properties of the senses and the mind.