Leger celebrates a new order

Once a painting is finished, what happens to it next doesn't always go down in history. Who owns it? Where is it hung?

But at least two photographs show where "The Baluster," by French artist Fernand Léger, was immediately hung after he painted it in 1925. It wasn't on any old wall. It was on a wall designed by Le Corbusier, the self-proclaimed "Purist" architect.

Between 1918 and 1925, Le Corbusier (with Amadée Ozenfant) propounded a new idealism. "Purism" or "L'Esprit Nouveau" ("The New Spirit") was a post-World War I return to order.

The "Pavillon de L'Esprit Nouveau," in which Léger's painting was hung, was Le Corbusier's contribution to the 1925 International Exposition of the decorative arts in Paris. This exhibition was meant to promote the "modern" and recognize the importance of the machine-made, an idea central to "Purism." Le Corbusier argued the need for the arts to embrace the "serious rigor" of the "industrial, mechanical, scientific spirit."

His pavilion, designed as "a house for everybody," was a standardized module. Even its furnishings were industrial equipment. Most other exhibits were traditionally decorative. But to Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, decorative art was conservative and retrograde. They even thought prewar Cubism had been "decorative."

They weren't against paintings, however. They were painters themselves. But painting had to be about architectural space. And in 1925, Léger's ordered images, delighting in a machine aesthetic, seemed compatible with Purist aims. Purism was just one aspect of a "new classicism." The central motif in Léger's "The Baluster" shows he associated modernism with ancient classicism. Le Corbusier's take on this included calling the Parthenon "a machine" and "a symbol of precision and of geometric as well as moral rectitude."

The exhibition "L'Esprit Nouveau," previously seen in Los Angeles, is at the Musée de Grenoble, France, through Jan. 6, 2002.

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