Nature morte is a seminal work from the pivotal moment in the career of Amédée Ozenfant when, along with Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), he forged a new, Machine Age-driven aesthetic from the ashes of Cubism.
Amédée Ozenfant first used the term ‘Purism’ in December 1916 in L’Elan, the journal that he edited during the First World War. The first Purist exhibition was held, with the collaboration of Jeanneret, at the Galerie Thomas in Paris in November 1918. In conjunction with this exhibition, Ozenfant and Jeanneret published a manifesto Après le cubisme (Édition des Commentaires, Paris, 1918), in which they declared that ‘Cubism has remained primarily a decorative art of romantic ornament’ [author’s trans.] (p. 59).
While attacking Cubism’s later floridities, the two young Purist champions retained a veneration for one of Cubism’s central iconographic elements – the wine bottle. This, they felt, offered for art a perfect ‘object prototype’, an invariable and stable form that had been rendered permanent and immutable in time. Understandably, then, still life was soon to become the sole subject matter in their mature Purist paintings, which rejected representational volume and mass, eschewed naturalistic colour, and rendered visible brushstrokes as uniform and non-individualistic as possible.
Ozenfant’s and Jeanneret’s veneration of perfect ‘object prototypes’ was reinforced by a renewed interest in the Machine Age, which they shared with other modernist survivors of the cataclysm of the First World War. This was far from Futurism’s romance with the machines of destruction that had carved surreal new wastelands into both the landscapes and urban idylls of Europe. Rather, Purism’s interest in the machine was a gentler courtship with notions of positive reconstruction prevalent in postwar France, coupled with utopian architectural ideals. Their search for universal elements in art paralleled the general Call to Order that pervaded the post-apocalypse world of the 1920s.
Nature morte is one of a pair of works painted by Ozenfant in 1920–21, that explored the cubist-derived theme of still life with bottles and guitar, in a more simplified and purist form, within a strongly defined architectural space. It relates to a companion work, Guitar and bottles, 1920, in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, in which a virtually identical composition is painted with green and brown tonalities. Both paintings show two guitars (one lying across a table surface, with the top of the second visible behind the table’s edge), a lamp, and two wine bottles.
Nature morte was included in Ozenfant and Jeanneret’s second Purist exhibition, held at the Galerie Druet, Paris, during January and February 1921. In April 1921 this painting was reproduced, in colour, in Maurice Raynal’s seminal article ‘Ozenfant & Jeanneret’ in L’Esprit nouveau (no. 7), the journal owned and directed by the two artists. Here Raynal wrote of Ozenfant’s belief that ‘colour is only the slave of form, and one should always be wary of slaves’ (p. 827). The work’s controlled palette of muted blues and steely greys pays understated obeisance to this ascetic creed.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)