Le Corbusier, Matisse, and the Meaning of Conceptual Art
We believe that a work should be completely set in the mind; in which case technical realization is merely the rigorous materialization of the concept, almost a matter of fabrication.
—Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, After Cubism
This ugliness is born of heterogeneity, of incoherence, from the detachment that occurred between the idea and its materialization.
—Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White
In April of 1947 Le Corbusier visited an exhibition of large-scale paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Writing to his wife, he made special note of two works by Henri Matisse, they were among the most challenging of Matisse’s wartime works: Bathers by a River of 1909-1916 and The Piano Lesson of 1914. Not only did Le Corbusier single out Matisse’s works for praise but, more surprising, found them superior to the works of his friends Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso. The competition was stiff. Picasso was represented by three monumental achievements: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Three Dancers and Three Musicians. Although Le Corbusier’s work had been continually associated with his friends Léger and Picasso, Le Corbusier’s later identification with Matisse, beginning around 1940, was long prepared.
Le Corbusier had known Matisse at least since the 1926 Villa Stein commission, a house where Matisse’s works were on prominent display and where Matisse and Le Corbusier discussed their mutual interests at length. (Fig. 1) Writing in 1960 Le Corbusier noted that in 1927 Matisse was “having tea…in Stein’s house” when he was asked by the architect “‘What do you think of it?’” Matisse, he says, was “confused and entirely delighted.” “I am utterly at a loss!”1 Now, at MoMA, it was Le Corbusier who lost his bearings. Standing before Matisse’s most challenging cubist-inspired works, Le Corbusier found them more “sublime” than the cubist masters.
Two years later, Le Corbusier visited Matisse, then eighty years old, at his studio in Vence. “Nailed to his bed for ten years”—he was off by about five years—Le Corbusier wrote his mother, Matisse “decorates an entire chapel for the Sisters.”2 Holding a ten-foot stick with charcoal at its end, Matisse was wheeled around his studio making sketches along the walls for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Alongside the chapel decorations, Le Corbusier notes that Matisse “cut out color papers [découpé papiers de couleur] one after the other, arrange the facts [disposer les faits].” That each cut-out shape was “un fait” for the artist to “disposer” was a description of Le Corbusier’s method, one he saw reflected in his friend’s recent work. What is clear is that Le Corbusier found common cause with Matisse in their shared but highly personal version of collage. They both conceived of their work as a matter of separable and fully formed elements that could be freely arranged but that could nonetheless compose a unity by virtue of an underlying identity of purpose between the separable units.
Le Corbusier had long conceived his work under these terms, while Matisse seemed to have reached this conclusion with his cut-out work. In practice, Le Corbusier envisioned his structures, and the elements that make them up, as existing independently of their site conditions. Speaking to an audience in Brazil Le Corbusier described the new “stage we have reached: houses produced in a factory, standardized, mass-produced, efficiently. They leave on a railway car and go anywhere….The pilotis adapt it to any terrain.”3 Pilotis provided a dual function, they could “offer liberation from innumerable constraints” as well as providing clear cylindrical forms.4 In other words, they functioned at once to dissociate the work from its environment and functioned within the work as contributing to the geometric order. As framing mechanisms, pilotis were construed as existing both inside and outside the work. By 1949 Le Corbusier was designing a house for a professor that “permits building on any terrain whatsoever.”5 More emphatically he declared that architectural elements “have become free organs.”6 “Throughout [a structure], such elements have become distinct, and free with respect to one another.” Similarly, Le Corbusier spoke of his late sculpture as something “not modeled but assembled.”7 The various elements within the Ubu sculpture, for instance—ear, mouth, hand, hints of “landscape, of lagoons or beaches, or other things”—were starkly separated from each other awaiting a “miracle” to unite the divergent forms into a “world.”8 In the Ubu paintings and sculptures it is the pedestal (figural and literal) that functions like pilotis to both separate the work form world but that also functioned as an integral part of the composition. (Fig. 2)
The very existence of the Ubu sculptures was testimony not just to the difference between art and world but the seeming independence of artistic idea and material artifact. Le Corbusier noted that he was approached in 1946 by Joseph Savina, a cabinet maker with no prior sculpture experience, who thought Le Corbusier’s paintings were “‘sculptable.’” At first Le Corbusier took this as the “cruelest judgement that can be made” of his paintings. “Is this the confusion of methods, [was the] verdict without appeal?” But what it ultimately revealed was the insufficiency of any media ontology, a kind of site specificity that limited the capacity to convey meaning beyond a localized context. For Le Corbusier, Savina’s sculptures were no different from a building built by contractors and construction crew. Although the media were different, it was all “one thing.”
It is a question of a work of art, that is, of a will to reveal and to seize the emotion in relationships. These relationships are determined by the precise facts like exact words, put together in accordance with the kind of logic which is, precisely, the reality of art. It is obvious that these precise facts, words or objects, are within grasp; if they are grasped clearly, a certain quality of spirit in the artist is shown….If the hand can seize them or move freely among the secrets of their interlacing, it is because they are conceived, willed and executed with firmness and with truth. And perhaps with subtle overtones.9
Le Corbusier ends the passage by noting the identity of his various media, all of which are separable from but also include their frame: polychrome sculpture on a pedestal; houses and large buildings “raised up on posts”; and cities “lifting up in the sky.”10 Anything that is called a work of art—regardless of medium—is composed of a closed relation of emotions, a logic that persists beyond the specific context of their realization.
And if picture frames are left out of that list, he addressed them directly at an earlier moment in the essay. Le Corbusier noted that his underlying commitment to “unity” makes his focus on certain aspects of the work make sense. His fixation on the frame, pedestal, and pilotis clarifies his sense of the difference between work and world. Here he writes of his discovery of a new type of picture frame:
This need for unity makes imperative in all fields decisions which may seem of secondary importance. Thus, for example, for a long time picture frames caused me the most painful distress. Some said, “Frames are useless”; others like to surround the most daring modern pictures with old carved and patinated Italian and Spanish frames….I noticed, first of all, that frame-makers never hesitated to cover a half inch or more of the edge of a picture. In general, painters are not bothered by that; they don’t notice it. Finally, in 1938, I hit on a frame which is flush with the canvas; it is made of two-by-two-inch wood and the canvas slips in from the front and becomes encased. As a result, the edges of the canvas are exposed. Thus, the exact mathematical or geometrical relations may be appreciated; they are no longer falsified or distorted by the frame-maker.11
What the overhanging frame obscured was the precise set of internal relations in the work. The point of having his pictures “encased” by the frame was to exemplify the difference between the literal and fictive, outside and inside of the work. Clarifying the nature of the frame allowed him to both differentiate between work and world, but also, by virtue of the clear geometry of the shape, include the frame as part of larger geometry of the composition. As should be clear, Le Corbusier was emphatic in his sense of the necessity of signaling the limits and extent of the work in its proximity and difference from the world. The logic of the frame inflected his understanding of murals as well. Le Corbusier wrote of seeking out the “most unpleasing walls,” the most “cramped spaces” of a house to place his murals. It was only within these enclosed areas that the murals “created space.”12
What I have been edging towards with this discussion was how Le Corbusier conceived his work within a much larger paradigm of artistic thinking—call it classical, Renaissance, idealist or Cartesian—that involved a highly controversial vision of the difference between mind and matter, of artistic idea and material execution. If the assemblage approach to composition was avant-garde, then the assemblage vision of the subject, the division of mind from matter, was something more traditional and potentially more problematic. Writing in Modulor II (1955), Le Corbusier reflected that his paintings were “born complete” at “the moment of conception.”13 It was an idea that went back to his earliest reflections on art. In his first book, After Cubism of 1918, co-written with Amédée Ozenfant—himself a student of Matisse’s short-lived school—in the section entitled “Conception,” they wrote of artworks being “completely set in the mind; in which case technical realization is merely the rigorous materialization of the conception, almost a matter of fabrication.”14 The authors were careful insert the word “almost” to describe the relation between concept and realization, suggesting a slippage between the seemingly divided realms of mind and body. They acknowledged, at least in passing, that there was a relay between concept and materialization. Moments like these in Le Corbusier’s writings have tempted commentators to see him as committed to a strictly dualist conception of idea and execution. To take one instance, Christopher Green observes that for Le Corbusier “on one side lay inspiration and on the other realization, which was, ideally, the mere execution of the ready-prepared.”15 But this kind of dualism, without further explanation, will miss the central point of Le Corbusier’s conceptualism. As I will argue, properly understood, Le Corbusier (and Matisse) attempted to logically separate the artist’s concept from its execution, but they never saw this difference as literal, ontological or interposing a barrier between interior (mental) and exterior (material). Before examining how Le Corbusier construed the right relation between concept and execution, we might ask what motivated his attraction to this highly contentious concept-driven aesthetic.
I want to address an important but rarely discussed passage in When the Cathedrals Were White that I think clarifies the nature and complexity of Le Corbusier’s account of ideation. In a chapter on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris, Le Corbusier excoriates its methods, decrying the Ecole as a “camp of death.”16 The school represents “memory, security, lethargy,” the diploma a death certificate. The Ecole has “killed architecture” because it neglects “life,” its lessons are detached from the “weight of materials, the resistances of matter,” the necessity of working with “matter, time, expense.”17 The ugliness that pervades the modern world is the result of the “detachment that occurred between the idea and its materialization [du décollement intervenu entre l’idée et sa matérialisation].” Like Matisse, Le Corbusier’s word for this death-dealing separation is “le dessin.”18 The problem with the Ecole is not the Beaux-Arts method, but how that method has been separated from its connection with life. The method could be used to teach how at “all times and places, the spirit created, made new things, marched forward firmly supported on contingency [appuyé solidement sur la contingence].”19 It is the denial of contingency that is at the root of his critique of Beaux-Arts teaching. He lists those contingencies: new materials, techniques, programs, the new needs of society, and the spirit of “new times.” By contrast, the Schools have “erected ‘the design sheet’” to protect themselves against contingency.20
Now occurs the most remarkable turn in his argument. After establishing a basic contrast between “la vie réelle” and the denial of life at the Ecole he finds the alternative to the “design sheet” in the ordering process that “takes place in your brain [c’est dans le cerveau que l’opération s’effectua].”21 The sheet will only accept “technical signs which are useful to manifest and transmit this thought [pensée].”22 What is most striking about this claim is that Le Corbusier clearly identifies “la vie réelle” with “pensée.” How does this work? What the Beaux-Arts architects fail to do is “scrutinize contingency.” It is in and through and upon this investigation of contingency that the idea emerges. He asks architects to “clearly establish the nature of contingency and place your feet on this trembling springboard…in order to leap forward.”23 What he is describing is a four-part process: working with contingency, learning the rules of matter, through this double task thought emerges, and that thought can be set down in technical drawings. The “bad” separation between “idea” and “materialization” is the one that leaves out the engagement with reality, an architect who goes from idea (of the teacher or of books) to paper without the intervention of contingency. By contrast, the “good” separation, involves the distinction between the thought, born out of an engagement with the “resistances of matter,” and its execution either on paper or in building materials. If the thought was intentional—meaning, directed toward the world—then the architecture will contain that “mass of intentions” buried in the form. Le Corbusier’s point about ideation is to say that one could never know the materiality of stone, concrete, iron or steel, from school; one would never know how it feels to ascend or descend a ramp or look out a window at a changing environment from books. One could never know the sensation of the body moving through space—promenade architecturale—by working from a style guide. Paradoxically, the only way to do justice to the “resistances of matter” is to work out the program in thought and then transfer it to the paper surface.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Le Corbusier is engaged in the most infamous of artistic mistakes, a dualist distinction between mind and body, self and world. Le Corbusier, was, after all, heavily invested in Cartesianism. Author of “The Cartesian Skyscraper”—“translucent, cleancut, gleamingly elegant”—Le Corbusier hoped to situate these steel and glass structures within a vast “Cartesian city.” (Fig. 3) Le Corbusier held out hope that the technological and financial power of the United States would “exchange a solid handshake” with France’s “Cartesian reason” to create the ideal city.24 Poking fun at the current state of American skyscrapers, he asked in a 1931 article, “Is Descartes American?”25 The Cartesian universe is defined by “formulas,” something that can be “used in place of a reality that is itself too cumbersome to deal with.” Formulas allow one to “realize an intention, pursue a desire” which can then be “measured against the reality of life.” Although this “labor” is described as “purely intellectual,” it is still guided by “intuition.” Formulas perform the act of “transubstantiation of raw natural elements…into signs that are words with clear and reliable connotations, that are capable of expressing a world.”26 While it is true that Le Corbusier nurses a fantasy of reliable communication between formulas, he has a much less confident sense of the transmission of an artistic intention, the availability of the “world” that saturates his every design.27 Writing of his paintings, he observed how “the canvas goes out alone, making or not making its way, bearing its message.”28 More generally he spoke of those “buried masses of intention, a veritable world, which reveals itself to those whom it may concern, which means: to those who deserve it.”29 The point of the formulas was not the structures themselves, but the capacity of those structures to “express a thought, to realize an intention, to pursue a desire.”30 Thought, intention, and desire are what motivate the formulas and what the formulas allow one to convey, even if those intentions buried in the formula remain obscure to most audiences.
Desire, intuition, passion lie embedded even in the most reasonable acts of anonymous construction. Here is how he puts the matter in his discussion of “Permanence” in Urbanisme (1925):
There is always some sort of enthusiasm even in a reasonable man, and that passion even the ultra-reasonable man will put unawares into his slide rule….Real passion is the thing that inspires us to behave in ways that are not those of reason….Passion is the “potential” of the emotions which in the long run decides man’s fate, and the determining emotions attached to things….And we may risk the hypothesis that the greatest emotive works, works of art, are born from a happy conjunction of passion and knowledge.31
What we respond to in the work of art is the poetry and the passion, the hidden “flame,” the permanent quality that enlivens material “fact.” The permanence attributed to the passions is a product of their immediacy. It is the special quality of the “passions of the soul” that, according to Descartes, “one cannot be [deceived]…with the passions, inasmuch as they are so close and internal to our soul that it is impossible it should feel them without their truly being such as it feels them.”32 And because they are without “proximate cause” being “referred particularly to the soul itself,” they are strictly infallible.33 Anthony Kenny provides an important gloss on Descartes’ Les Passions de l’âme (1649). First, “an emotion is a purely private mental event which is the object of an immediate and infallible spiritual awareness.” Second, any action that results from a passion introduces a causal mechanism that “links the action to the physiological process which produces the passion.”34 There is, in other words, a separation between inner life and outer world that can only be bridged by a causal connection. The failure of this position, Kenny argues (citing Aristotle and scholastic philosophy), is that it is a “misrepresentation” of the emotions to say that the relation between them and their object is causal. For Descartes an emotion is an event that occurs within the subject and those emotions generate events, which produce effects in the world, but those events are separate from, downstream from, the emotion itself. This means that the emotion does not include the action, is complete without its object, intends nothing for it. By contrast, emotions, Kenny argues, are not objectless, they are “intentional” by their very nature, they “have objects” to which they are directed.35 The danger that Le Corbusier constantly raises is that intentions are some infallible internal reality which gets projected into matter. And from that it follows that it is the job of the viewer to pick up those emotions embedded in an object and commune with the artist across space and time. On this account, the materiality of the work is reduced to an empty receptacle for conveyance of an emotion. This position I will call, following Stanley Cavell, the “bad picture” of intentionality and I will try to show that Le Corbusier and Matisse were tempted by this picture but also refused it. The bad picture construes intention as a property, as “some internal, prior mental event causally connected with outward effects.”36 As I will argue, the main problem is not exactly the Cartesian version of the claim (which is rarely held), but the anti-intentionalist version that assumes that this bad picture defines intentionality itself. Anti-intentionalists, on this account, are inverted Cartesians, doubling down on the mistake rather than repairing it. As I have already shown, although Le Corbusier’s practice is riddled with oppositions, divisions, binaries, hierarchies between inner and outer, there is no sense in which the inner term—concepts, intentions, ideas, passions—are objectless and therefore only contingently related to the world they address.
A clear source for Ozenfant and Le Corbusier’s “Cartesianism” was Matisse in his “Notes of a Painter” of 1908. Matisse notoriously declared that “For me, all is in the conception [tout est dans la conception].”37 Like Le Corbusier, Matisse consistently distinguished between concept and execution, although never with the aim of severing the relation. It is “necessary to distinguish between conception and result,” he told Pierre Courthion, speaking unfavorably of a group of paintings by Velazquez.38 Matisse’s most sustained treatment of the concept-result distinction appeared in a 1945 interview with Léon Degand. Degand presses Matisse on the “breath of spontaneity” that seemed to saturate his work. “Spontaneity is not what I am looking for,” Matisse replied. He compared his work to that of an acrobat—a theme explored in Jazz—whose “long preparatory work” permits him to “attain this result” of facility.39 He stressed how his work required “organization by very conscious, very concerted means.” Elaborating on his process he told Degand that “I work from feeling. I have my conception in my head, and I want to realize it. I can, very often reconceive it….But I know where I want [the work] to end up.” Feeling and concept are in no way separate realities for the artist, the concept is the feeling in “condensed” form. This is of course another iteration of his earlier claim in the “Notes of a Painter” that it is “necessary to have a clear vision of the whole right from the beginning.”40 Degand took up his point and wondered whether this conceptual approach would “cut off your inspiration.” Matisse rejected the idea: “No. I have within me something to express, through plastic means, I work as long as that has not come out.”41 Degand was clearly stung by Matisse’s answers. “I cannot help finding Matisse’s approach to painting, this obstinate construction, this extreme consciousness of a fine intellectualism” at odds with the spontaneous impression generated by his work. Matisse’s point was to say that the “impression of spontaneity” was the result of conceptual labor, even the palimpsest of marks was less a matter of finding the expression than searching for its fullest embodiment. Like Le Corbusier, Matisse defined creation by the elaboration of “preparatory work” that went on—weeks, months, years—in advance of the physical making of the work, a point Le Corbusier underscored in the title of his 1960 book Creation is a Patient Search. Notice how the feeling to be expressed was never actually separated from the “plastic means” of expression. So even though the stress throughout was on the conceptualized feeling in advance of the work, there was another sense in which there was no conceptualized feeling outside the work.
Undoubtedly it is the cut-outs that raise the problem of the concept more than any other aspect of Matisse’s oeuvre. Many of the cut-outs performed the ostensive role of preparatory work for a decorative production. Remi Labrusse summarizes the situation: “The designs for Jazz and for Océanie, le ciel and Océanie, la mer were made into prints; the one for the Vence chapel, for Lierre en fleurs, for Poissons chinois, for La Vigne, were made into stained-glass windows; Apollon, La Piscine, Les Acanthes, Grande Décoration aux masques, etc., were originally conceived as ceramic murals; not to mention the book covers, the scarves (for the Ascher commission), the tapestries, the chasubles, etc.”42 (Fig. 4) As this list begins to suggest—and there many other instances—much of the cut-out production assumes a division not only at the level of cut-out elements and the work to which they are ultimately fixed, but between the “works” themselves and their final realization (whether or not they actually served their putative function as preparatory design).
One may suspect this division between artistic elements and compositional deployment is a version of the Cartesian separation between the mental world and the physical one. This view is so widely condemned that it stands as a shorthand for the problem of modernism itself. Consider, for instance, Yve-Alain Bois’ insistence in “Matisse and Arche-Drawing” that “all of Matisse’s art hangs on the impossibility of a gap between conception and realization.”43 What is at stake for Bois, as it is for so many, is a condemnation of those who attempt to “escape from the dictates of materiality.”44 For Matisse, Bois maintains, “pictorial…practice is not projective: in his work, there is no image—in the classical sense of disegno—that is not coextensive with the [pictorial] field.”45 Matisse was contemptuous of the idea that “Design is an entirely projective practice (the designer, imitated all too frequently by architects, projects on paper in a priori fashion what others will go on to realize); for the designer, the formal idea is prior to the actual substance.”46 It is this “clear separation, not to say hierarchization, between conception and realization on the one hand, and between drawing and color on the other,” that Matisse opposed “with all his might.”47
Bois is surely right to contest any hard division between concept and realization in Matisse’s practice. Indeed Bois’ gloss on what Matisse meant by “all is in the conception” takes us a long way toward understanding Matisse and Le Corbusier’s “conceptual” aesthetics. When Matisse says “I have my conception in my head,” Bois writes, he means that “he also has the surface in his head.”48 There is no hard division between concept and picture because the concept itself is shaped by virtue of its impending execution and by the specific nature of that task. When Matisse conceptualized he did so in the terms set by his medium. In other words, rather than a preformed idea being implanted in a passive material, the idea itself was formulated with its material realization already an integral feature of it. This is precisely how Clement Greenberg regularly (and brilliantly) defined the modernist approach to picture making. Writing of Cézanne’s dialectical relation between world and work in “Cézanne and the Unity of Modern Art” (1951), Greenberg reflected that while Cézanne was committed to the “motif in nature in all its givenness,” that motif could not in itself “provide a sufficient basis of pictorial unity.” Unity, Greenberg writes, “had to be read into it by a combination of thought and feeling—thought that was not a matter of extra-pictorial rules, but of consistency, and feeling that was not a matter of sentiment, but of sensation.” Both thought and feeling exist within a “pictorial” set of habits; they are not imported from the outside but are part of the process of attenuated and layered action of picture-making.49 Greenberg is likely following Roger Fry here in his book on Cézanne. There Fry reflected at length on what he called “the intellectual part of [Cézanne’s] sensual reactions.”50 Once again, the point is to suggest how normative it is (or was) to conceive of concept, thought, intellect as imbricated in sensual or “materialist” processes.
Fry’s and Greenberg’s sense of the imbrication of concept and medium in Cézanne is widely evident in Matisse’s approach. Writing in “Notes of a Painter” Matisse famously said “I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.”51 Which is to say, Matisse’s “feeling” already included, at its inception, its translation into a medium. But here too Matisse asserts a difference, a distinction at the same moment he is observing mutual entanglement. Bois’ account, by contrast, while deflating the hard distinction between mind and matter, fails to register the practical, logical and irreducible distinction between the two. Although Bois rightly rejects intentionality as a causal connection between mind and matter, his denial of mind turns the work into an object. Why? Because as Cavell shows the “bad picture” of intention is also a bad picture of a work of art. Without an inner quality to every act, the work becomes “more or less like a physical object, whereas the first fact of works of art is that they are meant, meant to be understood.”52 Against Bois’ materialism, it would be better to insist that when it comes to art there is no moment where matter stands free of meaning.
Writing in 1957, G. E. M. Anscombe directly engaged the question raised by Bois when she described the “intuitive” or “natural” picture of intentionality. What is the intuitive sense of intention? That “if we want to know a man’s intentions it is into the contents of his mind, and only into these that we must enquire.”53 Both Anscombe and Bois reject this view of playing mental detective, of extracting hidden contents from a conceiving mind. But that is where the commonalities end. Although Anscombe rejects any interiorized theory of intentionality, she equally insists that intentions “can very often not be seen from seeing what [someone] does.”54 Anscombe asks a question that seems to be refused outright by Bois, but that is central to Matisse’s and Le Corbusier’s practices. “Is there ever a place for an interior act of intention?” 55 Her answer is yes. She gives the example of an ironic hug. Anscombe describes a situation where a “contemptuous thought” enters into “a man’s mind” so that he means “his polite and affectionate behavior to someone on a particular occasion only ironically, without there being any outward sign of this.”56 There is, in other words, a clear difference between an interior and outward act. The man gives someone a hug but “the thought in his mind” is anything but affectionate: “‘you silly little twit!’”57 Here Anscombe distinguishes a thought that “occurs” in the mind—something that just pops into one’s head—and a thought that is meant. The difference is between thinking something while giving a hug and meaning something while doing the same. What is significant about her argument here is that the ironic-sincere distinction is not visible but its being invisible does not render it void (Anscombe is not, in other words, a behaviorist, not someone who believes that one’s behavior is a read-out of or replacement of one’s inner life). So while Anscombe insists that an “intention is never a performance in the mind”—no hug, no intent—she equally insists that in order to get a “correct account of a man’s action” it is essential to see how the action was “meant.”58 As the point about being “correct” makes clear, without trying to figure what someone meant by a gesture, without going beyond “materiality,” there is no capacity to be right, wrong, correct or incorrect.
Writing at the same moment, Anscombe’s partner, Peter Geach, in Mental Acts directly engages with what he calls “Wittgenstein’s Alleged Rejection of Mental Acts.”59 According to Geach, “Of course Wittgenstein did not want to deny the obvious truth that people have ‘private’ mental life, in the sense that they have for example thoughts they do not utter and pains they do not show; nor did he try to analyze away this truth in a neo-behavioristic fashion.” What Wittgenstein (and Anscombe) wanted to “deny,” Geach observes (following Gottlob Frege’s famous distinction), “was not the private reference of psychological expressions”—that feelings refer to inner experiences—but rather “the possibility of giving them a private sense,” that a “performance” could be devoid of public expression and therefore remain “uncheckable.”60
Consider again Bois’ gloss on Matisse’s phrase “I have my conception in my head.” As Bois understands it, Matisse means “he also has the surface in his head.” Obviously, the surface is not actually in his head, the concept of the surface is in his head; he is bearing the surface in mind as he conceives the picture. There, it plays its part in the dialectical relation between the world and the will, where the contradiction between inner and outer turns out to be something else—a concept emerging within the artist’s understanding of contingent reality. Each part—the artist’s will and the artist’s understanding of material reality—performs a generative and a normative function. If there were no distinction between concept and surface—if there were only surfaces, public matter, without private experience—one could not say whether an artist went wrong or right, if they were successful or failed to convey meaning. This is the force of the “concept” in Matisse’s and Le Corbusier’s practice. If there were no mental concept, then “surface”—the space within the frame—would not be surface but more like undifferentiated space. That is, unless there is some difference between work and surface, there is no capacity to have meaning, success, difficulty, or error. Or rather, “meaning” can only and ever be a matter of what people take it to mean—an endless, indifferent profusion of affect.
As I have already suggested, this distinction between inside and outside is mirrored in the work of art itself. There must be a difference between the work of art and the physical object, or one would never be able to identify a mistake, stain, blemish or damage. To give a crude example, if a work were hung upside down, one would be unable to say “upside down” unless one went outside the physical object to establish that fact. If a work were damaged in any way one would be unable to assert there was damage unless one went outside the object—the thing damaged—to distinguish it from the work which was free of it.61
The point is to say that what we interpret before a work of art is what the artist meant for us to interpret, which we should, and instinctively do, differentiate from the full range of our sensations before a work. My point about the possibility of relining—or any change in the physical makeup of the work—indicates that what an artist meant is frequently, and in time inevitably, not identical with the physical object. That is precisely what one means, and what any conservator deals with every day, when one says a work of art is damaged (or undamaged), faded (or pristine), badly (or correctly) hung, poorly (or well) lit, or that there is a smudge on the protective glass (or not).
These matters typically do not take an artist by surprise (even if it does a surprising number of art historians). Artists work in a medium and working in a medium means working with specific qualities of that medium including some sense as to how it will change over time. But the work will inevitably change in ways that are outside even the most imaginative sense of the future. For this reason, everyone (artist included) instinctively distinguishes a work from its physical object status, which is to say everyone instinctively distinguishes an artist’s intention from the intent as it manifests in a material artifact. (Le Corbusier, for instance, thought obsessively about the nature of ruins, grounded in his early encounter with the Acropolis in Athens, a point I’ll come back to at the end.) This instinctive sense in which an artwork changes over time, although it does imply a hierarchy between work and object, does not imply what Bois (and others) call an “escape from the dictates of materiality.”
Allow me to take a final look at the materialist mistake, what I am calling inverted Cartesianism. This approach finds its most extravagant expression in the work of Rosalind Krauss. Writing of a performance based on Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa she describes the nature of the artistic parody performed. (Fig. 5) If we feel that Roussel’s “paint-by-numbers” version of Van Gogh-type expressive gestures are parodic and unsettling that’s because
they come from our belief that everything about the original image is an expression of the inner feelings and thoughts of its maker. This includes the individual strokes of paint—their thickness and variation—as well as the peculiar physiognomy the artist gives to objects and the way he molds the space they occupy. The whole of the original painting carries, we feel, the autograph of its author; its importance to us is in the authenticity with which it bears the imprint of his very being. It is in that sense that we feel there to be a correspondence between the space of the image which we can see and the interior psychological and, therefore, invisible space of the author of the image. But, in fact, the whole of Impressions…seems to be expressing a total disbelief in the notion that there must be an intimate, causal connection between an individual and what he makes, a thinker and his thoughts, or the content of a mind and the space it projects. The story is punctuated by images that ridicule a Western rationalism built on the necessity of logical connections. Set up in the center of the African village is a statue of Immanuel Kant portrayed as a kind of burlesque thinking machine: when a trained magpie perches on a lever next to the statue, intense lights inside the philosopher’s skull are suddenly switched on in a parody of the blinding onset of reason.62
Here are the mistakes as Krauss sees it: the image is the “expression of” the inner; there is a “correspondence” between the image and psychological states; viewers seek a “causal connection” between inner and outside, between mental contents and projected space. On first glance, Krauss roundly rejects the “bad picture” of intention. But it is not as if the problem for Krauss is to get a better picture of intention, it is to see that Roussel is right about intention, and that intent is the mistake. There is no other picture of intent than the “bad” one. The point is to rid the work of intentionality and replace it with “materiality,” Bois’ “surface.” But again, without an appeal to the inner experience, those surfaces can only and ever mean whatever we take them to mean. Krauss thinks Wittgenstein’s critique of “private language” applies equally to Anscombe’s account of an “interior act,” which Krauss can only gloss as a “private space within each speaker.” But the whole point of calling it an act, is to say it is not private, because it is not a thing at all; it is a thing that exists as a relation between inside and outside.
It’s not that Bois or Krauss reject meaning outright, rather the alternative to the “illusionistic center or interior” account of meaning is to see meaning “as arising from…a public, rather than a private space.” The minimalists (or whomever is affirmed) “lodge all meanings within the conventions of a public space.”63 It might seem like public meaning and convention are explicitly meant to counter the privacy of affect. But whether the “space” is public or private is irrelevant. What matters is what is meant by meaning. Public meaning, meaning that refuses to appeal to what an author meant by their action, has no capacity to be, as Anscombe noted, “correct.” What could a “correct” public meaning be? If we consult conventions what we are consulting is a history of uses. We’re in the same situation as Anscombe with the ironic hug. All we can see are the arms embracing someone, and without wondering what someone meant by the gesture, we are left with what anyone takes it to mean, which just is their affect.
However much the notion of disegno is lamented—Bois calls it “tawdry Aristotelianism”—it was surely on Le Corbusier’s mind when he quoted Domenichino (“a Renaissance artist”) in After Cubism writing, “No line…should issue from an artist’s hand without its first having been formed in his mind.”64 While the line is mentally separate from its physical realization, the “it” here identifies the drawn line with the mental line. Clearly, something is implied along similar lines to Matisse’s surface “in” his mind. The mental performance is inextricable from its object; its object is an understanding of material conditions; the concept is the result of a dialogue between the willing self and the world, a dialogue conducted in practice. Thus, it suggests that the mentally formed line is made possible by all the lines one has drawn in the past. One might say that Matisse and Le Corbusier took seriously what Kant famously declared in the Critique of Pure Reason: “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without conceptions blind.”65
Le Corbusier borrowed from an even more radical strain of Renaissance thinking about disegno when he separated the drawn line—mental or physical—from the space of creative thought. “Not to draw,” he wrote, “but to see first the project in one’s head. The drawing is only useful to help with the synthesis of the thought-through ideas.”66 While it is still possible to think of the “project” in the head as made possible by past built works, there is an attenuation process between matter and mind that seems relevant here. The reference may be to Puvis de Chavannes famous remark to Emile Bernard that “before it is executed, my creation is almost always complete in my head.”67 Remarkably, Matisse took up Puvis’ claim late in life, just after the completion of the Vence chapel. Speaking to André Verdet in 1952 he said, “A work of art is never made in advance, contrary to the ideas of Puvis de Chavannes.” Matisse described Puvis as someone “who claimed that one could not ever visualize the picture one wanted to paint too completely before starting.” Against this view Matisse brilliantly maintained “There is no separation between the thought and the creative act. They are completely one and the same.”68 What is more remarkable about this claim is that at the very moment he made it, he was pursuing a mode of practice that exacerbated the difference between thought and act.
The cut-out works were made, as Le Corbusier observed, of separate cut elements (“les faits”)—Matisse accumulated piles of cut-out shapes—which he would subsequently arrange (“disposer”) on a picture surface days, months, even years after the shapes were initially cut. In other words, Matisse did not visualize the final creative act in the temporally separate acts of cutting out, painting, and arranging his various vegetal, aquatic and avian forms. The separate elements cut and colored, he would arrange them across a variety of surfaces until he achieved a final state that achieved a felt unity.
This novel artistic situation requires some comment. One might distinguish three qualities of Matisse’s cut-out practice that clarify if not differentiate these late works from his main body of painting and that put the notion of the unity of thought and act under pressure. Moreover, these qualities were likely the ones Le Corbusier found most sympathetic to his own aims. First, the individual cut-out elements were painted by studio assistants: Matisse never painted the surfaces himself. Second, as John Elderfield notes, the cut-out works are produced by the “decorative organization of…preformed signs.”69 The signs themselves are largely conceived and produced independently of their deployment in a specific work. Moreover, once they were created they could be subsequently arranged and rearranged, often over long durations, to produce different compositions until a final result was achieved. Third, as mentioned earlier, many of the cut-out works were themselves ostensibly plans for another work (prints, tapestries, stained-glass windows, ceramics, book covers and illustrations, scarves and chasubles). But as I have argued up to now, there is no sense in which this temporal dispersion across media, across hands, has any bearing on the status or integrity of Matisse’s intentionality.
In the simplest terms, Le Corbusier identified with the increasingly architectural dimension of Matisse’s cut-out works, the sense in which there was an irreparable gap between concept and realization, what one wanted to say and what was said. What Le Corbusier was seizing on in his fixation with conceptualization was the necessary loss entailed in the execution of a work of art. The seemingly radical division between mind and matter in the classical tradition, the one articulated by Alberti in De Re Aedificatoria and cited by Stanislaus von Moos in his account of Le Corbusier, that “It is possible to create either in thought or imagination perfect forms of buildings without paying any attention to the material,” seems to run counter to my argument so far.70 The cord that binds concept and realization seems to be cut. Following on this idea Von Moos points to Le Corbusier’s notes for the Maison Errazzuriz in Chile where he writes that the plan is “by no means dependent on particular materials; in Chile…a modern space conception could be interpreted perfectly well with the help of fieldstone and roughly hewn tree trunks.”71 (Fig. 6) Notice, of course, the crucial difference between paying no attention to materials in Alberti and a lack of dependency on materials in Le Corbusier’s phrasing. For Le Corbusier, the hands of peasant craftsmen in Chile, like Savina’s (untrained) wood realizations of his paintings, capture enough of the “logic,” if not the letter, of the concept that the idea remains perfectly transmittable across certain material boundaries. This is simply the condition of architecture for Le Corbusier: there are unaccountable mediations all along the line.
More notorious still is the béton brut surfaces of the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles (under construction at the time of his visit to Matisse). (Fig. 7) A certain conceptual primacy came to the rescue here, as the massive structure was beyond his supervision or indeed any particular contractor’s supervision. “Béton brut was born at the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles,” Le Corbusier wrote, “where there were 80 contractors and such a massacre of concrete that one simply could not dream of making useful transitions by means of grouting.”72 Given that the execution of the building was well beyond his, or any particular agent’s, control, he would appeal to the primacy of the plan in relation to its execution. “I decided: let us leave all that brute,” he wrote, and “I called it ‘béton brut.’” Here we discover Brutalism’s origins at the hands of 80 contractors and one “conceptual” architect. As Le Corbusier was at pains to convey to a growing legion of New Brutalist architects, the execution—the brutal look of the whole—was not exactly the point of access to the “mass of intentions” embedded in the work.73 When he next came to make the Carpenter Center at Harvard, he used béton brut again, but its execution was closer to the plan. (Fig. 8) “The Visual Arts Center that we are doing together at the center of Harvard University,” he wrote his collaborator Josep Lluís Sert, “is in béton brut, but smooth, and this is in a spirit of perfection which animates you as well as me.”74 Given the opportunity to closely control the execution of his plans—working alongside someone he trusted implicitly—he could carry out a smooth surface, one that would more clearly reflect the idea of the whole. But Le Corbusier did not hold out much faith or invest much energy in achieving some ideal proximity of plan and execution. As he well knew, 80 contractors bore a symbolic significance for him, they represented the general condition of architectural expression. What 80 contractors do today, time and use will do tomorrow.
Undoubtedly, concrete functioned for Le Corbusier and others of his generation as a material that approximated the pliability of thought. “He loved concrete that could take any shape, as it was molded in forms,” his assistant, André Wogenscky, reflected.75 Concrete was ideal because it was a mode of materiality that was at once accommodating and resistant to imaginative turns of thought. But as the Errazzuris and Unité episodes suggest, a project could retain its meaning beyond its material instantiation. One might say that the inevitability of ruination stood at the very heart of Le Corbusier’s commitment to the concept, much as the loss of personnalité structured Matisse’s project.76 The “very great shock of standing before the Acropolis” at the age of twenty one was clearly an event that galvanized Le Corbusier’s attitude toward the primacy of the plan. The shock of the Acropolis was surely twofold: physical decay accompanied by the vitality of the “thought” that animated the stones.77 It is of course impossible to know what Le Corbusier would have made of the Acropolis in its original condition, but there is little doubt the ruinous condition was conceived as the generator of the force of ideas embedded in the site.78 In other words, Le Corbusier’s conceptualism was driven by the most traditional source, the anxiety of loss.
Le Corbusier from the beginning of his career and Matisse toward the end of his life were driven by a vision of change and decay. Notions of survival and permanence, immortality and freedom, drove their projects and ultimately brought them together. An anecdote recorded by Leo Stein captures the proximity of Le Corbusier and Matisse’s thinking around the primacy (but not division) of concept over materialization.
One must in great measure take the old masters as one takes Greek sculpture—as more or less fragmentary, and often restored to the point of being hardly more than copies. Fortunately, where the basis is substantial much is left, even in the ruins. Matisse once pointed to the difference in two plaster casts that I had of heads by Donatello and Michelangelo. In the Donatello, he said, if one cut away the surface modeling nothing would be left, but the Michelangelo could be rolled down a hill till most of the surface elements were knocked off, and the form would still remain. So it is with the greatest of the older painters, though many of the pictures in the museums are of little value, except as specimens.79
It is a thought that goes down hard. One might detect the hidden signs of Cartesian interiority reemerging, as though the form were independent of its materialization. Matisse’s point is about the quality of the idea, not the nature of conceptualization.
And the thought is completely obvious in architecture. Once the ribbon is cut on the structure, so the largely independent life of the work begins, and every moment—every scratch, every alteration, every new use—places a growing wedge between concept and execution. Le Corbusier’s painful experience at Pessac was simply an all-too explicit reminder of the nature of all artistic production once it leaves the artist’s hands. Le Corbusier would radicalize the thought in the opening line to his last statement, Mise au point, “Nothing is transmissible but thought.”80 “Thought alone,” he wrote, escaped the “law of life: death.” The “Raison d’être,” he continued, was to find “that which is impassably permanent in the midst” of changing events, a theme that again runs through an earlier work, the chapter “Permanence” in Urbanisme.81 This was an iteration of an earlier idea. In When the Cathedrals Were White Le Corbusier observed how the very freedom of thought was generated by the threat of perishability.
Nature ends a life…by death; and nothing is transmissible except the nobility of the fruit of work: thought. Everything else disappears: the immense attainment of an individual during his lifetime. Everything dissolves, everything has to be begun again by each individual person: struggle, effort within one’s self, individual, passionate, and yet disinterested conquest. That is the law of life: death. And that is beautiful, sublime, for there is no purpose in an egoistic hoarding of treasure.82
There is an immense amount of Corbusian poetics in this passage, much of which will have to wait further consideration. What drives his thought here is something like the ontology of architectural production, the reality of the difference between the work and its inevitable and ongoing separation from the artist’s expressive presence. The logical distinction between thought and matter was the traditional way of contending with change. Rather than denying matter, concepts allowed Le Corbusier to pay due homage to it.
What if we disagreed about whether the dominant color in Harmony in Red [of 1908] was scarlet or vermillion? Or about whether it was bright red (or bright enough to be scarlet, rather than vermillion)? Then we would be appealing to our sensations, but in order to fix our description of the thing. So, our experiences would be pertinent to our interpretation of the picture—insofar as it matters to us what color Matisse chose, which it must. But then, we might say, having been relined, it is not bright any longer (but still vermillion), but we know that Matisse meant it to be a scarlet. So our interpretation will be an interpretation of a scarlet field, not of the vermillion one we’re looking at. The point is simply to say there are ways our bodily experience (of brightness, for instance) would be pertinent to interpretation; but there are even more significant ways in which the artist’s intentions still trump those experiences when we interpret the work (Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism [Minneapolis, ME: University of Minnesota Press, 2013], 38).I owe a debt of thanks to Charles Palermo for thinking through these issues with me.↑