New York

Le Corbusier

Denise René Gallery

Charles Edouard Jeanneret, called Le Corbusier, was surely one of the greatest architects in the history of that art. Even his stupendous state funeral in the courtyard of the Louvre in 1965 was a milestone in the record of public respect for modern art. Le Corbusier was, of course, primarily an architect and to judge him on any other grounds would be like calling Picasso to task for a fairly slack career as a sculptor. But he was always interested in the plastic arts and he painted and drew all the time. At lectures given in America he even painted and drew while he talked. He had a sculptural side too, but it was sublimated into the modeling of the concrete that his mentor Auguste Perret had first taught him to use.

The painting part never got quite sublimated, and consists of two kinds of work: the use of color on architectural surfaces, and easel paintings of a heterodox Cubist type called Purism. The use of color in and on buildings was interesting but not unique; Léger, for one, was always talking about it. And when this use of color became “artistic,” involving abstract murals, the results (as at the ceremonial entrance of the Ronchamp chapel) were not his most successful. It is with the actual paintings of Corbu that the current exhibition at the Denise René Gallery is mainly concerned, along with drawings and some examples of tapestry and sculpture.

Purism was a simplification of the Cubist esthetic. Its polarization of form into plan and elevation never involved such heavyweight ideas as “depth analyses” of inanimate objects or mental reconstructions of reality. But from Cubism it did take a predisposition for still life (although in a somewhat conservative way it overemphasizes the mere placement of such objects) and a sort of gentlemanly curiosity about showing the top and side of an object at the same time. Of the two purest Purists, Corbu and Amédée Ozenfant, the second was probably the better painter. There are both weak and overworked spots in Corbu’s pictures, whereas Ozenfant has overall more compositional inevitability and more of the repose that Purism sought after.

Flatness is big here. So much so that the tinge of conservatism permitted the Purists to retain some continuity with the Post-Impressionist tradition instead of fooling around with space. It is as if, having asserted its right to ignore space in 1890, art felt free to forget it completely in 1920.I do not like materialist explanations for the development of the Kunstwollen, but there is some fascination in the fact that in 1918, when he met Ozenfant and also Léger, Corbu had a detached retina and for awhile saw everything 2-D.

It is interesting to compare Corbu’s Violin, verres et bouteille (1925) with the artist’s preparatory study in pencil for it, Nature morte (1925). The changes that have been made in the design are of a fiddling, perfectionist sort. For instance, Corbu couldn’t decide whether the crisp corner above the violin in the upper right should be more or less acute, and the mouth of the farthest bottle to the right originally followed the curve of the violin. All this would be terribly interesting if this were a working drawing for, say, the High Court at Chandargah. But to work it all out for the sake of this pleasant but simpleminded picture does not seem quite worthwhile. Often, however, the pencil drawings are very appealing in themselves. As in the case of Mansart’s projects for the Louvre, we get a sense of great intellectual vitality as an idea is changed and there is some quick erasing or redrawing with the pencil pressed down hard.

For an artist so dominated by a disegno ideal, some of the paintings are charmingly colored, indeed particularly the rather Rococo Lodi (1927; watercolor and pencil). Sometimes the colors have an unexpected clashing brightness which suggests Picasso colors of around 1930—colors that look like they are meant to be taken to the beach. Sometimes there is a Légeresque separation of color from form, the tones drifting in independent patches, but in the pictures in which this effect is most prominent we usually run into problems over the date (such as, Deux femmes, 1935–60).

The two sculptures aren’t too interesting. Panurge II—première recherche (1962) is a somewhat Westermann-like open wooden box with Arp-like biomorphic shapes inside. Icone—troisième recherche (1963) is a Picassoid lady with a nose like Matisse’s Jeanette. Both are polychrome. A tour de force of tapestry is Traces de pas dans la nuit (a mock-Surrealist title?), executed at the great factory established by Louis XIV at Aubusson. A wandering, linear piece of rope trails about, oblivious to the demands of warp and woof, and a wide expanse of carefully modulated color is punctuated with a pattern of regular dashlike “strokes.” The rope relates to a collage, Une corde . . . (1963) and the regular dashes look back to Deux bouteilles et livre (1928), a painting in which they have the representational function of schematically depicting a printed page.

I would like to add as a postscript, a fact which relates to Corbu’s conscious and deliberate classicism—of which his Purism in painting was but a single manifestation. I may not be the first to note this, but his most famous dictum, that “A house is a machine for living in” (Vers une architecture, 1923), may well be a negative allusion to Rousseau prompted by a journal entry on man by, of all people, Eugène Delacroix: “. . . that brute, that machine made for living, for digesting, and for sleeping” (May 1, 1850).

Lizzie Borden