An 18th-Century Designer of Fantastical Bodies and Imaginary Buildings Is Posthumously Recognized

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “He is Free” (1798–1799), (all images courtesy the collection of BnF [National Library of France])

I suppose posthumous recognition and appreciation must be better than no appreciation at all. Such is the curious case with Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), the unknown bagatelle utopian architect and prolific proto-postmodern draftsman of grandeur. Once relegated to academic footnotes as a bemusing curio, Lequeu is finally being fully recognized for his cheeky and dazzling drawings that experimented with both perplexing structure and taunting narrative. Particularly impressive are his gobsmackingly libertine, hyper-intense drawings of human genitalia that he rendered as if a prurient Neoclassical architectural folly. The provocative and arresting anatomical rendering that is “Black Woman (After Nature)” (ca. 1795) seems aporetic: both competently rendered and slightly impossible, simultaneously. The finely inked “Of Age to Conceive” (1795–1779) renders, in a hyper-clear precise style typical of architectural drawings, a solidly built oven-like vagina lacunae emitting a strange cold-heat that could bake bread. The insufferable pretentiousness of the symmetrically spiraling pubic hair reads like ideal smoke, or, with a bit of wit, as the wig of the king.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “Of Age to Conceive” (1779–1795), ink,

These indelicate, cropped, figurative drawings that flippantly disregard the niceties of polite portraiture make up only the minority of the hundreds of images that constitute the Fantasy Builder exhibition. However, their merciless intensity surely delivers the greatest ocular impact and stands in stark but complimentary contrast to Lequeu’s utopian visionary architectural drawings done in the Neoclassical vein of Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux (though Lequeu’s taste is a bit more degenerate, flamboyant and ornamental than theirs). “The White Savage (Drawing After Nature)” (1795–1779) is half camp-macabre and half camp-compulsive while being brilliantly structured by a virtuoso sense of visual and narrative rhythm.

The majority of the exhibition, which gets a bit tedious, is of Lequeu’s scrupulously and rigorously rendered (and described) outlandish monuments and fictitious factories that filled his imaginary topography. None were ever built, thus these propositional flat maquettes, such as “Elevation of a Temple to Equality, for the Garden of the Philosopher” (1794),  now are usually classified as visionary architecture. Mentally combining the two bodies of work (the visionary structures and the salacious genitalia) creates for me a monumental make-believe place where lust (rendered with machinelike precision) and caprice meet Cartesian codification.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “The Cut Grove of Dawn” (1779–1795), aquarelle
Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “Hotel Montholon (Salon Project)” (1785) pen and ink wash
Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “Façade of the Fire Station and Interior of the Dairy” (1779– 1795), aquarelle

This space of depthlessly deep contradiction makes for an interesting display that mixes high culture, whimsy, and an almost perverse level of sexual detailing in several undated drawings.  Whereas Boullée and Ledoux took a planetary perspective, in his late-drawings Lequeu turned inward: depicting the complexity of human sexual organs annotated with beautifully handwritten notes. With the drawing of the hermaphrodite deity “Agdistis” (1795–1779) and his cross-dressed “Self-Portrait” (1773), he also dabbled in impish images of pan-sexuality and tranvestism: a turn that gives his works a flippant and immodest, yet obsessive quality very different from the depersonalized detachment of his older arch-rivals.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “Agdistis” (1779–1795)

For whatever unfortunate reason, since he was unsuccessful in his career, little is known about the life of Lequeu — other than he was born in 1757 in Rouen in Normandy. He went to school at the Free School of Drawing and trained initially as an architect in Paris at the Academy of Architecture, was a pupil of (and briefly worked for) the Neoclassical architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (creator of the famous Panthéon building in Paris), before the French Revolution arrived and overturned Lequeu’s grand hopes and plans.

As a result of the revolution, he was merely able to secure a civil servant position, working as a surveyor and a cartographer (employed in various government offices as a draftsman) in the cadastre. He went largely unnoticed, even while spending his artistic energy preparing a vividly illustrated book he called Architecture Civile — which was never published. For it and himself alone, he produced this wealth of highly skilled drawings of strange scenes, like “And We Too Will Be Mothers; Because… !” (1793–1794); the aforementioned flamboyantly scrutinized body parts, like “After Nature” (1795–1779); a series of grimacing faces; and fantasy architectural component parts, like the bird-freeing cri de coeur, “He is Free” (1798–1799) and “The Exit Door of the Pleasure Park (above) and Cow Stable (below)” (1795–1779) — a building shaped as a giant Assyrian or Indian bovine designed to be a cow shed. How post-modern avant la lettre (by centuries) was that? He anticipated the significant Robert Venturi architectural form of duck architecture, defined in Venturi’s 1972 breakthrough book Learning from Las Vegas.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “The White Savage (After Nature)” (1779–1795)
Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “The Priapus God” (1779–1795), aquarelle
Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “Black Woman (After Nature)” (1779–1795)

Lequeu also drew unabashedly lovely make-believe rooms unsparing in their immensity of minutiae, such as “Hotel Montholon (Salon Project)” (1785) and the “Temple of Earthly Venus: Boudoir” (1795–1779). Both hedonistic architectural projects are signifiers of the overindulgence of a bilious, vanished age and yet testify to Lequeu’s drawing dexterity, cultural erudition, and voluptuous obsessiveness. Other less energetic drawings are simpler but straight-up proto-Surrealist weird, like “The Bacchante” (1795–1779) that puts Dionysian nymph ecstasy under the cool eye of a satirist surveyor. It is difficult to tell if he is devil-may-care lampooning or tauntingly glorifying here, since bacchantes are usually depicted as disheveled, wildly celebrating the mysteries of Dionysus-Bacchus. This one seems to be in the tranquil but distressed process of whistling out her ass a delightful tune on a flute.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “The Bacchante” (1779–1795), ink

Scanning all the unrealized projects on view here, one gets the impression that Lequeu, after whole-heartedly leaping into the vast visionary art abyss, found it only went up to his knees. He retired his post in 1815 and while living in helter-skelter impoverishment in a brothel district, died eleven years later in complete obscurity and profound destitution. Lucky for us, just before perishing, Lequeu donated his complete set of beguiling graphic oeuvres to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) who has helped organize this exhibition. There the work went into deep storage and oblivion until the middle of the 20th century when it was rediscovered by the Viennese historian Emil Kaufmann.

A bit of saucy speculation has sprung up around this reemergence. Clearly “Infamous Venus Lying in a Lustful Position” (1795–1779) is a marvelous maniac masterpiece that some have speculated suggests the intervention and/or absorption of Marcel Duchamp. Clearly Duchampian tropes (punning, a penchant for the erotic and the absurd, cross-dressing Rrose Selavy-like poses, and some machinic, science-minded draftsmanship the likes of Michelangelo) are detectable in Lequeu’s Dionysian sensibility. And indeed, Duchamp, after hitting the first pause button on his artistic aspirations, did work in the BnF for a year and a half. But given the uncanny dada combinations of incongruous elements found here, this connection is historically chimeric: There isn’t a scintilla of evidence to support such speculation. And I find it misconceived to even imagine that Duchamp could have kept such an influence (or project) his secret for life. After all, he gamely hailed Raymond Roussel as the dominant dandy influence on his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923) masterpiece.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, “The Exit Door of the Pleasure Park (above) and Cow Stable (below)” (1779–1795)

Even without Duchamp in the shadows, Lequeu bears witness to the haunting solitary drift of the unique artist who transmogrifies art history that was Duchamp. It is now impossible to look at the cultural machinery of the Age of Reason without Lequeu’s sexy scopophilic sensibility muddying up the works.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Fantasy Builder continues at the Petit Palais (Avenue Winston Churchill 75008 Paris) until March 31st, 2019. It was co-curated by Corinne Le Bitouzé, Laurent Baridon, Jean-Philippe Garric, Martial Guédron and Christophe Leribault with the assistance of Joëlle Raineau.

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