Le Corbusier: Architecture Meets Fine Art Meets Graphic Design

“In his lifetime, Le Corbusier made 7,000 works on paper and 450 oil paintings.” So explained Eric Mouchet of Galerie Zlotowski, a Parisian art gallery that specializes in early-20th-century art, especially Cubism, with a special focus on Le Corbusier. The conversation took place two weekends ago at The Salon: Art+Design at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, where more than 50 galleries from around the world—mostly France—had created exquisite room settings with nearly priceless furniture, sculpture, paintings and drawings, lighting, mirrors, books, and jewelry. Well represented were Calder, Miró, Léger—art that might have been on posters on your college apartment walls. Here were the originals. Not in a museum, but in staged spaces designed to remind you how good and how important it is to live with art every day, not just go visit it every once in a while.

The Salon, a five-day exhibition cosponsored by Sanford L. Smith & Associates in New York and the Syndicat National des Antiquaires—the French national union of antique dealers—was the most elegant pop-up store ever. It was the kind of event at which those not familiar with today’s fine-art prices would be “just looking” rather than buying. “How much is this?” an admiring woman asked about a small Léger. “Four hundred and fifty” was the answer. “Four hundred and fifty dollars,” she said, ready to take out her wallet. “Four hundred and fifty thousand” was the reply. Oh. It was the kind of place, however, that with your $20 admission, you could (a) observe the right way to frame and hang and light pictures; (b) get inspired to re-paint your walls one of those mysterious grays or taupes against which art really shines; and (c) learn how to artfully re-arrange your own furniture, accessories, and books. And while soaking in all that inspiration you’d be sipping a freshly mixed martini and nibbling on gravlax while trying to decipher overheard conversations in French and making chitchat with fellow attendees (most of whom were still in shock from Hurricane Sandy and delighted to be inside a warm, well lit, civilized place).

Galerie Zlotowski’s exhibit at The Salon: Art + Design. Eric Mouchet is in the center, with glasses; owner Michel Zlotowski is to his left.

Walking toward the words “Galerie Zlotowski” and “Le Corbusier” in raised lettering on cool gray walls, I expected to see architectural renderings, plans, and drawings of furniture and buildings. Instead, there were paintings and collages—papiers collés—reminiscent of Braque, Picasso, Leger, and Matisse, collages that incorporated pages of newspaper and typographical elements. I asked, “Was Le Corbusier a friend of Picasso?” Mr. Mouchet’s answer: “Who wasn’t?”

“Madame, la table est dressée” (the table is set), 1961. Collage of newspaper with ink and gouache paint.

“Corbu” is usually remembered as a visionary architect who not only designed innovative buildings but wanted to transform low-income, blighted urban areas through planning and technology (“A building is a machine for living!”). So it was curious to be facing an abstract and somewhat typical early Cubist domestic scene of a nude woman with a table set with dishes and wine titled Madame, la table est dressée. The table is dressed, but Madame is not. Could this be the work of the pioneer of the new industrial spirit, the strategist of street grids, prefab systems, and open floor plans?

In the 1930s, I’ve learned, Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a Paris atelier, a residence and studio, for the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant (1886–1956). The two became lifelong friends and collaborators, co-authoring a book titled Après le Cubisme and starting a movement called “Purism” dedicated to “the restoration of the integrity of the object in art.”

From a biography of Ozenfant: “As their style developed, it drew closer to synthetic Cubism’s structure of overlapping planes, but retained a distinct attitude toward the mass-produced ‘tools’ of industrial culture, from laboratory flasks to cafe chairs, which they called objets-types. In the early Purist manifestos, color was deemed secondary to form, and this could be seen in the careful placing of color to reinforce discrete architectural elements by Le Corbusier in his work of the mid-1920s.”

Still Life, 1958. Pasted papers, gouache, and india ink on paper.

Le Corbusier and Ozenfant are credited with introducing a sense of order into Cubism, especially in relation to color. They developed a grid system for painting, organizing overlapping objects and planes, and keeping each patch of color distinct, avoiding “the visual muddiness that can result when patches of color run into each other.” They called this “color solidity,” and in journal articles and manifestos theorized how “altering colors visually by contrast to create the illusion of solidity” could be applied to architecture, especially to the lightweight partition and the glass curtain wall. In the still life pictured above, color is sharply defined, and some shapes could be people but also could be objects. Is it a person or a wine bottle, a hand or the neck of a guitar? And perhaps the picture itself could be viewed as a plan for four rooms, each filled with objects and people, all set atop a layer of newsprint with ads, illustrations, and headline typography. Architecture meets art meets graphic design.

“Taureau (bull or beefy man) XVIII,” 1858. Collage of different types of paper and gouache, mounted on paper.

The same color palette—black and white with primary yellow, red, and blue—is also found in Taureau XVII, a 1958 collage with pasted paper of various kinds, including a page torn from the real estate classifieds. And the same themes, though with much less color, re-appear in Taureau I, below.

“Taureau I” (1961). Collage, gouache, and ink on paper.

“Thèmes Ubu Parurge et Alma Rio,”1960. Collage of different papers and newspaper with gouache and charcoal mounted on bristol board.

The making of fine art is barely mentioned in the timeline on Le Corbusier’s official biography. Painting, the foundation’s officers might scoff, is of much lesser import than architecture and urban planning, a mere hobby. But I now know it’s a key facet in the life’s work of a man who transcended disciplines and reinvented himself. Le Corbusier was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in Switzerland in 1887. After extensive travel and study of art, interior design, and architecture, he moved to Paris in 1917. Three years later, at the age of 33—after meeting Ozenfant, Braque, Gris, Picasso, Léger, et al.—he renamed himself. The name was inspired, it’s theorized, by his maternal grandfather’s name, “Lecorbésier,” and by the French word for raven, corbeau.

And birds are a motif in his work. In Thèmes Ubu Panurge et Alma Rio, above, is the person cloaked in black holding a giant baby bird with an open mouth? Newsprint is also a major ingredient here—real estate listings and classified ads for jobs as an insurance adjustor, a train conductor, and a chauffeur.

Why newspaper? Why classified ads? I have two thoughts: one is about grid and the texture: narrow columns of justified type interrupted by bold rules and subheads add visual texture to the work’s surface. The subject matter is significant, too; classified ads for jobs and apartments and objects for sale bring a working-class element to otherwise high art intended for wealthy homes and salons. And as art historian Douglas Cooper wrote in The Cubist Epoch (Phaidon, 1970), collage was a way to introduce ‘real’ elements into painting. “The painter expresses what he knows and sees about reality and recreates it only in a single manner.” Now, in addition to pictorial representations of objects, a painting could be made richer and more informative with the addition of part of an engraving, a page of a book or newspaper, bottle labels, wallpaper, playing cards.

For those who want to know more (and are visiting France), Galerie Zlotowski is located at 20 rue de Seine, Paris. In New York, Sanford L. Smith & Associates manages other art and antiques exhibitions, including the Outsider Art Fair I reported on last year. And here’s a post with my shots of other inspirational exhibits at The Salon.

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Ellen Shapiro’s Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients: How to Make Clients Happy and Do Great Work is available at MyDesignShop.com.

3 thoughts on “Le Corbusier: Architecture Meets Fine Art Meets Graphic Design

  1. Hank Richardson

    Great topic and commentary Ellen!!! You always have such a distinctive viewpoint that uncovers the uncommon in sharing your thoughts. Typically in the world of architecture Corbusier has just short of a seraphic-to-saintly reverence (have you seen my own glasses). Your reporting gives such a divergent look at Corbusier that is so very insightful. His participation creatively from among his many different interests in the visual arts– painting, graphic design, drawing, interior design, urbanism, design, photography, furniture contributed so many ideas within our culture. This is a wonderful article for graphic design students in particular for if they haven’t researched or heard much about him this is a ‘call out’ to start now– take a read, as this is just a super primer story for one to find their own interest and be inspired from Le Corbusier’s amazing thinking.

  2. Ken Carbone

    Nice reporting, Beautiful images. Sorry I missed the exhibition. I particularly like this:
    “Was Le Corbusier a friend of Picasso?” Mr. Mouchet’s answer: “Who wasn’t?”

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