The figure of Jean-Jacques Lequeu, with his bizarre architectural fantasies, disconcerting self portraits and obscenely lascivious figures is an enigma. In some respects Lequeu seems very much of his time, a Utopian Neoclassical architect working in the tradition established by his more famous revolutionary contemporaries Claude-Nicholas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose visions also largely existed only on paper, forever unbuilt, and yet also strangely Modern, indeed Post-Modern. This Proto-Surrealist aspect of Lequeu led one art critic to conjecture that Marcel Duchamp himself altered Lequeu’s work while working in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in order to create a suitable precursor as well as enacting some form of recondite revenge on Le Corbusier. Unfortunately for this rather droll conspiracy theory, Duchamp worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and not at the Bibliothèque nationale.
The little we do know about Lequeu does nothing to dispel the mystery. Born in Rouen he worked under several architects in that city, carrying out projects on civil and religious buildings. He won a scholarship to study in Paris where he remained for the rest of his life, living above a brothel. He prepared a book that was to remain unpublished, Architecture Civile; however the projected buildings and gardens with their phantasmagorical blending of Classical, Egyptian and Chinese styles, monstrous Rococo excesses of ornamentation and wanton disregard of expense bore no relation to prosaic reality and Lequeu’s career stalled. He found work in the civil service as a surveyor and cartographer until his retirement in 1815. During the Revolutionary period he entered competitions organised by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where the various architects out-did each other in envisaging ever more grandiose schemes.
Towards the end of his life Lequeu, finding himself broke tried to sell his drawings without success and decided to donate 800 works to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Dying in penury in 1826 it is discovered that his wardrobe contains a large collection of expensive women’s clothing, quite in keeping as Lequeu had produced two self portraits in drag.
The more explicit pornographic material mouldered in the the Enfer (Hell) section of the library. The Petit Palais, Paris recently held the first ever retrospective and the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, has the entire Lequeu oeuvre online.
I have below some of the mind melting architectural drawings, a few of the startling self portraits and a little of the explicit erotica, though in a sense almost everything, especially architecture, is erotic and libertine in Lequeu’s work.
Although there are a few instances of self-portraits in Western Art before Albrecht Dürer, most notably Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) from 1433, Dürer was the first artist to prolifically produce self-portraits throughout their career, ushering in a new conception of the artist who could also be the very subject matter of art.
Dürer’s first self-portrait is a silver-point drawing from 1484 produced when he was only thirteen. At the time he was learning the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father, however such was his precocious artistic talent that he became apprentice to Nuremberg’s leading artist, Michel Wolgemut, at the age of fifteen. Notice the flowing locks of hair and the long, slender, artistic fingers which would be repeatedly emphasised in a number of subsequent self-portraits.
Dürer’s first painted self-portrait is the Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle completed when he was 22 and probably intended as a betrothal present to his fiance Agnes Frey. The thistle was a sign of conjugal fidelity and also thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
The second painting is the Self-Portrait at 26, painted after his first journey to Italy. Here Dürer portrays himself as a man of the world and also a man of fashion. His presence dominates the setting and the landscape seen through the window and his knowing, ironic gaze stares out at the viewer with more than a hint of arrogance.
Dürer’s final and most famous painted self portrait is the powerful Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar from 1500. Here Dürer is unmistakably portraying himself as Christ. The muted tones and the fingers raised in a sign of blessing belong to the traditional depictions of Christ, as well as being half-length and frontal as opposed to the three-quarters length favoured for secular portraits. It is undoubtedly the most complex and introspective of all his self-portraits with an unprecedented psychological depth.
The rest of Dürer’s self-portraits are mainly confided to cameo appearances in other works. However in 1509 he would draw a remarkable Self-Portrait in the Nude, submitted the whole of his body to a merciless self scrutiny that wouldn’t be matched in art again until the advent of Modernism in the early 20th Century.
At beginning of 1919, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (see Madonna) who painted one of the most famous paintings of all time, 1893’s The Scream, became seriously ill with the Spanish Influenza that had already claimed the lives of millions across the world.
Munch painted hundreds of self-portraits throughout his career, most notable are Self-Portrait with Burning Cigarette from 1895 and 1903’s startling Self-Portrait in Hell (see below). Munch’s art which encompassed Symbolism and paved the way for Expressionism, brought a new and unprecedented focus on subjectivity and psychological states, naturally found raw material in the unflinching and dramatic presentation of the diseased and tormented self.
Self-Portrait, Spanish Influenza, though of a later period, is no exception in its neurotic intensity. The jarring colours are suggestive of sickness and trauma and Munch’s sallow mask-like face seems to be staring straight at death.
Munch would survive the Spanish Influenza, dying in 1944 at the age of 80. His paintings and prints retain an evocative urgency in their depiction of the universal states of anguish, illness, sexual anxiety and the dissolution of the body.