The triumvirate of Utopian Neoclassical architects, Étienne-Louis Boullée, Jean-Jacques Lequeu and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux would have an major influence on Modern architecture in the 20th Century, as well as being hailed by the Surrealists as precursors, particularly Ledoux, who held notably progressive and egalitarian ideals for his time.
The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans was conceived by Ledoux as the first phrase in the construction of an ideal city near the forest of Chaux. Ledoux thought that luxury shouldn’t just be confined to the nobility, it should also be used in the building of a workshop or a barn. The grandiose buildings were laid out in a circle, houses for workers were palatial and the forges had Doric columns. Unfortunately, but not altogether surprisingly Ledoux had to abandon work on the Royal Saltworks in 1778 before its final completion.
This didn’t deter Ledoux from envisaging ever more audacious and grandiose projects for his ideal city though. All public buildings such as the Pacifere (Temple of Concilation), the Oikema (House of Pleasure) were based on the theory of pure forms; pyramid, cube, sphere, cylinder. Statues would be erected for the sake of their effect on perspective or the casting of shadows.
In 1784 Ledoux was selected to design the Théâtre de Besançon. Among his radical and innovative designs was the introduction of seating for all patrons, (a right previously reserved for the nobility), and the screening of musicians in the orchestra pit.
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.
The German shoemaker, mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme’s dense theosophical writings are filled with alchemical references and allusions. These taken together with elements of Gnosticism and the Kabbalah make Boehme one of the most occult inclined of Christian writers.
The following illustrations are taken from the appendix to William Law’s four volume edition of Boehme’s writing translated into English. Law was an Anglican priest who lost his position when he refused to give an oath of allegiance to King George I and therefore become a private tutor. Among his students were Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, (though they fell out over Law’s admiration of Boehme).
The complete series of emblems included above and below tells of Creation, the fall of Lucifer followed by the fall of Adam and man’s redemption through Jesus. Interestingly Sophia, a figure found in Gnosticism features prominently (the top S contrasting with the S of Sathan down below). The drawings of Hieroglyphica Sacra are unusual with their near geometric abstraction, minimalism and pared down symbolism. It is alchemical art taken to its most cosmic level, an allegory of the War in the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Hell
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 1-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
From 1870 to the turn of the century the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon worked almost exclusively in the medium of charcoal drawing and lithographs. Redon called this extraordinary body of work his noirs. Throughout his career Redon’s expressed intent was to place ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’, an aesthetic doctrine that strongly resonated with the Surrealists. Straddling that perilous hinterland between dream, hallucination and otherworldly visions, the noirs present a haunting, nocturnal world that is forever sliding into nightmare.
It was the publication of the bible of Decadence A Rebours by JK Huysmans in 1884 that Redon found fame. The archetypal world-weary Decadent Des Esseintes collects and describes in great detail Redon’s lithographs. After 1900 Redon turned to pastels and oils in paintings that reflected his interest in Buddhism and Japanese art and that became increasingly abstract in his latter years.
One of my more popular posts, and a piece that I have a special fondness for is Art Brut, which highlighted the work of visionary/outsider artists without formal training, many of whom were institutionalised for mental illness. This was followed shortly after by tangentially related posts on The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace and the Acid Cats of Louis Wain, again pieces I am quite tender about, if only because I got to indulge my penchant for purple prose (anyone for a spot of hallucinated decorative splendour?), while showcasing truly exceptional art and architecture.
So after a delayed interval, (a butterfly for a mind), here are more artists driven by an urgent inner necessity to create intensely luminous works of art.
Born in East Prussia (now Russia) Friedrich Schroder was sent to a juvenile delinquent facility at the age of 14 and was committed to an asylum at 17. During the 1920’s he founded a cult, though any money raised went to feeding the destitute ruined by the hyper-inflation of the time. In 1930 he was institutionalised again for debt and working as a conman, posing as Dr Eliot Gnass von Sonnenstern (Sun Star). It was during this period that he met an artist who encouraged him to draw. During WWII he spent further time in prison and labour camps. Friedrich’s allegorical drawings and paintings ladened with erotic symbolism was lauded by the artist and critic Jean Dubuffet, the man responsible for coining the phrase Art Brut.
Consuelo González Amezcua
Born in Mexico, Consuelo (Chelo) Amezcua moved to Del Rio, Texas at the age of five where she was remain for the rest of her life, working at the local department store selling candy. She won a scholarship to study art in Mexico City but her father died, leading her to forfeit the scholarship so that she could remain with her family. Known locally as an eccentric, her family paid little interest in her drawings and poetry (which is frequently incorporated in her art), though at the age of 65 she was the subject of her first exhibition. Chelo’s work is characterised by biblical imagery, Mexican folklore and stunning filigree decorative motifs.
Jospeh E.Yoakum was born in Missouri of African-American, Cherokee and French descent. He joined the circus at nine and worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show which toured Europe between 1903 to 1906. He served in France during WWI. After the war he travelled throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, working on railroads and as a seaman. Joseph settled in the Southside of Chicago in the late 1920’s, working at various occupations including carpenter, janitor and mechanic. At the age of 72 he was inspired by a dream to start making art, calling it ‘spiritual unfoldment’. During the last decade of his life he produced thousands of anthropomorphic landscapes inspired by his extensive travels.
Born of Jewish descent, Louis Freeman grew up in the tenements of Glasgow, Scotland, dropping out of school at the age of eight to help provide income for the struggling family. He later enlisted in the army, changing his name to Scottie Wilson. After serving in WWI he moved to Toronto, Canada, where he owned a second-hand store. At the age of 44 he was listening to Mendelssohn when, all of a sudden, he dipped a pen into the inkwell and started drawing. Pablo Picasso and Andre Breton were early collectors of his intricate and decorative drawings of birds, fish and fauna.