The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue

Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, <em>Geometric Map</em>. Pen and black ink, watercolor. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie.
Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Geometric Map. Pen and black ink, watercolor. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie.

On View
The Morgan Library & Museum
New York

The current Morgan Library exhibition title, Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect begs the question, just who was Jean-Jacques Lequeu? A careful visitor may notice that he was in fact really not an architect, and far from visionary. Architecture was the pretext, rather than the occasion for most of these 59 drawings, all lent by the Bibliothéque national in Paris. His highly finished elevations of imaginary structures parody rather than contribute to the profession. Rather than get a job done, they elaborate a number of maladroit role-plays. Lequeu, the self-alleged architect, was only the first. He also posed himself a cosmopolitan reader in history, philosophy, esoterica and pseudoscience, a playwright (the texts have yet to surface), a maybe/would-be/sort-of libertine, and occasional gender shape-shifter, in drawings if not in fact. Lequeu’s essais in self and place give him considerable cachet at present. A great many received ideas can be hung on his, he was all but purpose-built for that, but Lequeu the poet had something else on his mind.

Born in 1757 in Rouen to a family of skilled mechanics and quite a few architects, Lequeu was a more-than-competent draftsman when he went to Paris and worked as such under the protection of Jacques-Germain Soufflot (architect of the church of Saint-Geneviève, now the Panthéon) but when Soufflot died two years later, the young Lequeu lost his best connection to the profession. He was employed here and there during the Revolution without advancing, and even before the Restoration, had foregone architecture to take a post in a cartography department. Mapmaking rounded off the whole second half of his career. He died in 1826. He had built nothing, published nothing, had exerted no influence, and died essentially unknown.

Just a few months before his death, however, Lequeu made history. Having failed to sell his accumulated papers, he managed to donate his unfinished Architecture Civile, incomplete treatises on architectural and figure drawing, plus hundreds of miscellaneous drawings, 200-some books, and a mass of newspaper clippings to the Bibliothéque national. The donation slept until 1933, when the Viennese art historian Emil Kaufmann stumbled upon it, and kick-started Lequeu’s reputation by inflating it. He was the first, but not the most interesting. Later, Philippe Duboy proposed that Duchamp had maladjusted Lequeu’s legacy in his own image, while he was making ends meet with a job at the Bibliothéque. The thesis is unproven, but it is not unbelievable.

No doubt about it, Lequeu loved drawing, which for him was mostly working with instruments: straightedges, compasses, dividers, French curves, pens, brushes, and inks. It had all but nothing to do with design. No sketches, no works in progress survive. If ever he made them, he didn’t keep them. Problems of design are not evident in his work. Neither is good design. Concepts of space, traffic, procession, and all the human social behavior—individual purposes, needs, and desires which guide a gifted architect like so many unseen hands—did not touch our Jean-Jacques. His work is almost pathologically free of purpose and though carbuncled with inventions, strangely negligent of form.

Lequeu the professional was a kind of scrivener, a Bartleby rather than an author, which fact he hotly resented. Perhaps a smarting amour-propre begged him to pretend, and to ridicule both his alleged profession and his own pretensions. What he surely loved best about architecture was making a picture of it. Delineation, quite for itself. The brush and the ink tub. His best work was not problem-solving but depictive, and tonal, and he knew it. He fumbled with everything else, but he had an unerring eye for a finely graduated shadow licking around a column, across an inscribed wall, or a well-turned thigh.  

Despite all the many years he gave to the land registry office, the exhibition includes only one map, but were Lequeu to show us just one, he might choose this untitled (pedagogical?) Geometric Map. Here we meet him as if in person. The artist guides us over a countryside he makes up as he picks his way, untiringly patient, didactic, garrulous, and digressive, with all the time in the world for a plethora of dirty double entendres. He could make a cock or a pussy out of anything, and had to do it, at every opportunity. A hairpin bend in a winding path? Only getting started. Just this once his compulsive scatology shares in the softly rounded warmth of nature. It would have been welcome in his set-piece dirty pictures, but is entirely absent there.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, <em>Cavern in the Gardens of Isis</em>, from <em>Civil Architecture</em>. Pen and black ink, brown and gray wash, watercolor, patch with revision at upper right, 51.7 x 36.4 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie.
Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Cavern in the Gardens of Isis, from Civil Architecture. Pen and black ink, brown and gray wash, watercolor, patch with revision at upper right, 51.7 x 36.4 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie.

When the poet-draftsman Lequeu loved a thing, he drew a section of it. An axial slice down the middle, revealing an unseen interior space, was surely his favorite go-to graphic sleight of hand. A section, which is a purely imaginary concept, makes anatomy out of every subject. Take, for instance, Cavern in the Gardens of Isis, which single sheet no. 33, copiously annotated, comprises figures 99 and 100 from his Civil Architecture. Figure 100 floats in the upper right corner: two alternative designs (one pasted on a flap over the other) for the artist’s grave monument (with inscriptions), presumably for placement somewhere in the Gardens.

Lequeu copped the nominal subject from his library. The nymph Arethusa has escaped the river god Alephus by taking the form of spring water, secreted safely underground. With the bedrock opened like an ant farm, Lequeu laid bare a spring-fed pool in a domed chamber. The nymph is remembered there by a bronze reclining nude, freshwater trickling from her breasts. Alephus, however, had found a crevice aboveground and tumbles into the pool from above left. Mingled, the waters exit together through a chute at the base of the pool, out the right margin.

In section, the unworked earth is a lovely salmon pink, the inward surfaces more sanguine, nicely chambered (ribbed for pleasure?) but flinty-skinned, a bit dentata. Just how the inner works might be visited is barely suggested. The only obvious way in and out is tortuously small and wet. The tableau is hardly architecture as practiced, but seeping fluids, chthonic vapors, subtle aromas, the sound of arrhythmic waters falling from an unseen height, pooled and lapping at a rim carved by centuries, escaping out of sight, the revelation of the invisible and ineffable is this bricoleur’s marked terrain. Here Lequeu was an Academician of one, a master without peers or critics, alone with a gathering world of suggestions that before him were unnoticed, uncatalogued, and unemployed.


Brandt Junceau

Brandt Junceau is a sculptor, currently teaching at the New York Studio School. Instagram: @brandtjunceau 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues