The National Museum of Western Art (NMWA), Tokyo’s special exhibition “Le Corbusier and the Age of Purism” provides a tangential look at the career of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), who went on to become better known as the pioneering modernist architect “Le Corbusier.” This survey of his transition from painter to designer of buildings and urban spaces is a revealing origins story that suggests a greater understanding of Le Corbusier’s architectural vision could come from considering his 2D images.

Creator of elegant minimalist villas, and a promoter of raw concrete who used wartime coastal defence fortifications as inspiration for a church, Le Corbusier has been canonized as a creative genius but also vilified as a megalomaniacal opportunist many times over. The acknowledgement most pertinent to this exhibition is the NMWA building itself having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016.

Though there are several architectural models on display, including a section devoted to the iconic Villa Savoye (1928-31), built in Poissy in the western suburbs of Paris, the exhibition mainly focuses on Le Corbusier’s painting. It also includes work by artists that led to the purism movement developed by Le Corbusier and French artist Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966) in response to cubism.

The inclusion of a fairly large selection of paintings by major artists such as Juan Gris, George Braque, Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso, combined with a concentration on Jeanneret’s creative output before he re-invented himself as Le Corbusier, has the interesting effect of re-framing one of the world’s first celebrity architects as a relatively minor painter reacting to his contemporaries.

In the context that there has been controversy over where Le Corbusier’s creative imagination sprang from, this is not a hagiographic review of the architect’s greatest hits. The lack of biographical information on Le Corbusier’s methodology led to the idea, coined by Le Corbusier scholar Tim Benton, that his best works were born of “immaculate conception”; that is to say from sudden transcendent inspiration unfathomable to lesser mortals.

While Le Corbusier’s cool, austere buildings project an image of rationalism and calm, the evolution of his paintings from the late 1800s through to the 1930s is slightly reminiscent of the transformation of the portrait in Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Le Corbusier’s early emotionally neutral still-lifes are cerebral experimentations in testing the limits of 2D representation in expressing mass and volume. Using muted and limited color, household objects are depicted as semi-abstract monumental structures.

As Le Corbusier establishes his identity as an architect of rigor and functionalism, and painting is relegated to being a more private activity, the images become more organic and erotic. There are comic ornamentations, splashes of vibrant color and there is an obvious recognition of human desire. Besides this contrast of austerity and sensuality, it’s also interesting to see how Le Corbusier put so much effort into trying to convey volume in two-dimensional art before developing an architectural style in which plane geometry plays a crucial role.

To accuse Le Corbusier of being a man of contradictions is also an established part of his legend, and has been used as a basis to both attack and defend his legacy. The exhibition is all the more interesting for allowing visitors the space to consider Le Corbusier’s emergence as a creative force, rather than a fully formed machine of genius. Less convincing is the design of the exhibition, which, given the provenance of the venue, is underwhelming, and something of a missed opportunity.

“Le Corbusier and the Age of Purism” at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, runs until May 19; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.nmwa.go.jp/en.

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