‘Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect’
“None of Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s work was still standing at the time of his death, and there seems to have been precious little built work anyway,” writes James Fenton. “But here is a curious distinction. It is said that in this period of the eighteenth century, when a house was finished, the plans were often thrown away, as being of no further interest. But if the building in question had not been built or finished, then the drawings might indeed retain some significance, especially in the eyes of their maker. Lequeu valued his drawings and tried late in life to sell them. Meeting with no interest at all, he decided to give them to the National Library of France. And here things could so easily have gone wrong. Lequeu was largely unknown as an architect, having spent much of his working life as a cartographer for the Ministry of the Interior. And besides, a significant number of the drawings were highly obscene: studies of female and male genitalia, a masturbating woman drawn from life, a penis deformed by paraphimosis—all subjects that, for Lequeu, had a potential architectural application. The ideal curve for a balustrade, for instance, might be sought in the outline of a woman’s thighs.
The National Library rose perfectly to the occasion. It already had a section for storing obscene material, called Enfer, or Hell. For the rest, whether out of genuine enthusiasm or because of some now-invisible link of influence (such as Freemasonry), it seems to have happily preserved everything. Nobody appears to have paid any further attention to Lequeu until around 1952, when he was included with Boullée and Ledoux in Emil Kaufmann’s Three Revolutionary Architects. In America, a traveling exhibition called “Visionary Architects” brought the three together again in 1967–1968, very much to the disadvantage of Lequeu. As Dominique de Ménil put it in the foreword to the catalog of that show:
Lequeu’s universe is crowded with details and marginalia, but it is nonetheless empty; alcoves are deserted; temples have no devotees; roads no traffic. The question becomes inevitable: Was Lequeu ever addressing anyone but himself?
Meanwhile J.-C. Lemagny, in the same catalog, wonders whether “a solitary eccentric who was among the forerunners of the ‘bad taste’ of the late nineteenth century, should not be counted in this group.”
Clearly nobody had yet contrived to put Lequeu’s surprising character together in all its many aspects. If they had examined the erotic work, it can only have been to turn away from it in embarrassment and distaste. He seems to have lacked a champion, some artist perhaps, some Surrealist delighted to be scandalized by this singular take on sexuality (someone like Georges Bataille). The exhibition at the Morgan Library, “Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect,” currently alas shuttered, is based on a French show that opened in 2018. It is a little sparing on the erotica, and it is served only by the catalog of the French show, so the situation is not ideal. But it offers the best opportunity yet to begin to form an opinion of this singular artist.”
The museum is temporarily closed. Works from the exhibition can be seen at themorgan.org.
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