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Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Bâtisseur de fantasmes (Fantasy Builder)

Petit Palais (Avenue Winston Churchill 75008 Paris)

December 11, 2018 - March 31st, 2019

Published at Hyperallergic as An 18th-Century Designer of Fantastical Bodies and Imaginary Buildings Is Posthumously Recognized

“Black Woman (After Nature)” (between 1779 and 1795) aquarelle, collection of BnF (National Library of France)

“He is Free” (1798-1799), collection of BnF (National Library of France)

I suppose posthumous recognition and appreciation must be better than no

appreciation at all. Such is the curious case with Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–
1826), the unknown bagatelle utopian architect and prolific proto-postmodern
draftsman of grandeur. Once relegated to academic footnotes as a bemusing
curio, Lequeu is finally being fully recognized for his cheeky and dazzling
drawings that experimented with both perplexing structure and taunting
narrative. Particularly impressive are his gobsmackingly libertine hyper-intense
drawings of human genitalia that he rendered as if a prurient Neoclassical
architectural folly. The provocative and arresting anatomical rendering that is
“Black Woman (After Nature)” (ca. 1795) seems aporetic: both competently
rendered and slightly impossible, simultaneously. The finely inked “Of Age to
Conceive” (1795–1779) renders, in a hyper-clear precise style typical of
architectural drawings, a solidly built oven-like vagina lacunae emitting a strange
cold-heat that could bake bread. The insufferable pretentiousness of the
symmetrically spiraling pubic hair reads like ideal smoke, or, with a bit of wit, as
the wig of the king.

“Of Age to Conceive” (between 1779 and 1795), ink, collection of BnF (National Library of France)

These indelicate, cropped, figurative drawings that flippantly disregard the

niceties of polite portraiture make up only the minority of the hundreds of images
that constitute the Fantasy Builder exhibition. However, their merciless intensity
surely delivers the greatest ocular impact and stands in stark but complimentary
contrast to Lequeu’s utopian visionary architectural drawings done in the
Neoclassical vein of Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux (though
Lequeu’s taste is a bit more degenerate, flamboyant and ornamental than theirs).
“The White Savage (Drawing After Nature)” (1795–1779) is half camp-macabre
and half camp-compulsive while being brilliantly structured by a virtuoso sense
of visual and narrative rhythm.
The majority of the exhibition, which gets a bit tedious, is of Lequeu’s
scrupulously and rigorously rendered (and described) outlandish monuments and
fictitious factories that filled his imaginary topography. None were ever built, thus
these propositional flat maquettes, such as “Elevation of a Temple to Equality,
for the Garden of the Philosopher” (1794), now are usually classified as visionary
architecture. Mentally combining the two bodies of work (the visionary structures
and the salacious genitalia) creates for me a monumental make-believe place
where lust (rendered with machinelike precision) and caprice meet Cartesian

“The White Savage (Drawing After Nature)” (between 1779 and 1795), aquarelle, collection of BnF (National Library of
“Infamous Venus Lying in a Lustful Position” (between 1779 and 1795), aquarelle, collection of BnF (National Library of

“The Priapus God” (between 1779 and 1795), aquarelle, collection of BnF (National Library of France)

This space of depthlessly deep contradiction makes for an interesting display that
mixes high culture, whimsy, and an almost perverse level of sexual detailing in
several undated drawings. Whereas Boullée and Ledoux took a planetary
perspective, in his late-drawings Lequeu turned inward: depicting the complexity
of human sexual organs annotated with beautifully handwritten notes. With the
drawing of the hermaphrodite deity “Agdistis” (1795–1779) and his cross-dressed
“Self-Portrait” (1773), he also dabbled in impish images of pan-sexuality and
tranvestism: a turn that gives his works a flippant and immodest, yet obsessive
quality very different from the depersonalized detachment of his older arch-rivals.
“Agdistis” (between 1779 and 1795), collection of BnF (National Library of France)

“The Exit Door of the Pleasure Park (above) and Cow Stable (below)” (between 1779 and 1795), collection of BnF (National
Library of France)

For whatever unfortunate reason, since he was unsuccessful in his career, little is
known about the life of Lequeu — other than he was born in 1757 in Rouen in
Normandy. He went to school at the Free School of Drawing and trained initially
as an architect in Paris at the Academy of Architecture, was a pupil of (and briefly
worked for) the Neoclassical architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (creator of the
famous Panthéon building in Paris), before the French Revolution arrived and
overturned Lequeu’s grand hopes and plans.

As a result of the revolution, he was merely able to secure a civil servant position,
working as a surveyor and a cartographer (employed in various government
offices as a draftsman) in the cadastre. He went largely unnoticed, even while
spending his artistic energy preparing a vividly illustrated book he called
Architecture Civile — which was never published. For it and himself alone, he
produced this wealth of highly skilled drawings of strange scenes, like “And We
Too Will Be Mothers; Because… !” (1793–1794); the aforementioned
flamboyantly scrutinized body parts, like “After Nature” (1795–1779); a series of
grimacing faces; and fantasy architectural component parts, like the bird-freeing
cri de coeur, “He is Free” (1798–1799) and “The Exit Door of the Pleasure Park
(above) and Cow Stable (below)” (1795–1779) — a building shaped as a giant
Assyrian or Indian bovine designed to be a cow shed. How post-modern avant la
lettre (by centuries) was that? He anticipated the significant Robert Venturi
architectural form of duck architecture, defined in Venturi’s 1972 breakthrough
book Learning from Las Vegas.

Lequeu also drew unabashedly lovely make-believe rooms unsparing in their

immensity of minutiae, such as “Hotel Montholon (Salon Project)” (1785) and the
“Temple of Earthly Venus: Boudoir” (1795–1779). Both hedonistic architectural
projects are signifiers of the overindulgence of a bilious, vanished age and yet
testify to Lequeu’s drawing dexterity, cultural erudition, and voluptuous
obsessiveness. Other less energetic drawings are simpler but straight-up proto-
Surrealist weird, like “The Bacchante” (1795–1779) that puts Dionysian nymph
ecstasy under the cool eye of a satirist surveyor. It is difficult to tell if he is devil-
may-care lampooning or tauntingly glorifying here, since bacchantes are usually
depicted as disheveled, wildly celebrating the mysteries of Dionysus-Bacchus.
This one seems to be in the tranquil but distressed process of whistling out her ass
a delightful tune on a flute.
“The Bacchante” (between 1779 and 1795), ink, collection of BnF (National Library of France)

Scanning all the unrealized projects on view here, one gets the impression that
Lequeu, after whole-heartedly leaping into the vast visionary art abyss, found it
only went up to his knees. He retired his post in 1815 and while living in helter-
skelter impoverishment in a brothel district, died eleven years later in complete
obscurity and profound destitution. Lucky for us, just before perishing, Lequeu
donated his complete set of beguiling graphic oeuvres to the Bibliothèque
Nationale de France (BnF) who has helped organize this exhibition. There the
work went into deep storage and oblivion until the middle of the 20th century
when it was rediscovered by the Viennese historian Emil Kaufmann.

A bit of saucy speculation has sprung up around this reemergence. Clearly

“Infamous Venus Lying in a Lustful Position” (1795–1779) is a marvelous maniac
masterpiece that some have speculated suggests the intervention and/or
absorption of Marcel Duchamp. Clearly Duchampian tropes (punning, a
penchant for the erotic and the absurd, cross-dressing Rrose Selavy-like poses,
and some machinic, science-minded draftsmanship the likes of Michelangelo) are
detectable in Lequeu’s Dionysian sensibility. And indeed, Duchamp, after hitting
the first pause button on his artistic aspirations, did work in the BnF for a year
and a half. But given the uncanny dada combinations of incongruous elements
found here, this connection is historically chimeric: There isn’t a scintilla of
evidence to support such speculation. And I find it misconceived to even imagine
that Duchamp could have kept such an influence (or project) his secret for life.
After all, he gamely hailed Raymond Roussel as the dominant dandy influence
on his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923) masterpiece.

Even without Duchamp in the shadows, Lequeu bears witness to the haunting
solitary drift of the unique artist who transmogrifies art history that was
Duchamp. It is now impossible to look at the cultural machinery of the Age of
Reason without Lequeu’s sexy scopophilic sensibility muddying up the works.

Joseph Nechvatal

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