Eric Mouchet has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
"There are no sculptors who just sculpt, no painters who just paint, and no architects who just design buildings; the artistic event takes place in 'ONE FORM'—in the service of poetry." — Le Corbusier
"Seek and you shall find. Look into the depths of the work and ask yourself questions. There are illuminations and scenes, hours of substance…And in addition there are the screams of the subconscious, sensual and chaste; everything you can imagine." —Le Corbusier
Painted in 1930, Le Corbusier’s Nature morte à la lanterne is a striking and large still-life that dates from a fascinating period in the artist’s career during which the rigid stasis of Purism softened, and a looser, more organic style began to dominate his work. An architect as well as an artist, the Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, as he was known before he adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920, first burst into the Parisian art world when he and his artistic comrade, Amédée Ozenfant, published the bold manifesto Après le cubisme in 1918. Calling for a "return to order" after the fragmentation and incomprehensibility of Cubism, these artists founded Purism, a movement that established an aesthetic of order, clarity and rhythmic unity. By 1925, the pair had disbanded, and Le Corbusier began to adopt a freer painterly idiom, looking to the natural world for inspiration; a stylistic shift that occurred both in his painting and his architecture. Depicting two objects, a lantern and a cafetière, a coffee pot, upon a tabletop, Nature morte à la lanterne encapsulates this radical artistic transition, a work that appears almost abstract in its construction. Resonating with a clarity and purity, it is imbued with a distinctly surreal quality, a complex and compelling painting by one of the key figures of early 20th century modernism. On the reverse of Nature morte à la lanterne, Le Corbusier dedicated the work to his close friend, the French doctor Pierre Winter, who was the original owner of the painting.
The lantern that appears in Nature morte à la lanterne was in the artist's personal collection and was a motif that had appeared in a variety of guises throughout Le Corbusier’s career. Starting in 1918, the form of the lantern appeared as a legible, opaque geometric structure (Jornod, no. 13), yet this gradually evolved to an abstracted object. Le Corbusier simplified the structure of the lantern, transforming it into the form of a geometric prism that depicted the shafts of light and shadow created by its presence (Jornod, no. 31). In the present work, this abstraction is taken to an extreme. A pattern of interlocking geometric lines denotes the lantern, which has cast a dramatic shadow on the far left hand side of the composition.
The cafetière was also featured in a number of other works of this period (Jornod, nos. 61, 88 and 100). Throughout his Purist phase, Le Corbusier had focused on simple, unembellished and most importantly, functional mass-produced objects—glasses, bottles, plates or vases for example—pure plastic forms that were represented in their most generalized and depersonalized form. This was one of the central characteristics of Purism, reflecting the artists’ desire for an aesthetic based on order, unity, discipline and control in contrast to the hedonistic idiosyncrasy and excess that they believed had characterized Cubism. As the artists stated in Après le cubisme, Purism presents "not variations, but what is invariable. The work should not be accidental, exceptional, impressionistic,…picturesque, but on the contrary general, static, expressive of what is constant…PURISM fears the bizarre and the 'original.' It seeks out pure elements with which to reconstruct organized paintings" (Le Corbusier and A. Ozenfant, "Après le cubisme," 1918, quoted in C. Eliel, Purism in Paris, 1918-1925, L’Esprit Nouveau, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001, p. 22). By using uniform objects in their works, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant focused solely on form, creating art that they believed would be permanent and enduring.
In the late 1920s, however, Le Corbusier’s still lifes underwent a dramatic change. He began to expand his repertoire of objects, incorporating what he termed objets à réaction poétique—objects that evoked poetry for the viewer. Finding unique objects from the natural world—shells, pebbles, pieces of wood or bone—Le Corbusier started to include these organic pieces into his work alongside the functional, pure forms of Purism. The rigors of geometry were infused with the natural world. "For Le Corbusier now," Christopher Green has written, "all natural phenomena, along with the perfectable utensils of the man-made world, can inspire, can have a place in both painting and architecture" (C. Green, "The architect as artist," Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p. 114).
Le Corbusier’s depiction of these still life objects also altered. The rigidity of his ordered Purist battalions of vessels relaxed. No longer controlled and uniform, the objects became rounder and more exaggerated. In the present work, the cafetière has been metamorphosed into an amorphous undulating form; its sensuous outlines conjuring a distinctly corporeal quality, appearing almost like the soft contours of the female figure. In stark contrast, the lantern that stands next to it is constructed solely with a network of fine geometric lines. Unlike the volumetric depiction of the cafetière, only the barest structural outlines of its form have been depicted. Playing with form, proportion and construction, Le Corbusier was clearly relishing in the nature of three-dimensional objects and how they could be depicted onto a two-dimensional surface: a very different means of expression in comparison to the rigorously mechanized, almost depersonalized Purist compositions. Color—an aspect that had come secondary to form in Le Corbusier’s Purist works—was also freed. In Nature morte à la lanterne color was used in the construction of the composition: bold shades of red, orange and yellow contrast with the softer tones of green, blue and pink, all of which vibrantly erupt against the white background of the painting.
Yet, while the type of objects that Le Corbusier chose to include changed, as well as the style with which he used to depict them, Nature morte à la lanterne demonstrates that the spatial construction of a composition remained a central preoccupation for the artist throughout his career. As with his Purist paintings that have a stringently architectonic structure, in the present work, Le Corbusier focused on the formal relationships between objects. Framed by a number of vertical lines and horizontal planes of color, the carefully composed composition is dominated by an acute sense of tension. The lines that depict the lantern appear almost like structural plans, revealing the artist’s architectural tendencies. Yet, the image is infused by the strange, disquieting, almost surreal effect created by the contrasting objects and their setting; a unique and compelling work within the artist’s richly varied oeuvre.