Painted in 1939 and completed a year later, in 1940, Le Corbusier’s Mains croisées sur la tête is an important and highly unique work that marked a new direction in the artist’s plastic oeuvre. Alongside his groundbreaking and now iconic architectural projects, throughout his life Le Corbusier remained devotedly dedicated to painting and drawing, regarding these practices as an essential part of his work as a whole. Believing that an artist was a composite of roles – draughtsman, architect, painter and sculptor, Le Corbusier used his art to further elucidate the theories and ideas that fascinated him. Standing at a metre high, this large painting presents a glorious kaleidoscopic array of bright, radiant colours in the middle of which a heavily stylised mask-like face emerges. This is the first of a series of works in which Le Corbusier explored both the physiognomy of the human face as well as the complex psychological nuances that lay behind his conception of the human form.
While the female figure had become the leading protagonist of Le Corbusier’s art of the 1930s, in the present work, the artist has reimagined the human form, combining both male and female in a single, deftly executed motif. On the left hand side of the central motif, the unmistakable face of a man emerges, his heavy-set face depicted with grey, and cheekbone and eye socket with facets of brown. A mane of golden hair crowns his angular and robust visage. Overlaid onto this frontal portrayal is the same figure’s profile: the outline of his nose, lips and forehead denoted with black and outlined in white. On the right side of this mask-like configuration, the unmistakable face of a female figure emerges. In complete contrast to her male counterpart, this woman’s face is painted white, a mask-like plane rendered with softly curving edges to emphasise her femininity. Likewise, her mouth is rendered in a soft ‘O’ shape, her lips coloured in a shade of light pink. Depicting not only a face in two distinct planes, but combining two different figures in a single image, Le Corbusier unites male and female, infusing this painting with a complex and compelling duality.
This physiological and symbolic unity is continued in the two interlinked hands that emerge from the faceted background of the composition. Above the face, two hands are visible: one, rendered in green and red, and below this, a smaller, less noticeable one in pink. This motif had emerged in Le Corbusier’s work in a series of drawings of a female nude from the late 1920s. The artist himself stated that although Mains croisées sur la tête was executed in 1939, it was based on an idea that had originated in 1928.
Another artist who was also experimenting with this faceted vision of the human form was Pablo Picasso. In many ways, these two artists can be seen as standing at diametrically opposed poles of the Twentieth Century. While the former was characterised by a cheerful, vibrant southern temperament, the latter was introverted, a philosopher among the artists, striving for a scientific understanding of the phenomena around him. At around the same time that Le Corbusier painted the present work, Picasso was creating deconstructed visions of his wartime muse Dora Maar, as well as on occasion his previous mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. Often combining both a profile and a frontal view of his lovers, with these portraits Picasso was continuing the pictorial explorations he had begun with his cubist works of the early 1900s. Seeking to unpick the modes of representation, Picasso reconfigured the nature of the portrait, presenting a three-dimensional vision of his sitter in a two-dimensional form.
While for Picasso, these stylistic deformations and reconstructions were born from and based more or less entirely on purely formal explorations, for Le Corbusier, the fusing of two distinct facial viewpoints, and indeed, of two distinct figures, had a deeper, more complex and powerful meaning. Le Corbusier had long been interested not only in the anatomical study of the body, but in the psychological dimension of man. As with so much of Le Corbusier’s artistic and architectural practice, his work grew out of a social awareness as well as from the artistic creation of his contemporaries. His imagery is combined with novel topics that set it apart from the work of his artistic peers. In this way, Le Corbusier’s oeuvre represents a true synthesis of the power of the twentieth-century painter and designer.