On a monumental scale, two nude female figures serve as the abstracted protagonists of Le Corbusier’s Deux figures au tronc d’arbre jaune of 1937. Deftly constructed from a combination of flat planes of primary colours and intersecting biomorphic and geometric lines, these figures stand in profile, situated between a door way on the right and a bold yellow tree trunk on the left. With their profiles just visible, their hands seem to meet in the centre of the composition, the left-hand figure clutching a small stylised branch with leaves. In contrast with the undulating forms of their bodies, horizontal lines at the top and bottom of the composition lock these figures into their setting, a beam-lined ceiling above and sharp horizontal line below framing the pair and lending this work a strong sense of structure. Included in the important retrospective of the artist held in Zurich in 1938, this large and impressive composition presents the artist’s favoured motif of this period: the female nude. From the late 1920s onwards, the figure, particularly female, came to dominate Le Corbusier’s plastic oeuvre, portrayed in a manner, which, though sharing similarities with the contemporaneous work of Léger and Picasso, was entirely unique to the artist. Deux figures au tronc d’arbre jaune remained in the artist’s collection for many years, before it was acquired from the artist by the present owner in 1973, in whose collection it has remained until the present day.
The female figure did not enter Le Corbusier’s painting and drawing – private elements of the artist’s pluralistic practice – until around 1927. Following the First World War, Le Corbusier had, along with Amédée Ozenfant, founded Purism, a movement that built on the practices of Cubism, which called for order, logic and rational thought in the creation of art. As they emphatically stated in their text ‘Après le Cubisme’ of 1919: ‘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’ (A. Ozenfant & C-E. Jeanneret, ‘Après le Cubisme’, 1919, in C. Eliel, L’Esprit Nouveau: Purism in Paris, 1918-1925, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 2001, pp. 165-166). Together with Ozenfant, Le Corbusier painted still-lifes that were controlled, regulated and rhythmic, filled with simple, depersonalised objects in strict formations and often sombre colours.
Following his break with Ozenfant in 1925 however, Le Corbusier began to adopt a freer painterly idiom in his work, looking to nature for inspiration. While his Purist compositions were primarily composed of functional, mass-produced and uniform objects – glasses, carafes and siphons amongst others – pure plastic forms that were represented in their most generalised and depersonalised state, he began to integrate natural objects into his art, and, by the end of the decade he turned to a subject that had been entirely expunged from his purist compositions: the human figure.
From this time onwards, this motif came to dominate almost exclusively his work of the subsequent decade. As Le Corbusier explained, referring to himself, as he frequently did, in the third person, 'Already since 1927, Le Corbusier started to focus on the drawing of the figure. From 1927 to 1937, he realised an enormous number of drawings… The human figure is now in all of the works in combination with objects and precise locations’ (Le Corbusier, quoted in N. Jornod & J-P. Jornod, Le Corbusier, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Tome 1, Milan, 2005, p. 426). Unleashing a desire that had been suppressed during the purist years – although according to Ozenfant he had never lost this ‘sensualist side’ – Le Corbusier filled sketch books with drawings of female figures, inspired by figures he saw on the beach in Le Piquey, where he holidayed in the south of France, as well as on his travels in Rio de Janeiro and South America. His wife, Yvonne Gallis, whom he married in 1930, often served as the model for many of these works.
In the same way that his Purist works had exuded a cold sense of restraint and control, Le Corbusier’s paintings of women saw him plunge into a realm of rich sensuality, passion and femininity. Nude and clothed, stationary and in motion, dancing or reclining, the female figure appeared in numerous guises in his painting, infusing Le Corbusier’s art with a new softness and sensuality. Indeed, the integration of this subject allowed Le Corbusier to explore concepts of the surreal and the fantastic, as well as the erotic, notions far removed from his public architectural projects. As such, paintings like Deux figures au tronc d’arbre jaune provide an important glimpse into the private realm of the world-famous architect, immersing the viewer into the world of his vivid imagination.
Dating from the apogee of this so-called ‘Femmes’ period that stretches from 1932 to 1937, Deux figures au tronc d’arbre jaune features the highly abstracted and simplified forms of two women. This composition recalls an earlier painting of 1936 entitled Deux femmes à la branche (N. Jornod & J-P. Jornod, no. 179). In this work, two central figures are pictured clutching the same branch as in the present painting and are rendered with a similar combination of colours and stylised forms. Yet, while in this earlier work the nude figures are clearly demarcated with a single outline, in the present work, Le Corbusier has dissolved and moved this essential silhouette, creating the two women from an even more complex combination of flat planes of colour and floating lines. In this way, these two figures appear both to emerge and dissolve into the background of the composition, yet paradoxically, they retain a powerful sense of volume. In this way, Deux figures au tronc d’arbre jaune explores the same concepts of form and space and interior and exterior states which served as the foundation for his practice as a whole.
In depicting the nude on a monumental scale, Le Corbusier was exploring the same motif as his friend and contemporary, Fernand Léger. The artists had first met in 1920, and soon became close friends, sharing similar concerns in their work. At the same time that Le Corbusier began to introduce the figure into his plastic oeuvre, Léger had begun his large Neo-Classical nudes, having left behind the austere mechanical aesthetic that had defined his immediate post-war work to instead embrace a more natural and organic portrayal of the world. Statuesque and simplified figures filled his work, often rendered against bold backgrounds of primary colours. The stylised lines and forms, particularly of the tree trunk and the branch and leaves in the present work, as well as the unmodulated planes of colours are immediately reminiscent of Léger’s paintings of this same period. Yet, while Léger portrayed his women as static, immobile, statue-like objects, Le Corbusier has invested the two abstracted women with a definite sense of emotion. The right-hand figure throws her arm and her head back, her mouth agape as if emitting a cry of anguish or pleasure.
It is this sense of feverish energy that also links Deux figures au tronc d’arbre jaune to the work of Pablo Picasso, in particular his Surrealist masterpiece, La danse (1925, Tate Gallery, London). Indeed, the artists have used the same means of constructing the female figures; simplifying their bodies and faces to a single, amorphously shaped plane of colour. With their arms thrown up in the air, the figures in Le Corbusier’s painting exude the same sense of abandon and dynamism as Picasso’s work, charged with a strangely surreal, frenzied emotion that fills this enigmatic, multi-dimensional and highly coloured scene.