NEW YORK - “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” at MoMA, which recently opened and is up through September 23, has a lot of surprises. For me, the biggest one is that it is full of paintings.

For a long time I had a personal take on the great architect’s work—I admired his brand of modernist buildings for sure, especially some of his idiosyncrasies, but thought his vision of massive-scale urban planning sometimes went wrong.

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) Blue mountains, 1910. Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / FLC.

But I didn’t know how much of his life Le Corbusier (1887­–­1965) had devoted to painting, and how important it was to him—he signed his pictures with his real name, Edouard-Charles Jeanneret, as a kind of separate career move. Co-curator Jean-Louis Cohen joked to a gathering of art journalists that Corbusier wanted to make it as a painter but “failed miserably.”

Luckily, he was pretty successful with his other craft, becoming the first “global expert in architecture and city planning,” in Cohen’s words, flying around the world to spread his modernist gospel. He produced some of the most important buildings of the 20th century and some knockout furniture to boot.

The show contains fantastic models of his legendary building projects, as you would expect, but Le Corbusier’s talents as a draughtsman and painter mean that his two-dimensional renderings of his projects are particularly beautiful. A 1929 pastel of his plan for Buenos Aires is not much more than a few yellow smudges against a black sky and navy blue water, and all the more evocative for it.

Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret). Plan for Buenos Aires, 1929. Profile view from the Rio de la Plata. Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC.

Many of his early paintings are fairly abstract compositions, and they strongly reminded me of Fernand Leger’s work. A couple hours after seeing the exhibition, I went to a lunch given by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to preview their big Leger show, opening this fall. I promptly learned that Le Corbusier and Leger were great friends, and big influences on each other, which makes perfect sense.

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret). Nature morte (Still life), 1920. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Van Gogh Purchase Fund, 1937. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / FLC.

You can certainly see the resemblance in works like “Still Life,” 1920, the kind of classic tabletop subject done by so many artists of the era (boy, there were a lot of guitars laying around back then). The topic of connections among creative minds was ably plumbed on a larger scale in the “Inventing Abstraction” show at MoMA earlier this year, and the Le Corbusier exhibition further demonstrates the enduring fascination of intellectual cross-currents.



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