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Hand of Corb

A new exhibition in Stockholm collects a vast archive of Le Corbusier’s work, including paintings, sculptures, furniture and other objects by the famous architect

It is the painter who did architecture we meet at the exhibition on Le Corbusier at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Even the architecture is presented as lustful, intuitive objects, with the sense of his hand present in the drawings. Jean-Louis Cohen − the prolific Corb expert who initiated the extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou for the master’s centennial anniversary in 1987 − curated the exhibition.

The selection of works in Stockholm is consequently exquisite, but serves as an introduction to his complex œuvre rather than expressing a specific interpretation. The title and the content suggest a seamless oscillation between the roles as a free artist and an architect. This cross-fertilisation makes a good show, but its impact is harder to tell.

The exhibition is expansive in terms of objects − 200 paintings, sculptures, objets trouvés, drawings, furniture, models and movies make it the largest ever in Northern Europe − but is limited in that the work is consistently displayed as art rather than representations of existing buildings.

The quality of the models varies from contemporary minimalistic to the magnificent original model of Chandigarh, a real attraction in the show. Despite the impressive collection of items, the exhibition still only manages to give a brief introduction to the world of Le Corbusier.

No architect has been the subject of more literature, but this exhibition demands a catalogue. This should be on its way, and some of its content − Johan Linton’s skilful explanation of the circumstances around Corb’s radical proposal for a total makeover of Stockholm in 1933 − is already available, but in general the exhibition leaves you with questions rather than answers.

One of these is Corb’s means of communication. The sculptures in the exhibition are all made by Joseph Savina, a Breton cabinet maker whom he considered to have a ‘good sense of sculpture’. He transmitted his intentions in drawings and sometimes in written corrections: ‘One must strive for finesse while maintaining the energy. It is only when everything has been reduced to the utmost that the proportions come to light. To simplify involves classifying, ranking, weeding out and putting in order.’ Maybe it is in words like these that his worlds of art and architecture merge.

The open attitude of the exhibition, with less interpretation than presentation, is all right, especially as the subject is one of the most demonised architects in history. A less dogmatic and more curious interest for Corb is needed in Sweden. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that he has left no physical traces in the country, he became a scapegoat. It is unlikely that an exhibition like this would have been possible in, say, 1995, when a similar show was staged in the Danish city of Aalborg. But as Modernism stroked Sweden hard, so did Pomo.

He made few visits to Sweden. Apart from a lecture trip before the huge town-planning competition in Stockholm, it was the fruitless commission from art collector Theodor Ahrenberg for an exhibition pavilion in Stockholm in 1961 that appears in the archives. Ahrenberg created one of the most remarkable collections of modern art, where the painter Le Corbusier had a natural position next to Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

The current exhibition was initiated by Ahrenberg’s son Staffan and has many pieces from the collection. Nobody regrets that Stockholm was never replaced with a ville radieuse, but it was a shame that the pavilion never came to be. After Corb’s death a similar structure was erected in Zurich for art dealer Heidi Weber. A little piece of art in itself.

The stigma of scale became his destiny. More than any other architect, Le Corbusier was not only sensitive, but sensual in the small format and callous in the large. As an artist, he never prolonged a line ad infinitum as he did in the Plan Voisin. His orchestration of volumes did not have the rationality that his theories bestowed. The erotic foundation on which so many pictures are built, was rarely transmitted to his architecture and never to his urbanism.

Even if the Stockholm plan is a large part of the exhibition, it is not the town planner that stays in the mind. It is the hands. Le Corbusier’s obsession with hands is visible in most pictures, as well as in the Modulor and most obvious in the large sculpture he did for Chandigarh.

It is a rural big hand, to paraphrase Chinese landscape architect Kongjian Yu and his reflection on the healthy big foot as a more relevant ideal than ancient, but metaphorically speaking still present, deformed small foot architecture. Corb’s art is a tribute to the rural, to the fertile and natural human, open landscapes and detached buildings.

The small, sophisticated hand was as much an antipode of his aesthetics as the Dadaist’s admiration of chaos and urban disorder. In Corb’s art, the future of humanity rests in the rural hand, big enough to grab a bull by its horn. The ultimate image of control.

Moment – Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, until 18 April

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