Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris) (1887-1965) Baigneuse, barque et coquillage (Painted between 1934 - 1947)

Le Corbusier is the 20th-century's most influential architect. But it was his paintings that underpinned his structural mastery, says Martin Gayford

One day in 1921, Fernand Léger was on the terrace of the Café de la Rotonde in Montparnasse when a friend told him he was about to see a very odd sight. Shortly afterwards, the painter beheld a strange being, stiff and silhouetted, on a bicycle: "an extraordinarily mobile object under a derby hat, with spectacles and wearing a dark suit".

This was Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, a 34-year-old French-speaking citizen of Switzerland, who had the year before renamed himself 'Le Corbusier' (or, roughly, 'the crow-like'). Léger noted that he "advanced quietly, scrupulously obeying the laws of perspective".

In hindsight, it is surprising to note that Léger would have thought of Le Corbusier – who had created his first building (for his teacher in La Chaux-de-Fonds) at the age of just 18 and would go on to become one of the most celebrated architects in the world – primarily as the co-leader of a movement in painting: Purism.

His painting was extremely important to 'Corbu', as he was affectionately known to those who liked him – a group that did not by any means include everyone he came across, especially professionally. "I have never stopped drawing and painting, looking wherever I could for the secrets of form", he wrote. "You don't have to look any further than this for the key to my work and research." He devoted part of every day to drawing, and produced an substantial oeuvre of around 7,000 works on paper and 450 oil paintings, plus tapestry designs and photo-collages.

Corbu's career effectively began in 1917, when he settled in Paris and met a painter named Amédée Ozenfant. Together, the following year they launched Purism. Its rigorous principles were worked out in collaboration by the two young men and laid out in a manifesto, Aprés le Cubism. Essentially, this was an application of relentless Gallic rationality to the most adventurous painting style of the day. The first word of the introduction to a later publication, Purism, was "logic". This, they asserted, "controls and corrects the sometimes capricious march of intuition and permits one to go ahead with certainty".

Purism, Ozenfant explained, was an aesthetic "that is rational, and therefore human". Essentially, it was a cleaned-up, neater and more sharply geometric version of the earlier Cubism of Braque and Picasso.

Ozenfant and Le Corbusier challenged the abstraction of Mondrian and De Stijl on the grounds that it was inhuman, yet it is absolutely that precision and geometry displayed by Le Corbusier's early architectural masterpieces, such as the Villa Savoye (1929-30), that make them so immensely powerful. And the architectural writer Peter Blake compared the forms of this building to one of Corbu's 1920 still-life paintings, depicting a guitar and bottles.

Le Corbusier was, of course, one of the greatest modernist architects. Robert Hughes wrote, "at the level of an individual building he was one of the most brilliantly gifted architects who have ever lived – the Bramante or Vanbrugh of the 20th century". In his approach to everything he did, Corbusier was a remarkably original thinker. In town planning, for example, Hughes characterised him as "a combination of Swiss clockmaker, Cartesian philosopher and roi soleil".

In a way, Le Corbusier's most intellectually ambitious invention was the 'Modulor' of 1943 – and it demonstrably emerged from his work as a painter. It is the outline of a man about six feet tall with one arm raised. From this starting point, he derived a system of proportions that was the basis for almost all his later buildings; he believed it should become a universal system. The Modulor puts Corbusier squarely in a tradition stretching back to Leonardo and Michelangelo: a belief that humane architecture must be related to the human body.

Le Corbusier's later pictures are engaged with the body and with sexuality, moving away from the strictness and rigidity of Purism. The work Baigneuse, Barque et Coquillage – to be offered in the Bonhams Impressionist & Modern Sale in London in March – is a prime example of Corbu's mature manner. His art now pursued motifs drawn from nature – elements he referred to as objets à la réaction poétique, objects that provoked a kind of poetic reverie in the viewer – yet his fascination with structure endured. Here, a cruciform composition at once cuts through and is superimposed on the nude, recalling the clinical lines of his earlier Purist work. The work was painted at intervals between 1934 and 1947, with some of the work done in 1938, the year of Le Corbusier's first major painting retrospective – in Zurich – but also of a serious accident. While he was swimming at Saint-Tropez, his leg was struck by the propellor of a yacht. The large blood-red pool in the lower section of Baigneuse, Barque et Coquillage has been linked with this incident.

After a decade of questioning decoration in architecture, during the early 1930s Le Corbusier started making mural decorations, both for his own buildings and those by other architects. He had written in 1925 in L'Art Decoratif d'Aujourd'hui: "Decor is not necessary. Art is necessary." The murals were indeed art – in his later style, which recalls work by Picasso and Léger and is much more earthily engaged with the figure than the earlier, cerebral still lifes.

The Danish architect Jørn Utzon wanted to fill his Sydney Opera House with works by great modernist artists. In 1960, his hero Le Corbusier obliged with a specially designed tapestry Les Dés sont Jetés (The Dice are Cast). Utzon's wife Lis wrote in thanks, exclaiming it was "a daily source of delight and beauty". When Utzon was taken off the Opera House project in 1966, he retained the tapestry. Last year, the Opera House succeeded in buying it at auction – at a world-record price – and it is now installed in the building, to the delight of the chief executive, Louise Herron.

More than 50 years after his death, Le Corbusier's work continues to inspire. Universally recognised as a towering figure of 20th-century architecture, Le Corbusier the artist is now receiving the attention he deserves.

Martin Gayford's latest book, A History of Pictures: from Cave to Computer Screen, was co-written with David Hockney.

Sale: Impressionist and Modern Art
Thursday 1 March at 5pm
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