Half Peasant, Half Visionary: The Luminous Life of Contantin Brancusi
The visitor who entered sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s studio on the Impasse Ronsin in the artist quarter of Montparnasse, in early 20th Century Paris, would have found a man with a formidable beard wearing a white pajama-like suit, a peasant cap and wooden clogs.
Edward Steichen: Portrait of
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
If Brancusi was in good humor he was likely to invite his visitor to partake of a delicious Romanian style meal with an accompanying glass of Transylvanian wine. Visitors in those years included James Joyce, of whom he made a quick sketch that still survives, as well the American art collectors and writers, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo,Society ladies with international reputation and influence including the artist/critic Peggy Guggenheim, as well as aspiring art students also visited. They found him entertaining, articulate, and provocative – a man with great humor, knowledge of history, and unconventional opinions.
But the unconventionality and erudition of Constanin Brancusi (1876-1957) was not limited to conversation. His notion that sculpture did not need to duplicate reality, and his ability to render his ideas into flowing form, changed the course of modern sculpture forever.
A Humble Background
Brancusi was born in a small village in Rumania to a family of limited means. As a boy he ran away from home any number of times but at last found satisfaction when he was apprenticed to a carpenter. In that workshop he developed a love of wood carving that would never leave him. He was able to attend a local school of Arts and Crafts on a part time basis. Finally he went to the Bucharest School of Fine Arts (1898-1902).
How did Brancusi come to Paris? He walked the more than 2400 kilometers (about 1600 miles) from the little Rumanian village where his family still lived! It took him all of two years. And that was only one of the sacrifices he made to attain his goal of reaching Paris, then the “center of the universe” for the visual arts. He even sold his treasured pocket watch to pay the boat fare that would bring him across Lake Geneva to the French border. His arrival in Paris was well timed; he entered the city on Bastille Day (1904), the festival celebrating the overthrow of the monarchy.
In Paris he made friends with artists from Eastern Europe such as Amadeo Modigliani who had begun to launch their careers there. He was also friends with such luminaries as Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.
A Visionary Sculptor
By a stroke of good fortune, Europe’s preeminent sculptor at the time, Auguste Rodin, offered to make him an assistant but after some months Brancusi demurred stating, “Nothing can grow under a great tree.”
Rodin was a great sculptor in the classical style, carefully detailing the human body in his work – muscle, bone, even veins – to create the most realistic representation possible. It was an approach that had brought Rodin and his followers widespread popularity.
Brancusi wanted none of it. It was the most defining stance in direct opposition to realism that any Western sculptor had taken up to that time.
The bold young sculptor sought a return, not so much to the antique although that was never excluded, but to the minimal structures and forms that make up the human body and other subject material. Brancusi came to consider three shapes or elements essential to all his sculptures: the egg, the round pebble and the blade of grass.
Inherent in all of Brancusi’s work was the need for truth to the basic substance. Throughout his career his sculptures paid homage to the integrity of his materials. He would work in a great variety of them: wood, limestone, plaster, copper, stone you name it. He cast each of his creations in a multiplicity of materials making slight adjustments and revisions in each version.
Although Brancusi’s lifetime output numbered only some 2l5 sculptures many of them became icons of modern art, none perhaps more so than “The Kiss,” created probably in 1907. The amply dimensioned woman whose hair is knee length and whose profile is partly obscured, is in fervent embrace with an equally rotund male. The features of the couple are minimal.
Photo of the Brancusi sculpture
exhibition, March-April 1914, at
Click image to enlarge.
Brancusi first rendered “The Kiss” in plaster and then made several other versions in different materials including stone; “The Kiss” exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was carved in limestone. What makes the work memorable is precisely its minimal approach representing love, a love that appears to be without passion and yet is more passionate than any erotic approach. The approach owes much to cubism, the newly formulated art movement fathered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
The Bird Sculptures
Brancusi created some 27 sculptures of birds over a 30 year period, beginning around 1910. Many would be sculpted in marble and bronze. His inspiration came from the Romanian folktale of the magic bird “Maiastra,” a brilliantly colored, seldom seen creature that had the ability to heal. The mythical bird had inspired not only Brancusi, but Igor Stravinsky who composed the ballet, “The Firebird.”
The first of the bird sculptures was “The Magic Bird.” Made of white marble, it was mounted on a three tiered limestone pedestal supported by a caryatid (female figure). It is displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. When asked to explain his rendition of the ancient myth Brancusi said, “Do not look for obscure formulas or mysteries. I give you pure joy. Look at my works until you see them.”
The sculptor created numerous variations, alterations, and simplifications of this bird over the years before he arrived at his ultimate designation “The Bird in Space” examples of which are in both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, also in New York. In this work, the bird is reduced to its most significant element, its ability to soar, and is no more than an abstract rendition of the idea of flight. All the physical elements of the bird – its body and head, feathers and feet have been eliminated and all that is left is the upward thrust, the very essence of flight itself.
The young Hungarian painter Margit Pogany, more than any other woman in his life, was Brancusi’s muse. His portrayal of her in various materials attests not only to his attachment but represents the final evolution of the portrait bust in modern sculpture. It is its touchstone.
His prime “guiding star” are her eyes. They are slanted and enlarged dominating the other elements in the portrait. Her hair is carefully coiffed across a rounded head and her arms are brought up against the cheek. Brancusi cast the work in bronze, combining high finish with an unfinished base.
Brancusi vs United States
An interesting sidelight to Brancusi’s life story is the sculptor’s suit against U.S. Customs. The case took place in 1926 when “The Bird in Space” and 19 other Brancusi sculptures were slapped with an import tariff because Customs considered them not art but rather shipments of manufactured bronze and marble and taxed them accordingly. Armed with affidavits by galleries and art authorities, Brancusi was able to establish that his sculptures were indeed art objects and not metal or marble commodities, thus paving the way for the recognition of abstract sculptures as legitimate art objects.
The Brancusi Museum of Paris
Upon his death Brancusi willed his studio complete with its 130 sculptures and 1200 photographs to the French nation on condition that the studio and all its contents would be preserved exactly as they stood on the day of his passing. The French government tore down his studio and commissioned the eminent architect Renzo Piano to replicate it with its own independent structure adjacent to the Pompidou Museum. Visit Paris, see the Brancusi Museum, and feel the creativity of Paris 100 years ago.
Fred Stern, a poet and writer on the arts, has written more
than 50 articles on various aspects of the arts for The World
& I Online since 2004. His poetry collection 'Corridors of
Light' is available from Booklink.com and on the web.