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Pure and Not So Simple

Constantin Brancusi 1876––1957

an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 8––December 31, 1995, Catalog by Friedrich Teja Bach and Margit Rowell and Ann Temkin
MIT Press/The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 406 pp., $60.00

There are several reasons why the artist’s studio has become a favored place for showing art. The cult of genius makes a mecca of the workshop, whether the prophet is alive or dead. The one-man exhibition has become the main vehicle for showing an artist’s work, and the studio can be a permanent retrospective exhibition. More and more the content of art has come to be seen as the processes of its own making rather than something outside art, so that the space where the artist has wrestled with his problems becomes like the ground where Jacob wrestled with the angel. And photography, by advertising what studios look like inside, makes the world want to visit them.

Sculptors’ studios are especially magnetic because the objects in them are out in the open and have a strong presence as they stand there. The most mythic of them is surely the one in a quiet backwater of Montparnasse which Constantin Brancusi occupied from 1928 until he died in 1957. He bequeathed its contents to the French nation with the proviso that they be displayed in a reconstruction of the studio which had itself become known as one of his most powerful works. To quote Sidney Geist’s admirable monograph:

[It] made an impression which, as many writers have attested, was overwhelming, with its white walls and the light falling on precious objects gleaming among rough blocks of wood and stone. It seemed at once a temple and laboratory of art, the site of a confrontation of man-made order and natural chaos.1

Brancusi, one of the large band of important artists who came from abroad to Paris between 1900 and 1925 and stayed, was Romanian (the name is pronounced Brancush), born in 1876 in a small village at the foot of the Carpathians. Leaving home in 1887, he worked as an errand boy and a dishwasher and a waiter but within two years was also studying part time and then full time at the arts and crafts school in Craiova and, from 1898, at the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest, winning one prize or grant after another for immensely accomplished academic sculpture.

His journey from Bucharest to Paris is a legend, one of many that have surrounded him. The story of his life, the shape of his personality, were long lost in a mist of myth, a hagiographic cloud, and are still vague in parts. He was certainly a genius, a master craftsman, a charismatic person, and something of a mystic; he was also something of a mystifier—a Munchausen even—as well as a businessman, a ladies’ man, an adept social performer, and a very controlling person. He was not an innocent or an anchorite and was probably not a saint (whereas Mondrian, to whom he is so often likened, probably was).

It is certain that he arrived in Paris in the summer of 1904. The legend is that the journey was mostly made on foot, in the company of a flute (via Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Rorschach, Zurich, Basel, Alsace, Langres, and thence to Paris by train) and took more than a year. In 1986, however, a monograph compiled by three writers with special access to the artist’s archives—Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati—said that Brancusi left Bucharest in May 1904, worked in Munich “for a time,” and arrived in Paris in July.2 This has been repeated in subsequent scholarly publications, including the catalog of the recent exhibition in Paris and Philadelphia (though the French edition3 says that he attended the art school in Munich, the American that he visited it). It is open to speculation whether Hulten & Co. were nodding when they wrote “May 1904” or whether Brancusi was an extremely vigorous walker or whether he managed to take more trains than he said he had or whether he had a knack for hitching lifts on fast carts.

A struggle to find a place for himself in Paris (more dishwashing) was eased in May 1905 by the award of an annual grant for the next three years from the Romanian ministry of education. He enrolled immediately at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where he worked under Antonin Mercié until early in 1907, when Rodin, who had been taking notice of his work, engaged him as an assistant. However, he only stayed a month, wanting to find his own way. In 1906 and 1907 he was producing beautiful sculptures in the manner of Rodin and Medardo Rosso—on the one hand, modeled pieces cast in bronze, notably heads of boys, on the other, carvings in marble of sleeping heads. Needing to distance himself from Rodin, he took up, as other young sculptors were doing at the time, “direct carving”—going straight to the block of stone or wood without making clay models—and it was in exercising this risky method that in 1907–1908 he suddenly produced a stone masterpiece in a chunky modernist style that had lately appeared in carvings by Derain and Picasso—The Kiss, the first statement of the first of the themes on which Brancusi made variations over several decades. During the next three or four years he became recognized among the Paris avant-garde as one of its leading figures; the news spread abroad.

In 1909–1910 he started on his next major theme, one of those that he was to explore in both marble and polished bronze. It was first incarnate as the Sleeping Muse, an ovoid form on its side with slight inflections to hint at the features of a woman’s face; years later he reduced the form to an uninflected egg shape in pieces called Sculpture for the Blind and Beginning of the World. Meanwhile, by 1912 he had embarked on three more of the major themes that he worked on in both marble and bronze. One was a stylized head based on the looks of a young Hungarian painter he knew, Mademoiselle Pogany. The second, Newborn, was an abstract head of an infant. The third was an upright image of a bird, starting with a series called Maiastra, continuing in the slimmer forms of the series called Bird, and reaching its apogee from 1923 on in the numerous versions of the still more attenuated and streamlined image called Bird in Space. The biggest variation in the different versions derived from whether a form was carved in marble or cast in bronze which was then given a high polish. In marble it had a marvelous stillness; in bronze it reflected the room and its passing show, and this made its contours elusive.

While the evolution of the bird theme, which was to be so momentous in his work, was still at an early stage, Brancusi started around 1914 to carve in wood. At the arts and crafts school in Craiova he had specialized in wood-work, making furniture and the like. Now, besides using wood to make bases for his sculptures, he also used it to make sculptures. Their forms were indebted, on the one hand, to African tribal sculpture, which was affecting a lot of people at the time, and, on the other, to an influence peculiar to himself, the memory of Romanian folk art and artifacts. Most of his wood carvings were of unique images or of short series of images, but in 1918 he carved the first of the series Endless Columns, zigzagging columns consisting of repeated rhomboids with no pedestal or capital. They came in a variety of heights and thicknesses, sometimes in plaster, once in cast iron. By 1920 Brancusi was working simultaneously and with great mastery in a wide diversity of scales, materials, and idioms, some virtually abstract, others patently figurative, some with a rural roughness, others with a city sleekness; but all of them have his unmistakable flavor of simplicity and purity of form.

The century’s second decade, then, was the time when Brancusi established his identity as an artist, as happened with Picasso (born in 1881), Braque (1882), Mondrian (1872), and Duchamp (1887). It was also the time—and these things do not necessarily go hand in hand—when he found his market, which was almost entirely American. Ann Temkin’s essay in the Philadelphia catalog lucidly unfolds the intricate story of “Brancusi and His American Collectors”; she shows why most of his customers were American and demonstrates how far his dependence upon them shaped his life. His work was promoted by Duchamp and Edward Steichen and later by Alfred Barr, and collectors such as John Quinn, Agnes Meyer, Walter Arensberg, and Stephen Clark were drawn to him.

Every one of the solo exhibitions he had in his lifetime was held in the United States (he traveled there three times). He never had a dealer in Paris. The need to have a showcase for his work for the benefit of Americans visiting Paris could well have been his main reason for creating his magical studio, though he would surely have wanted to do so anyway, since he was one of those artists who like to have their own work around them and since he cared intensely about how his work was displayed. It was likewise the need to send photographs of new work to clients in America that impelled him to become a photographer of sculpture, and an excellent one, and thereby to immortalize the studio.

After 1920 there were two major themes still to come; both emerged before long. Fish appeared in 1922 in a carving in veined marble; there were to be variations in both marble and polished bronze. Cock appeared in 1924, carved in cherry wood, a sort of cross between a Bird in Space and—with its zigzagging breast—an Endless Column; there was one variation in polished bronze and, on a huge scale, three in plaster. After this, his new achievements involved, in one way or another, putting a number of his sculptures together.

The creation of the famous studio began in 1928, when Brancusi moved from the studio he had occupied since 1916 to a larger one across the street at 11, impasse Ronsin. The arrangement of the works, which changed from time to time, had an air of informality that disguised very precise placing and juxtapositions of objects diverse in theme, material, and size, creating the overwhelming impression that Geist and many others have described.

Suddenly, in the mid-1930s, Brancusi was offered two extraordinary commissions for installations—one of them out of doors—to which he responded with formal, symmetrical plans that complemented the aesthetic of the studio, as if following the principles of the French as against the English garden. The outdoor commission came from Romania: a monument to the dead heroes of the 1914 war to be built at Tîrgu-Jiu, a small town near the artist’s birthplace. He created an ensemble in three parts: a stone gateway based on The Kiss; a round table and twelve round stools in stone; and, in cast iron with a yellowish patina, an Endless Column a hundred feet high.

The other commission was a request from the Maharajah of Indore for a temple. This was canceled after Brancusi had made sculptures for it and spent a month at Indore waiting fruitlessly to see his patron. Such plans for the temple as have survived are mere rough sketches; there is no record of the dimensions. But a plausible projection of the interior was set up in the Philadelphia exhibition (though not in Paris, because the sculptures were not available in time). The key element was a triangle of three isolated Birds in Space: a bird in polished bronze was set against a niche in the center of the far wall; birds in black marble and white marble were set against niches in the side walls. The sight seemed an intimation of eternal peace.

Brancusi worked in the studio throughout the war, and then he stopped working. It was not long after this, in 1947–1948, that he several times let me visit him. The first was arranged by a mutual acquaintance; after that, I would telephone to ask if I could come. The first thing he said was prompted by my being English: “Estce que vous connaissez Jim Ede?” The question, which I had to answer in the negative, did not surprise me because I was aware that H.S. Ede, who between the wars had been a curator at the Tate Gallery—the only one who knew anything about contemporary art—owned one or two sculptures by Brancusi. There may have been a hidden reason for the question, one arising from a circumstance of which I was completely ignorant but which has lately become common knowledge. Ede was a close friend of Vera Moore, and Englishwoman and a pianist who was the mother of Brancusi’s son, John Moore, born in 1934.

The question about Ede was doubtless the only thing he said to me that he didn’t say to every other visitor. In fact, it was reassuring, since one didn’t want to bother him unduly, that he so obviously had a fixed routine for visitors—for example, first conducting one to the nearby polished bronze Leda of 1926 and switching on a motor to rotate it. Soon he would leave me alone to wander around. When he talked, he spoke in practiced, sometimes published, aphorisms. “I give you pure joy.” Or: “Michelangelo, that’s just beefsteak,” adding, after a well-judged interval, “but I don’t want to be rude about a chum,” which was guaranteed to produce a sycophantic laugh. He had very few good words to say for any other artist, present or past. (I seem to remember trying to sell him on Juan Gris.) One day, I brought him what I thought might give him pleasure, a beautiful photograph of the Temple of Nike Apteros on the Acropolis. His response was to say he wasn’t interested in architecture. Such egocentricity seemed disappointing to someone green enough to expect great men to be nice, but, though it disturbed me, I always left the studio feeling at once elevated and chastened—inspired by a resolve that in the future I had to live my life in a more dedicated fashion. This was induced partly by the quiet assurance and authority of his manner, but above all by the feeling that for the last hour or two I had been visiting a holy place and that this long-bearded dandy had created it through unremitting discipline.

From about 1950 his life was blighted by the knowledge that there was no way of preserving the studio, since the site was needed for the expansion of a nearby hospital. During 1952 he even received an eviction notice; the conflict became a cause célèbre. In 1956 a deal was made by which he was allowed to live out his time in the studio and the state got its contents on condition that it housed them in a reconstruction. He lived for one more year. The story of the reconstruction has so far been more disastrous than not. It is told by Germain Viatte with splendid indiscretion in the French edition of the catalog but not, alas, in the American edition: it is a classic tale of muddle.

No doubt it was naïve of Brancusi to imagine that any reconstruction could work—surprisingly naïve given his lifelong sense of the importance of authenticity and organic uniqueness. He used assistants very sparingly indeed, realizing the value of his own handwork; and he didn’t duplicate his work but made every incarnation of an image something unique. How could a man who had started making furniture in his boyhood come to suppose that precise reproduction could work? Obviously he was desperate over the threats to the studio’s existence and wasn’t thinking very clearly.

Brancusi’s photographic records of the studio make it very clear how he liked his sculptures to be seen. Margit Rowell installed the Paris exhibition as if she were trying to show that he got it wrong. Brancusi accepted that it isn’t always practicable to make a complete circuit around sculptures rather than a tour through, say, 240 degrees; in the studio he actually turned to advantage the presence of the background wall. Rowell evidently set her heart on putting her groups of sculptures right out in the open: the result was that when you were looking at a group you were distracted by the faces and the movement of the people looking from the far side. Rowell also wanted to put the sculptures on their bases on the floor, which is ideal, rather than on the customary protective low platform, which is a compromise. The result was a security risk which she countered with electronic alarms. Every few minutes a highpitched blast went off. “Any visitor setting off an alarm,” warned a leaflet, “will be asked to leave the exhibition. Please explain the system to your children….” Rowell often grouped sculptures in ways that Brancusi, wanting things to be visible individually, rigorously avoided, putting together a lot of pieces in the same material or on the same theme. Worst of all was the lighting: vertical sculptures were lit directly from above, which made them far less visible than their multiple cast shadows.

The Philadelphia installation, by Ann Temkin, was a delight to see, once one had got past the initial spaces, made impossible by low ceilings. The lighting was good, incorporating some daylight, and on the whole the works were related to each other in space with a exquisite rightness. The exhibition actually managed to achieve something of the marvelous calm of the studio. It made me realize that I had to acknowledge what has been obvious to most other people—that Brancusi rather than Picasso made the century’s greatest sculptures. His are finally the more satisfying in that they convey a weightier sense of their own reality as entities in space. By comparison, Picasso’s are like images in dreams, with all the tremendous impact that something in a dream can have but with a presence that can suddenly no longer be there.

In the wake of the exhibition, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has profited from the presence in America of important pieces from the Centre Pompidou. It has borrowed fourteen of these and added nine of its own, and one from a private collection, to make up a very beautiful “special installation” that will remain on view until April 23. It is a splendid offshoot of an exhibition whose success has been rooted in scholarly research by both of the curators and several associates. Their supreme achievement was in the hitherto neglected and very important task of bringing the sculptures together with the bases that Brancusi had coupled them with. The catalog contains a great deal of information about Brancusi’s life in Romania and Paris, his different works, and his two large commissions. It is also well illustrated, with a great many of Brancusi’s own black-and-white photographs, which are both beautiful images and indispensable documents, and with color photographs that don’t make the sculptures look too much like costume jewelry. But it is not always well organized: one even has to embark on a long search to ascertain the height of the column at Tîrgu-Jiu. The type used for the text is excessively small, especially in the American edition, where the print is paler than in the French: both were printed by the same firm in Barcelona but on different kinds of paper.

The writings about Brancusi during his lifetime don’t compare at all well with the literature of the time on Picasso or Matisse. Perhaps writers were frightened by the numinous quality of his work, taking refuge in metaphysical explications of its inner meaning, which the artist’s own arcane pronouncements tended to encourage and which led nowhere. What was still more off-putting was that writers, feeling in awe of a creator inhabiting a higher plane, were forever gushing about the purity of both the work and the man. Well, it is, of course, the case that Brancusi’s sculpture, at its most simple and refined, can be as pure as anything in Western art since Cycladic sculpture. And it is also the case that his sculpture evolved at a time when the world longed for a certain purity in art and architecture. And not only there. In 1907 Bertrand Russell wrote that mathematics “possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without any appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure….”4 This is a highly idealized view of sculpture as a genus, a view that speaks of the art as if Brancusi were its most typical exponent. It seems that Brancusi’s sculpture realized an ideal that was widely current.

Another sort of purity was also claimed for it, namely, that it was unsullied by contact with other art of the time. Thus Carola Giedion-Welcker wrote in 1937 that Brancusi “remained aloof from contemporary tendencies.”5 But, for example, sculptures such as Princess X and Eve, both originating around 1915, which are blatantly phallic images presented as incarnations of femininity, were obvious pathfinders for Surrealism, and to pioneer a tendency, even aloofly, is surely a form of closeness to it.

As for the insistence on the purity of the man, it was as if there were a conspiracy to pretend that his personality was free of complications. Written about as a hermit, he was in fact both a loner and companionable. Another image of simplicity was propagated by revisionist critics from his motherland, who saw him as a Romanian peasant. Ionel Jianou’s 1963 monograph6 was a typical example, debunked by Sidney Geist:

In an effort to clear up what he calls “The Brancusi Mystery,” Mr. Jianou early advances the information that Brancusi’s art was inspired by Rumanian folk art…. His “Documents” reproduce a photograph of two bearded peasants in fancy dress, …two wooden utensils, and the church in Brancusi’s village. It’s a snug little church, and its relation to the art of Brancusi is exactly that of Lincoln’s log cabin to the Gettysburg Address.7

Geist’s own 1968 monograph demonstrated that Brancusi’s art could be appreciated intensely, in a level-headed way. It opened up the possibility of writing about Brancusi through looking at the work in all its complexity, as, say, Rosalind Krauss did in 1970,8 rather than dreaming about it in all its purity. The dreaming is recalled by Ann Temkin: “Following the artist’s lead, his admirers looked for and found their reflections in the work’s harmonies rather than its tensions, and in its purity rather than its complexity.”

One aspect of that complexity is the topic of a passage from Teja Bach’s catalog essay about how the effect of the studio involved

the calculated grouping of forms, their rhythmic interplay and density of arrangement. In his bases, in the combinations of base and sculpture, and in the constructed sculptural groupings, Brancusi created ensembles in which precious and coarse material, delicate and rough workmanship, curved and rectilinear outline, organic irregularity and stereometric regularity, the used and the resplendently new, were set one against the other.

This is typical of the perceptiveness of Bach’s essay—while atypical of its tendency to be verbose—but I think he could have laid more emphasis here on how the sculptures relate to the bases, especially since the exhibition was making so much of that relationship. Normally sculpture bases are meant, like bodyguards, to be unobtrusive—smooth mediators between sculpture and setting. Even when they are designed to be conspicuous as decorative elements, they tend to be made to harmonize with the sculpture, to give it moral as well as physical support. Brancusi made with his own hands distinctive bases to go with his sculptures. And in doing so he tended to set, say, the long subtle curves of an image in smooth marble or polished bronze against a base carved in oak wood in jagged shapes and with a rough-hewn surface. More often than not, then, the base presents a violent contrast with the sculpture. If sculpture plus base is taken, as Brancusi insisted, to constitute a work, there’s a dialectic in many of his works that is uniquely palpable. These are works about positing, and resolving, extreme and overt conflict. If they give joy, it is a joy intensified by the surmounting of conflict.

Picasso’s remark that finding was preferable to seeking9 set up antinomies as suggestive as the opposition between introvert and extrovert. If Picasso is the archetypal finder, who, then, is the seeker? Mondrian, no doubt. Most artists are a bit of both. Brancusi was something special. He was an extreme instance of the seeker, with his indefatigable exploration of a few themes, eschewing duplication to create variations involving the subtlest of differences. But he was also very much a finder, one who around 1915 took large pieces of discarded wood and put them together as the work he called Arch and who came upon some wooden beams salvaged from a building and with little intervention produced Bench. In his handling of his bases he was both seeker and finder: he was perpetually trying out bases in combination with different sculptures until he felt the right match had been found. His activity as an artist was a way of reconciling order and chance, balance and flux, a pursuit of perfection and—despite the urge to control—a faith in letting nature have its way.

  1. 1

    Sidney Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture (Grossman, 1968), pp. 167–168. 

  2. 2

    Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati, Brancusi (Abrams, 1987), p. 64. 

  3. 3

    Constantin Brancusi 1876–1957 (Paris: Gallimard/Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995), p. 374. 

  4. 4

    “The Study of Mathematics” (1907), in Collected Papers, Vol. 12: Contemplation and Action 1902–14 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 86. 

  5. 5

    Modern Plastic Art (Zurich: Girsberger, 1937), p. 12. 

  6. 6

    Brancusi (Tudor, 1963). 

  7. 7

    “Brancusi Catalogued?,” Arts Magazine, January 1964, p. 66. 

  8. 8

    “Brancusi and the Myth of Ideal Form,” Artforum, January 1970. 

  9. 9

    “In my opinion the search means nothing in painting. To find, is the thing,” In “Picasso Speaks,” The Arts, May 1923.