In many respects Brancusi is the art historian’s dream. He and Picasso, in very different ways, are the two artists who did most to change the face of sculpture in the first half of this century—white magic, black magic, as a critic once observed. Many see him as the greatest sculptor of our time. Yet although he lived to be eighty-one he produced relatively little: some two hundred and twenty works all told, if we exclude the original works in plaster that were subsequently transformed into marble or wood or cast in bronze. Most of the early, more conventional, pieces have been lost. There was only one sharp break in his work, which occurred in 1907, the year of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which marks the most important single turning point in twentieth-century art. After that his work evolved with beautiful symmetry and inevitability.
By the mid 1920s he had produced well over half his entire output and introduced virtually all his major themes: “All my sculptures have been done during the last fifteen years,” he said to Ezra Pound. After that it was a process of reflection, refinement, and distillation. The totality of his mature achievement seems marvelously self-contained, as does each individual work. The sculptures give themselves to us easily, seem on the surface of things to pose no problems, and make few demands. Almost more than any other works of art they appear to be simply and splendidly themselves.
And then the man and his history are fascinating. He became a legend in his lifetime, and although this may have originally worried him a little, he came to enjoy it and certainly to play up to it. In later years he claimed to have come down from “beyond the mountains and beyond the stars.” He also took to talking about himself in the third person: “Après sept ans de travaux d’Hercule, en fuyant la ville dans tous les sens sans trouver une place, il s’en alla dans une autre ville plus grande ou il apprit les sciences et les arts tout en accomplissant les travaux les plus durs.” (“After seven years of herculean labor, and having fled the town, running in every direction without finding his place, he went to another, bigger town, where, while carrying out the hardest tasks, he mastered the sciences and the arts.”) He was in fact born in the Romanian village of Hobitza in 1876, of well-to-do peasant stock. His father was severe and remote and his elder step-brothers used to beat him. At the age of eleven, after several trial attempts, he ran away, encouraged by his wise old granny. In nearby Tirgu Jiu he worked in the dyeing vats that produced the fiber for the beautiful traditional Romanian carpets, and also in a dram shop.
From there he moved on to Craiova, making his living as a waiter: because he was so small his employers used to insert him into the wine casks to scrub and clean them; he told cards and read coffee grounds for the café’s customers. He loved music and it was at this time that from old disused casks he constructed a violin, instinctively using Stradivarius’s principles. This caused, understandably, something of a stir and led indirectly to his being admitted to the local school of arts and crafts. He had hitherto had virtually no formal education; throughout his life he wrote French phonetically. He was recognized as an outstanding student and completed the five-year course in four, after which he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bucharest, where he won several honors. A photograph of the head of Laocoön, done from a plaster cast, demonstrates astonishing facility (the Laocoön itself would eventually be placed in his “bifsteck” category of art). Most extraordinary of all was his Ecorché, an anatomical figure that he executed in collaboration with a distinguished physician, Dr. Dimitrie Gerota, using a plaster cast of the Antinoüs as a starting point. This was bought by the state and four casts of it were made that to this day are used for teaching purposes in art schools and medical academies in Romania.
In 1904 Brancusi set off for Paris, sack on his back, flute in hand. Needless to say he encountered many adventures on the way. He was fond of telling how on the road he thought he tasted fame for the first time; however a cow, apparently rapt and dewy-eyed at his piping, was simply urinating on the other side of the hedge: “Qu’est-ce que la gloire?” me dis-je. “Tu le vois, rien d’autre qu’un pipi de vache.” (“I asked myself, What is fame? As you see, cow piddle, that’s all.”) In 1923 he was to state that “the modern artist proceeds by instinct guided by reason,” but much later still he declared, “On peut pisser sur son intelligence, elle ne sert a rien.” (“You may as well piss on your intellect, for it is completely useless.”) In Lunéville, on his way to Paris in 1904, he suffered a nearly fatal attack of pleural pneumonia. While recovering in a hospital a fellow patient lent him Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled in its French translation; since he was trying to teach himself French by reading it, one can’t help wondering how much of it he understood, although given the nature of the book understanding is perhaps not what is needed to appreciate it best. At any rate his friend the writer Peter Neagoe, who sought to immortalize Brancusi in his novel The Saint of Montparnasse, tells us that “gradually Isis Unveiled changed his entire way of thought, even his way of life.”
Brancusi arrived in Paris on July 14. Again he was forced to support himself, this time as a dishwasher at the Brasserie Chartier. But again he demonstrated his capacity for survival. He obtained a Romanian government scholarship which enabled him to enroll at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a student of the academician Antonin Mercié. He also worked as a chorister and beadle at the Romanian church; despite his poverty he was something of a dandy and he enjoyed the dressing up. There is some doubt whether he actually ever worked under Rodin. One of the books under review suggests he did, but the other reports an incident related by Brancusi himself that would suggest he almost certainly didn’t. He was taken to lunch with Rodin by two Romanian ladies resident in Paris, one of whom had sat for the great man. Questioned about what he had made of the occasion he said that he had enjoyed himself and particularly liked the champagne; but when it was suggested that Rodin might take him on as an apprentice, he was outraged. It was then that he made his famous remark about nothing growing under the shadow of great trees.
But there is little doubt that Rodin set the standards against which Brancusi felt that he must subsequently measure himself; many of the themes he dealt with and even the titles of several of his works were those used by Rodin. In 1952 he wrote a “Hommage à Rodin” and stated that Rodin’s Balzac was “indisputably the starting point of modern sculpture.” Rodin was kind about the works that Brancusi showed at the Salon d’Automne of 1906, which featured a vast Gauguin retrospective, including a large number of Gauguin’s primitivizing sculptures in wood and stone; these must surely have had a determining effect on Brancusi’s subsequent evolution.
Two photographic self-portraits reproduced in the Abrams book help to tell much of the subsequent tale. The first, taken probably in 1915, shows Brancusi perched on the Doorway (now in Philadelphia), which was part of a simple architectural doorway or shrine in which he used to place work in progress. Brancusi hated to be photographed by others, probably because he was vain and self-conscious about his shortness. He was in fact of great physical beauty and in his own photographs he did himself proud, generally placing the camera low down so that he appears to be taller than he was. Here he seems to be on top of things from every respect, bristling with energy and self-confidence. His reputation was steadily growing. More important from a practical point of view, five of his sculptures had been prominently displayed at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, and John Quinn, whom Alfred Barr called “the greatest American collector of the art of his time,” had become interested in his work. Quinn was to become Brancusi’s greatest single patron, building up by far the largest collection of Brancusi’s works in either private or public hands. In 1914 Brancusi had his first one-man show at the Photo-Secession Gallery in New York; and it was his contacts with America and American collectors that absolved him from financial worries and enabled him to live his life as he wished and to fashion his career as he thought it should be fashioned.
The second photograph of himself Brancusi took possibly in 1955, two years before his death. We see him seated in the portal he had sculpted in 1929 to separate the studio where he displayed his works from the areas in which he worked and lived. In 1916 he had rented a studio at No.8 Impasse Ronsin and had clearly fallen in love with it. Subsequently, in 1927, he moved a few doors down into a new studio at No. 11; eventually he took over four others, and some were made to interconnect. As he produced less and less his studios became not simply working and living spaces but works of art in their own right. He quickly got rid of all conventional furniture and furnished them with stools, tables, fireplaces, and stoves of his own making. His tools, which he loved and to which he spoke and sang, were prominently displayed.
He became increasingly reluctant to part with his sculptures and he spent much of his time moving them about, making different arrangements of them, photographing them in their studio settings as other people might photograph their family and their friends. But in this late photograph it is Brancusi himself who has become the work of art. For a long time he had been obsessed with the concept of whiteness—in 1920 Blaise Cendrars wrote to him from the Alps, “Je suis seul dans les neiges comme vous dans votre atelier blanc” (“I am alone in the snows as you are in your white studio”)—and in the photograph Brancusi wears what had become his accustomed white peasant costume; on his head is a strangely shaped cap, a bit like a Phrygian bonnet. Whitest of all is his beard, through which he claimed to absorb wisdom. But even wisdom, he seems to say, is now superfluous. As in his earlier photograph he smiles his peasant smile, but he has obviously gone beyond. He said, “I am no longer of this world. I am far from myself, detached from my body. I am among essential things.”