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 …