• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Pure and Not So Simple

Constantin Brancusi 1876–1957 31, 1995.

an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 8–December, Catalog by Friedrich Teja Bach, by Margit Rowell, by 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.

  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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print