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.

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 …

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