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.”
The literature on Brancusi continues to mount and has tended to polarize between Romanian writers, who rightly stress his ethnic origins, and American and European critics, who have sought to emphasize his modernism and universality. Barbu Brezianu has written beautifully on the early years. Sidney Geist, more than anyone else, has cast light on the evolution and meaning of his work, although by his own admission his approach has been primarily formalist. And yet Brancusi somehow still evades us, and I suspect he always will. This is partly because, as Romanian commentators insist, his background is so different from that of his contemporaries and peers with whom he linked up in Paris. What has perhaps been insufficiently underlined is that because of the provincialism and the relative isolation of the Romanian artistic climate he was more thoroughly indoctrinated in a nineteenth-century academic tradition of art than any of his contemporaries working in Paris or even in Spain or Italy. Although he broke with this tradition completely, I believe that it affected him deeply; even after he was fully launched on the modernist stream, he continued to draw inspiration, as Sidney Geist has shown, from such fundamentally conservative artists as Ernest Dubois and Emile Derré.1
He partook of the primitivist spirit that touched such a large proportion of the Parisian avant-garde, but in a very different way. Indebted to Gauguin, he nevertheless rejected him, partly, I suspect, because he must have thought that Gauguin’s sculpture, as opposed to his painting, had about it a somewhat amateur, homespun air; the concept of finish remained fundamental to Brancusi’s art. Paradoxically, when his contemporaries were first reacting to the exciting discovery of tribal art, he turned first to many of Gauguin’s own “primitivizing” sources. He loved the Egyptian and the early classical art he studied in the Louvre and the early medieval pieces in the Musée de Cluny; he enthused to his friends about what he saw in the Musée Guimet, rich in Indian, Javanese, and other oriental art. And for all the importance of the impact of tribal art upon early-twentieth-century modernists, the recent tendency to equate modern artists’ fascination with “primitive” art with their discovery of tribal sculpture and artifacts has fatally distorted the situation at the time, for to artists of Brancusi’s generation “primitive art” was a nebulous concept that could accommodate examples of almost any art that did not visibly and immediately stem from a Greek classical or Renaissance tradition.
When Brancusi turned to “art nègre,” he looked at it from a different point of view. Virtually alone among his contemporaries in Paris he had grown up in a community that still enjoyed a thriving tradition of folk and peasant art, and he was unimpressed by the exoticism, the strangeness, and the magical properties of tribal art; these were the very qualities that led him subsequently to reject it. He responded to its formal inventiveness and under its stimulus produced some of his boldest, most direct sculptures; he responded too to the strong element of craft in tribal art, to its reductiveness, to the way in which it made basic simple forms expressive and meaningful.
The simplicity and reductiveness of Brancusi’s own work, which are among his greatest legacies to subsequent modern art, are quite obviously hard won and to a large extent deceptive. They had a lot to do with Brancusi’s conviction about the value of direct carving and fidelity to materials, concepts that he shared with many of his contemporaries but that he pushed to more extreme conclusions. Rodin had been essentially a modeler, with all that that implies for the process of building things up additively, slapping and pressing clay into clay, twisting, bending, manipulating, gouging. Brancusi turned himself into the archetypal carver, slowly working inward, reducing and compressing, removing layer after layer until he had released his material’s hidden inner life; even his obsessive polishing of his bronzes can be seen as an extension of the carving process. Yet the perfection of the end results poses certain problems. Quite clearly the works are charged with meaning; they are about themselves, but they are about something else, too. Of one of the simplest of his works he said, “Through this form I could change the cosmos, make it to move otherwise.” If the works are self-contained, they also contain secrets. This makes them hard, not to look at, but to talk about.
Another problem in assessing Brancusi’s achievement is that although his work stands at the core of the modernist movement, and although during the first quarter of the century he himself was so obviously at the center of things, as an artist he somehow always manages to stand somewhat apart. When he was presented with a chart of “isms” drawn up by Alfred Barr and published in Michel Seuphor’s Art abstrait in 1949 and saw that he didn’t fit into any of them, he was delighted. In the years before the First World War he came to know le tout Paris, and after the war it increasingly sought him out. He was a genuine bohemian and he liked to reminisce, for example, about his drunken escapades before the First World War with Modigliani, to whom he was in many ways a mentor. Later, in 1922, on an impulse, he and Raymond Radiguet jumped on a train to the Côte d’Azur; in Nice, on another impulse, they boarded a boat to Corsica and had to be reprimanded by the captain for obstreperous behavior. Cocteau, who saw himself as Radiguet’s protector, was not amused and behaved insultingly to Brancusi, although the next day he wrote a note of apology.
Brancusi was not an intellectual but he was perhaps most loved by those who were. His closest friendships were with Marcel Duchamp, who when he was away from Paris wrote to him almost weekly, and with Erik Satie, whom he saw with increasing frequency till the latter’s death in 1925. Pound was fascinated by him and so was James Joyce, who in 1929 chose an abstract diagrammatic portrait sketch of himself as the frontispiece for his Tales Told of Shem and Shaun. (When Joyce’s father saw it he said, “My God, how the boy has changed!”) He was peripherally involved with the activities of the Dadaists in Paris and was more attracted to the intellectual anarchy of Tzara and Picabia than to the more doctrinaire stance of the Surrealists; Breton was something of an enemy. But as the 1920s progressed he became increasingly solitary; and maybe in a sense he always had been—as early as 1919 he had written, “Nous ne voyons la vie que par reflets” (“We see life only in reflections”). On the other hand he continued to enjoy cooking unorthodox studio meals for friends from time to time, and even in old age made the occasional sortie into the beau monde. There is even something equivocal about his modernity. In 1908 he had visited the Aeronautic Exhibition at Le Bourget with Léger and Duchamp and was struck by the beauty of the machines. Asked what most characterized the modern world, he replied, “Speed!” But for his own symbol of flight he chose a mythical bird. He deplored contemporary fashion and in old age spoke nostalgically of the destruction of Romanian rural society by urban values.
Brancusi was obsessively secretive about his private life, and although this helped to foster his legend, the growth of the legend in turn helped to make his work seem isolated, a thing apart. He was attractive to women and there seem to have been several in his life; but the only overt relationship he enjoyed was with his white Samoyed bitch Polaire, whom he acquired in 1921. She accompanied him everywhere, even to the cinema; she would accept food from no one but himself and menaced female visitors to the studio. She became, in her own way, a celebrated Parisian beauty and friends would ask after her in their letters. When she was killed by an automobile in 1925 Brancusi was desolated, although characteristically he also remarked that her disappearance would enable him to concentrate harder on his sculpture. She was buried in the canine cemetery at Asnières. It is significant that in the latter part of Brancusi’s career depictions of animals far outnumber those of people. The most thumbed of the small assortment of books placed on a shelf above his bed to help relieve his escalating insomnia was La Fontaine’s Fables, which characterizes human frailty in terms of animal behavior.
The publishers of both of the new large and handsome books on Brancusi claim them to be definitive. In the case of Radu Varia’s it might be found to be so by those who share his particular cast of mind. He has an excitable intelligence, is very much into matters spiritual, cosmic, and occult, and he is convinced that he has discovered the keys to an understanding of Brancusi’s art. He leaps in at the deep end, so to speak, by seizing upon Brancusi’s latter-day fixation on the life and work of the eleventh-century Tibetan ascetic Milarépa. Le Poète Tibétan Milarépa: ses crimes, ses épreuves, son nirvane, as recounted by his disciple Ras chung pas (Rechung), translated from the Tibetan and with a good introduction by Jacques Bacot, was published in Paris in 1925.
Brancusi may have come across it soon after; it was a time of great enthusiasm for oriental thought among French artists and intellectuals. Milarepa was an extremely sympathetic character, whose saintliness was tempered by a healthy streak of cynicism. His father died when he was very young and a wicked uncle and aunt cheated him out of his patrimony and forced him, together with his mother and sister, to perform the most backbreaking and menial of tasks. Being a lad of spirit he ran away and very sensibly took a crash course in black magic. He caused his uncle’s crops to be devastated in a hailstorm and brought down the roof of the ancestral home during the wedding celebrations of his cousin, killing all the assembled guests. His uncle and aunt were out of the building seeing to things, and were hence spared, largely, one suspects, so that they could subsequently be confronted with Milarepa’s sanctity; by then Milarepa had developed what must have been the maddening habit of meeting abuse and adverse criticism by breaking into song—but of course it inevitably won him the day. (Brancusi’s acts of black magic were relatively harmless: he once got so angry at the rudeness of a Parisian taxi driver that he willed the taxi to break down; on another occasion he stopped a torrential storm by playing a record of African chants on his home-made phonograph at top volume.)
Milarepa repented his early acts of vengeance and set out in quest of truth. He placed himself at the feet of the great teacher Marpa, who for seven years subjected him to savage penance and discipline. Marpa had studied at the Indian university of Nalanda; he was a Sanskrit scholar, translated Buddhist texts, and was largely responsible for introducing Buddhism into Tibet, where it fell on fertile soil. He came from a school that had to undergo not only prolonged intellectual indoctrination but also severe courses in yogic exercises, which eventually led to the production of the inner heat that enabled the initiate to withstand the icy Himalayan cold clad only in a white loin-cloth. Milarepa, although he was designated Marpa’s successor, disdained Buddhist texts; maybe, like Brancusi, he wasn’t a true intellectual. In any case he was a marvelous poet and his outpourings have been compared to those of Saint Francis, although the one learned compassion through wisdom, the other wisdom through love. Not the least of Milarepa’s talents, and one that fascinated Brancusi, was his ability to fly: at first Milarepa was not sure if the sensation of being airborne was simply a state of spiritual ecstasy, but soon he was into the real thing, and after that there was no holding him down. He died after being poisoned by a jealous lama at a beer fest; he knew in any case that his time had come.
Varia writes: “Brancusi knew the meaning of Jetsun Kahbum [Milarepa] long before he knew the book itself.” And further on, “It is extraordinary that, a thousand years apart, the lives of Jetsun Milarepa and Constantin Brancusi, with the happiness of childhoods turned to despair, would appear interchangeable.” Well, yes and no. Brancusi unquestionably identified with Milarepa and, according to some, believed himself to be Milarepa’s reincarnation. Brancusi was in certain respects an ascetic, and he strove for purity in his work; Milarepa’s vision of a blissful world “delivered from the shadows” finds an echo in Brancusi’s claim to have eliminated shadows in his sculpture. But Brancusi was no saint. He was basically a kind man, but he had his selfish and ruthless side (and so, it could be argued, did many saints); as he got older he tended to become a little cranky, possibly to drink a bit too much, and from time to time he enjoyed being rude to people. He was horrible to the painter Wols, who had begged for an audience, and he sent Montale away although he had come with a letter of introduction from Pound. In his fellow Romanian Ionesco, however, he met his match.
The second major theme that informs Varia’s book is his obsession with Romania as “the repository of ancient European civilizations redolent with Celtic mythology,” a background that enabled Brancusi to reassert “the presence of a monumental, solar, cosmological dream mythology that had disappeared from the earth’s surface thousands of years ago.” If Varia, as can be seen, enjoys taking on major issues, the book is also full of shrewd insights, as for example when he speculates on the parts that Marie Bonaparte and the beautiful Irish girl Eileen Lane might have played in Brancusi’s life, although the prose in which he renders them is often a little hard to take: “One of these women dramatically filled the vault of his inner heaven with darkest shadows; the other with the sparkling dawn of midsummer days.” Some of the chapters that deal with the work itself are somewhat perfunctory.
It is in his discussion of the great environmental ensemble at Tirgu Jiu near his birthplace in Romania that Varia’s approach is perhaps most illuminating. The complex that Brancusi worked on during the 1930s consists of three structures. The Endless Column, or the “Column of the Infinite,” was commissioned to commemorate the deaths of the heroes from the district of Gorj who fell on the banks of the river Jiu in a significant battle during the First World War. The second element to be finished was the Gate of the Kiss, and the third the mysterious Table of Silence, which stands at the river’s edge. To these elements Varia adds a fourth: the space they create and encompass. The ensemble was inaugurated on October 27, 1938. I myself have not been to Tirgu Jiu, but Varia is surely right in insisting that the elements must be approached in the reverse order to that in which they were conceived and executed; and if Brancusi may not have consciously related the parts to each other in the way Varia sees them, I suspect he would not have rejected Varia’s interpretation.
The Table is surrounded by twelve massive stone stools, which Varia sees as symbolizing the signs of the Zodiac; he also relates the table and the stools to Celtic myth—he reminds us, for example, of the ceremonies of the twelve Knights of the Round Table. The Table is for contemplation and communion, the beginning of a spiritual journey or odyssey. “The Gate of the Kiss represents the rite of passage across the threshold of another world, existential access to a higher reality, impenetrable to anyone who has not experienced the altered consciousness brought about by the Table of Silence.” The Endless Column beyond it—the works are arranged along a single axis—he interprets as “representing empyrean flight to the hidden heart of cosmic space.”
In an entry to the catalog of his 1933 exhibition at the Brummer Gallery in New York Brancusi described one of the Column’s numerous antecedents as “Column without End—a project for a column which when enlarged will support the vault of the sky.” Varia’s comparisons and analogies with Egyptian architectural complexes and the spatial principles they embody are also stimulating. Brancusi considered Tirgu Jiu his masterpiece, and it is a tragedy that the even more gigantic Endless Column he had first envisaged on the shores of Lake Michigan during his visit to Chicago in 1939 as a sort of tribute to the country that had done most to support him was never realized. The idea of it was still preoccupying him in the year of his death.
The book issued by Abrams and Flammarion is of a very different nature. In 1947 two young Romanian art students, Natalia Dumitresco and Alexandre Istrati, arrived in Paris to study painting on a French government grant. That same year they were taken to see Brancusi by one of his neighbors, the sculptor George Theodorescu. Brancusi took to them and asked them to come again. They were able to rent the studio opposite his own and by the following year he was helping them to make it habitable as well as workable. He gave them a much prized old wooden press which had been one of the sources for the Endless Column, saying, “Voici l’esprit de votre atelier.” The Istratis in turn became indispensable to him and in a very real sense his family. When Brancusi died, he left the contents of his studio to the French nation, but otherwise they became his sole heirs. Many of Brancusi’s devotees have spoken of them with bitterness, claiming that they were obstructing Brancusi studies by denying scholars access to important documentary material. If this was so they have now made amends by using the material in their possession to produce an episodic but completely absorbing biography of Brancusi, tracing his life and career from year to year.
The book contains so much new information of various kinds that it is hard to know how best to describe it all. The authors reproduce his Romanian art school certificates. Brancusi reminisced to them endlessly and dictated fragments of autobiography to them. There are quotations from unpublished notebooks and reproductions of hitherto unknown aphorisms, drawings, and sketches. Brancusi gave them insights, which they pass on, into the genesis of several of his sculptures. There are many quotations out of letters from friends, and sometimes the letters are reproduced in full. Those from Duchamp (he and Brancusi addressed and wrote to each other as “Morice”) demonstrate the depth and gentleness of his devotion to an artist whose aesthetic represented in many respects the antithesis of his own. The notes from Satie are affectionate, witty, and strangely touching too. Here is a single extract from a letter of January 26, 1923, when an exhibition entitled Pou qui grimpe (The Clambering Louse) was about to open at the premises of La Belle Edition in the Rue des Saints-Pères: “Fortement calomnié, le pou est un animal qui n’est pas plus sale qu’un autre. C’est done un banal préjugé que de craindre le pou. Parasite?…Lui?… Il ne l’est pas plus que le cheval, et coute mille fois moins cher à nourrir, à élever que le célèbre coursier. Oui.” (“The much maligned louse is no more filthy than any other animal. So it is a banal prejudice to be afraid of lice. A parasite? The louse? No more so than a horse, and a thousand times cheaper to feed and bring up than the illustrious steed. Yes indeed.”)
The letters to and from collectors demonstrate that although Brancusi handled his affairs shrewdly he was also candid about them, and that as a result many of his patrons felt protective toward him. Sculptors will be intrigued by the lists of materials ordered and these may eventually help to solve problems of dating that still surround some of the works. The Dumitresco-Istrati cornucopia is not, however, without its difficulties. It is not always clear when they are quoting from unpublished writings of Brancusi, or from notes they took after talking to him, or simply remembering what he once said to them. It would have been good to have had reproductions of entire pages of his texts and aphorisms rather than the fragments that are interspersed as vignettes; the fact that they are partial and disjointed and not dated makes it hard to follow them and to chart the evolution of his thought. The authors are as reticent about Brancusi’s private life as he could have wished. They do, however, tell us that in 1924 he became engaged to a young blonde dancer, presumably the woman named Marthe, whom they subsequently refer to a couple of times and who appears to have occupied for a while a central position in his life; it would have been interesting to know just a little more about how she and Brancusi’s other women friends fitted into his scheme of things.
Almost the only thing that these two books have in common other than their subject is that they both cast new light on the intriguing matter of Brancusi’s unrealized project for a shrine or temple for Yeshwant Holkar, maharajah of Indore. The commission was engineered by the writer and impresario H.P. Roché, who together with Duchamp did most to promote Brancusi’s work and reputation after the death of Quinn in 1924. (Between them they bought the Brancusi holdings in Quinn’s collection, thus saving the sculptor from the disastrous effects of the Quinn sales.) The Temple of Indore, referred to variously as the Temple of Deliverance, the Temple of Meditation, and the Temple of Love, was to have been erected on the maharajah’s estate near his palace. Dumitresco and Istrati tell us that Brancusi was already thinking about the project in 1930, the year of the maharajah’s accession. In 1933 Roché brought the maharajah to Brancusi’s studio and the maharajah bought the great bronze Bird in Space (now in the Norton Simon Museum) and later, in 1936, two others, in white and black marble (now in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra). These were to be the presiding spirits of the temple.
Dumitresco and Istrati publish documents and sketches showing that originally the temple was to have been open to the air, with the birds and a fourth sculpture in niches at the sides of a rectangular pool of reflecting water; the fourth sculpture became, in Brancusi’s mind, the work known as the Spirit of Buddha and also as King of Kings, although it is unclear whether it was produced with the temple in view or whether (as is more likely) it was already in existence. As Brancusi’s ideas evolved the temple became a small pantheon-like structure, lit by a single open aperture in a vault or dome; at certain times of year direct sunlight was to pierce through this opening and strike the bronze bird. Another sketch reproduced by Dumitresco and Istrati shows that at one point Brancusi conceived of the monument as a small stupalike building, very Indian in feeling. He once talked of the entrance as a very narrow low door that would have forced each visitor to stoop on entering; Roché tells us that entrance was to have been through a subterranean passage.
Brancusi planned to take with him to India a triumvirate of Romanian collaborators: the engineer Georgescu-Gorjan and the stonecutter Ion Alexandrescu, both of whom had worked with him at Tirgu Jiu, and the architect Octav Doicescu. Georgescu-Gorjan has written that by the time Brancusi sought to recruit him, the sculptor saw the internal space of the temple as egg-shaped. Varia quotes from a statement made to him in 1966 by Doicescu to the effect that the temple was to be in the form of “a large apple, thick, firm, and self-contained, hewn in a single block of marble.” He also declared that the monument was to be a mausoleum for the maharanee: “Inside, at the place of the apple core, would lie the funeral urn of the departed maharanee.” Varia says that she died and was cremated in Paris in 1937, and he argues that the maharajah’s desire to turn the temple into a small, latter-day kind of Taj Mahal fundamentally altered the nature of the undertaking and Brancusi’s thinking about it. In a later unpublished letter to Varia, Doicescu reaffirms that the monument was to have been apple-shaped inside and that the outer contour might have been bird-shaped. Alexandrescu also talked of “the apple-shaped tomb.”
Clearly Brancusi talked to all three men in vague or generalized imaginative terms and probably never decided on a final form for what had obviously become for him a piece of architecture-cum-sculpture. Varia, who in 1978 delivered a paper on the unfathomable Celtic mystery of the apple to the first International Symposium of Celtic Civilization, held in Toronto, naturally favors the apple theory. Brancusi was in India for most of January 1938 as the maharajah’s guest, but he never saw his host. Some reports say the maharajah was ill, some that he was away on a tiger hunt, some that he was threatened by financial ruin and was reluctant to lose face with Brancusi by telling him that the deal was off. (A footnote in Varia’s book states that in 1937–1938 the maharajah still enjoyed an annual revenue of $70 million.) Whatever the reason, it is sad that the twentieth century lost what would have clearly been one of its most beautiful and remarkable monuments.
The Dumitresco-Istrati biography is prefaced by a substantial essay by Pontus Hulten, who was director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou at the time when the reconstruction of Brancusi’s studio with its contents was transferred from its old home in the Palais de Tokyo to its present location in the piazza outside the new museum. The essay provides an imaginative general introduction to the work.2
February 4, 1988
See Barbu Brezianu, Brancusi in Romania (Bucharest: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1976); and Sidney Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture (Hacker Art Books, 1983, a revised edition of his 1967 monograph) and his Brancusi: The Sculpture and Drawings (Abrams, 1975). ↩
While I was writing this review I discussed Brancusi with Alexandra Parigoris, who is preparing a Ph.D. dissertation on him for the Contauld Institute, and I am indebted to her. ↩