(845) 246-6944 · info@ArtTimesJournal.com

Return to Art Index

Art Times Homepage

Constantin Brancusi: The Immigrant in Montparnasse:

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2004

Brancusi’s Studio, Pompidou Centre, Paris;
Constantin Brancusi, Tate Modern, London
(29 January – 23 May 2004)

"Adam and Eve" 1921 ((Chestnut (Adam); Oak (Eve))

Almost every artist whose name features in the annals of early twentieth century modernism passed through Montparnasse. It was a truly international centre for immigrants and foreign talent resulted in the production of sublime masterpieces, assuring the status of Paris as the cosmopolitan capital of world art. Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) travelled to Paris on foot in 1904, all the way from his native Romania, and settled in Montparnasse where he developed a style of working which freed him from the canons of traditional sculpture. He redefined the parameters of sculpture, concerning himself with aspects other than representation and in Montparnasse met an entire generation of artists absorbed by similar issues. Brancusi’s pursuit of the essence of form was a quest to find sculptural solutions to the complexity of natural forms. On the surface his closed volumetric shapes in bronze, marble and wood are harmonious, but they are much more than a purified ideal achieved through a process of elimination. He had a fundamental belief in the unity of matter and spirit stating that, ‘the artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter and be the tool that brings out its cosmic essence into an actual visible existence’ (Bach, Rowell & Temkin, 1995).

The sense of infinity suggested by the term ‘cosmic essence’ is best expressed in Endless Column (1926), a pivotal work of sculpturally compressed energy, with a pulsating rhythm radiating into ambient space, which was carved out of an oak tree in the photographer Edward Steichen’s garden in Voulangis. Brancusi went to New York in 1926 and it was the city’s ascending architecture that gave him the initial idea for the Endless Column series, originally conceiving the work as a piece of architecture. It was important to him to have an Endless Column placed outside and in 1935 he was asked to submit a design for a memorial to Romanian soldiers fallen in World War One at the site of Tirgu-Jiu. Endless Column became the major element in this memorial, thirty meters high and built of fifteen cast iron rhomboids, stacked one above the other. Its difference from all other sculpture before it lies in its particular suggestion of infinity, which is achieved by the repetition of identical units, and it is worth drawing a comparison with Le Corbusier’s Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau, designed for the 1925 Arts Décoratifs exhibition, which like Endless Column was also conceived of a series of stacked units. Le Corbusier was a frequent visitor to Brancusi’s studio in the 1920s and this would certainly have had an impact on Brancusi’s knowledge of forward thinking architectural developments of the time.

American patronage played a central role in the reception of Brancusi’s work and his Bird in Space became a symbol for artistic breakthrough on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1926 it was shipped from France to New York for an exhibition at Brummer Gallery and the US customs officials who examined objects for duty-free entry as works of art, insisted on imposing a commercial import tax on the sculpture, refusing to believe it was a work of art due to its similarity to an industrial object. A trial dragged on for months, until the judge finally dropped the fee, which was a triumphant victory for Brancusi and his contemporaries in Paris and America. In the second exhibition of Brancusi’s work at Brummer Gallery, curated by Duchamp in 1933, Art News wrote that Brancusi ‘tries to open for us portals into an ageless world of deep and simple satisfactions. He seeks to re-awaken that childlike sense of wonder, which the standardised efficiencies of modern living have almost killed’ (B, R & T, 1995). The mood of this particular response reflects the fact that this exhibition took place during the Great Depression and a correspondingly dormant art market. It is amazing that such an undertaking was accomplished in those times and speaks volumes of Brancusi’s popularity and the loyalty of his American admirers despite the damaged economy. In fact, without his American enthusiasts Brancusi probably would not have been able to produce or even exist during this period, as the Paris avant-garde did not benefit from any state or institutional aid and depended on the continuous support of enlightened sponsors.

"Torso of a Young Girl II" 1923 (Marble) (Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Brancusi’s importance as a sculptor also lies in the emphasis he gave to his hand carved bases, which as abstract forms exist in their own right. Cubes, cylinders, hemicylinders, truncated pyramids, serrated forms and Greek cross shapes were combined at will and regularly took apart and reassembled. The status of his bases as works of art is an important issue in the development of twentieth century sculpture. Central to Renaissance tradition had been the concept that sculpture should be isolated from its surroundings and that the base should serve to enhance this isolation. Brancusi was now beginning to redraw the boundaries of art; it was important to him for the base to be part of rather than separate from the sculpture, yet there had to be some distinction between the two parts. This differentiation was often achieved by combining different materials and the vertical, soaring movement was arrived at by positioning forms in a rhythm that rises in a crescendo, lifting the sculpture to an indefinable summit, to the degree that the rooster’s crowing is almost audible in the serrated shape of The Cock (1935). The bases, with their varying degrees of vertical emphasis can be compared to Endless Column; the conception of a pillar that holds earth and sky apart is central to a cosmological system in which the infinite can be attained by departing from this world. Brancusi’s combination and recombination of bases in terms of sculptural mobility corresponds to the variability and experimental openness of modernism, but it was also significant from a philosophical point of view, as he eloquently expressed, ‘We are on a sphere; we play with other spheres; we combine them, we make them sparkle’ (B, R & T, 1995).

Brancusi had moved to 11, Impasse Ronsin in Montparnasse in 1928 and it was here that his concept of a studio as a total work of art emerged; it became a complete entity where every object had a part to play and had the quality of an otherworldly oasis in which he invested his immortality. Here he developed a concept called the Groupe Mobile; a group of works with their bases placed in close spatial relationship, a universe of forms which had to be viewed cumulatively. In his studio Brancusi created ensembles where precious and coarse material were contrasted, interchanged, set in motion and walked around; the viewer’s freedom to move within the works was of crucial importance as they became another component of the whole. This is best seen in Leda (1926), where metamorphosis is not only the subject of the sculpture, but its reality. Brancusi placed the bronze on a nickel-plated steel disk, polished to a mirror like surface that couples the sculpture with its own reflection. He originally added a small motor and a collar of ball bearings beneath the metal disk, which activated the sculpture, and this motion and the juxtaposition of the three perfect, yet asymmetric shapes express the essence of a swan on water, seen revolving slowly in a play of light, ascending its own immediate boundaries. Brancusi was always anxious for the studio to be retained in context after his death, and in 1977 a freestanding structure, built to the scale of the original studio opened on the plaza in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

In Montparnasse Brancusi was exposed to the innovations of the avant-garde, yet he sought to create an oeuvre that resisted direct classification. How then can his work be perceived as an exemplar of modernity — maybe his individualistic aesthetic, remote and timeless, was perfectly keyed to the expectations of early twentieth century modernism. The sculpture’s smooth, streamlined perfection and serial production, which was a new concept in itself, appealed to a generation that was still under the spell of the Industrial Age. In his polishing of bronzes, Brancusi did court the finish and severity of mechanically functional objects, and his own interest in the shiny surfaces and imposing silhouettes of New York should not be forgotten in this context. His acclaim in America certainly paralleled the broadening influence of modernism and by reducing his work to primary forms of a geometrical nature he cleared the way for minimalist sculpture.

The modernity of Brancusi’s art lies in the fact that he created artistic equivalents for, rather than imitating the forms of nature. As child he had contact with simple geometric forms, as the Byzantine tradition was still alive in Romania and this, linked with his interest in Eastern philosophy was important in his approach to his work. Once he had discovered his principle themes he perfected them tirelessly until his death in 1957. Brancusi was certainly a master in utilising the specific qualities of the material to his advantage; he was the first Modernist sculptor to polish bronze to the point of obtaining a reflective surface; when working in marble he drew inspiration from its veined surface and when using wood, the grain of the material was of utmost importance. Brancusi felt that the form should come from within the material itself and it was only by gazing at it for a long time that a complete fusion of mind and matter could be achieved. As he best summed up, ‘In art, one does not aim for simplicity; one achieves it unintentionally as one gets closer to the real meaning of things’ (Hulten, Dumitresco & Istrati, 1988).

Return to Art Index

Art Times Homepage