Constantin Brancusi, Romanian, born 1876, Hobitza, Romania; died 1957, Paris, France
Brancusi, of peasant stock, left home at 11, worked here and there, studied at a number of places and reached Paris in 1904 mostly on foot for more study and apprenticeship when he was in his late 20s.
From then on, it is as though, with the realism of the European sculptural tradition at his back, and of Rodin all around him at his (Rodin’s) peak,
Despair, modeled by 1890 and cast by 1906, marble.
Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, French. Philadelphia Art Museum
Brancusi rode his own highway to the liberation of sculptural form from realism;
to the simplified, reflective, shining shapes of a limited number of forms.
He started with limestone in 1907; 1908: marble; in 1911, Brancusi cast from marble into bronze. In 1913 he first used the wood of which he was so fond.
Brancusi did not consider his work abstract. He said:
“What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things.”
You wonder if this is far different in intent from Paul Cézanne‘s
influential liberation of the mass, form, substance of an object, person or landscape from its enmeshed objective reality
to emphasize our subjective perception of that very mass and solidity, made more massive and more solid but without entering into abstraction.
Woman with a Coffee-maker, 1895, oil on canvas.
Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, French. Musée d’Orsay on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC in 2018
The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906, oil on canvas. Acquired 1955 by the Phillips Collection.
Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, French. Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
The sources of Brancusi’s inspiration included Romanian folklore and the ritual sculptures of pre-industrial societies available for viewing in Paris.
I imagine that we shall never know all the sculptor’s sources because he was born and raised in a rurality suffused with a spirituality encoded in the rituals of religion and the stories of folklore, which most of us do not know.
This may be whence his devotion to the simplicity of forms honed over generations for specific functions.
Brancusi carved the bases for his work and considered the base an intrinsic part of any creation.
“Sculpture, he said, is a human expression of nature’s actions.”
Flowers, after all, trees, bushes do not have platforms or bases. Neither does the hoe, the adze, a plough.
View of Blond Negress II, 1933, bronze on four-part pedestal of marble, limestone and two oak sections.
Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1954, Romanian. MOMA, NY moved this recently to be among work made in the same period
Brancusi said: “It is the hand that thinks and follows the thought of matter.”
The hand that thinks is no longer where most of us think we live.
Hand of Rodin with a Female Figure, 1917, plaster.
Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, French. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
It is unfortunate, in light of this, that we cannot touch, stroke or carry any of Brancusi’s sculptures.
Essential to Brancusi’s path was the rejection of traditional academic sculptural methods:
….’The sculptor would make the original work in clay, wax, or plaster, and assistants, using a pointing machine, would then carve the work in wood or stone.
‘Plotting specific points on the raw material, the machine made it possible to create accurate copies and to enlarge or reduce the size of the original….’
(extract from theArtStory.org).
Brancusi rejected this and directly carved his material. Even when casting in metal, Brancusi’s creations varied one from the other because he varied something about each piece.
Taken up by modernist artists in France not long after he began his own modernist path, Brancusi’s work had a large influence on, among others, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920, Italian).
Modigliani met Brancusi in 1909.
Rejecting clay modelling, insulting Rodin who had restored the integrity of realism in sculpture, Modigliani created at least 25 sculptures of directly carved stone.
Modigliani’s influences included Paul Gaugin, in whom Brancusi was also most interested, and African, Asian and ancient Greek art.
Woman’s Head, 1912, limestone.
Amedeo Modigliani, 1884-1920, Italian. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Set at right-angles: Lola de Valance, oil on paper, mounted on wood, 1915.
Amedeo Modigliani, 1884-1920, Italian. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Collected in the United States even before the 1913 NY Armory Show, Brancusi’s work is well represented in North-East American museum collections.
These photos were taken in the collections of museums on the North American east coast between NY and DC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
chose to include in its exhibition to mark 150 years of its existence (1870-2020) these two heads:
Sleeping Muse, 1910, bronze.
Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957, Romanian. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Even if Modigliani would have curled his lip at the plaster Giacometti used.
Head/skull, 1934, plaster.
Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1964, Swiss. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The Hirshhorn, Washington, DC
Sleeping Muse, marble, front and back, 1910-1911.
In the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC
Philadelphia Art Museum
The room in which Brancusi’s sculptures are displayed is high-ceilinged. It is painted white with high, semicircular arches like a Romanesque church.
A churchy balcony overlooks the room on two sides. Nothing is on this balcony. You return your eyes quickly to the sculptures.
Maiastra, 1912, white marble, marble base
The sculptures are arranged in alcoves like objects of veneration.
At the far end, Brancusi’s Bird in Space (Yellow Bird) stretches upwards while Mademoiselle Pogany looks demurely down.
Mademoiselle Pogany, III, 1931, white marble, limestone and oak base.
Self-portrait, 1913, oil on cardboard.
Margit Pogany, 1879-1964, Hungarian. Philadelphia Art Museum.
The museum notes that Margit Pogany commissioned Brancusi to sculpt her portrait which met with astonishment in 1913 in New York for the simplicity and boldness of its lines. She took steps to reunite this portrait with this commission at this museum.
Behind Mademoiselle Pogany is Bird in Space (Yellow Bird); c. 1923-24; yellow marble, marble, limestone and oak base
And close to her is a well-known limestone:
The Kiss, 1916, limestone
Newborn (I), white marble, 1915. Philadelphia Art Museum
On an oak bench of 1914-16, a Torso of a Young Girl III, c. 1923
White Negress (I), 1923; veined marble, marble base
Three Penguins, marble, 1911-1912
Torso of a young man (I), 1917-22, maple on a limestone base
Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series, c. 1978-82; stainless steel, wood, leather, sewn cloth, and ammunition box.
John Outterbridge,1933-2020, American. MOMA, NY
Prodigal Son, c. 1914-15, oak, limestone base
The sculptor used a saw to cut through a rectangular block of wood in a 1915 version of ‘The Prodigal Son’ .
The following year, he chose the block of wood from which this was made: it had a naturally occurring fork which he used as part of the sculpture.
Princess X, 1915-16, polished bronze, limestone base
Fish, veined marble, 1922, marble and oak base
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
A Bird in Space, 1925 of marble, stone and wood; a second Bird in Space, 1927, of brass, cast stone and wood; and a Maiastra, 1911, of polished bronze. The black sculpture is called Agnes E. Meier, dates to 1929 and is made of marble.
Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY
Muse, 1912, marble on an oak base. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY
Adam and Eve (carved separately c. 1916) 1921, chestnut (Adam), oak (Eve) on a limestone base
King of Kings, c.1938, oak
The Sorceress, 1916-1924, walnut on limestone base. Shown on Watchdog, 1916, oak
A highly polished walnut wood mounted on a polished limestone base which is mounted on the oak ‘Guard Dog’ (1916).
Seated Woman, 1919-1925, cherrywood and iron.
Elie Nadelman, 1882-1946, American born Poland. On loan to the Jewish Museum, NY in 2020 by the Phillips Academy, Andover.
Moving from Warsaw to Paris in 1904 where he lived for 10 years, Nadelman’s sculpture was known to and influential among the Modernists. He moved to the US at the beginning of WW1 and it was there that Brancusi continued to view and admire his work.
The Miracle (Seal (I)), c. 1930-1932. Marble on limestone base
Flying Turtle, 1940-1945. Marble on limestone base
The King of Kings in company with the Sorceress and Adam and Eve
The Brancusi gallery gives onto a balcony which overlooks MOMA’s garden.
The enclosed garden light shows up the sculptures with all their bronze overtones, their marble striations and the grain of the wood.
Fish, 1930, blue-gray marble, on three-part pedestal of one marble and two limestone cylinders. MOMA, NY
Maiastra, 1910-12, white marble on three-part limestone pedestal of which the middle section is Double Caryatid, c. 1908
Views of Blond Negress II, 1933; bronze on four-part pedestal of marble, limestone and two oak sections. MOMA, NY
Occasionally a museum will separate one Brancusi sculpture to make a point in a separate context. That piece always dominates the eye.
View of Blond Negress II, 1933; bronze on four-part pedestal of marble, limestone and two oak sections. MOMA, NY among work made in the same period, moved recently
The last iteration of Endless Column
Endless Column, 1937. steel, more than 98′ tall. Installed at Tîrgu-Jiu, Romania to remember the Romanian soldiers who fought in WW1.
Photo: Dalf, Tîrgu-Jiu, Romania
(Endless because it has no terminal points. A proposal for a taller column to function as a residential building in Chicago did not come to fruition).
In (by?) 1950, Brancusi (had) stopped making new forms. 43 years after his first carving in limestone. He continued to polish the work he kept in his studio.
He was 74.
Even still, this continence is astonishing to me perhaps because we live in a more-new-more economy
or perhaps because I recognize the spiritual discipline which underlay his work: he observed, he distilled, he created, he refined; he perfected;
and then he rested.
Leaving works of art which reflect the ambient world in his time and now and as long as they exist.
Brancusi’s influence is everywhere to include the graphic arts and architecture.
“When I approached New York on the boat, I had the impression of seeing my studio on a large scale,” was Brancusi’s memory of his first 1913 visit.
Some American sculptors have monumentalized Brancusi’s intuitions by incorporating them in their work;
and have turned the city of New York and the country into his studio
in a manner of speaking.
8 thoughts on “1. Constantin Brancusi Whole”
Bien qu’à peine figuratives les sculptures de Brancusi sont immédiatement intelligibles et parlent directement à la sensibilité.
Yes! And it is the illegibility of the symbols of our old religion today which people believe is the main reason that our religion has been so widely abandoned in the ‘West’………Sarah
The devoutness of the blogger’s voice teaching viewers how to understand, beside enjoying, the excursion into Brancusi’s universe exhibited in artistic, human and chronological order is what one goes away with after the treat with ‘Brancusi whole’. To think that Brancusi represented the essence of the objects he exhibited but without going into abstraction – is to find a place for his art and give it a name with words. One likes the admirably gentle accessway to the gallery of Brancusi’s sculptures with Rodin images, these and the rest of the ‘whole’ viewed from such bold, eloquent angles – and the carefully chosen and sized comments about what is unique to Brancusi’s inspiration and creations that draw sap from, and commend, nature’s work but are inscribed in the circle of art because they are put on their sculpted platforms and pedestals. We receive the gift of the blogger in the projected process of (her/his) understanding (which becomes ours) of the kind of Brancusian beauty and perfection in rendering the impulse that was arrested and given a voice in his art. Viewing slide after slide, we can see the difference between the material, sensuous glamour of Rodin’s intimately realist bodies in radiant marble and the thought-producing flawlessness of Brancusi’s aesthetic (distance): warm distance, the distance of gentle, eternally befriending thoughts communicated as in a casual act of communion, directly to our sensibility.The slides, often unaccompanied even by the least cumbersome words, alight in our eyesight like butterflies that make us think and we climb, fly and pause at ease on each of the blogger’s rungs on a ladder akin to the Endless Column. Yes, the blogger speaks to us from the same kind of sunny aerial environment – almost imperceptibly about art historians’ landmarks (the Armory Show of 1913) and Brancusi’s presence in America even before that date, about his attraction to New York’s high-rising Maiastras akin to his sculpting elan. Taking, next, the present American galleries perspective, the blogger gives us the feel of the light on Brancusi’s sculptures under the almost direct daytime lumjinosity let in through the window giving on the MoMa sculpture garden. The church balconies and alcoves which impart altar powers to the sculptures in the Philadelphia Art Museum makes two of the slides from this gallery unforgettable. And one with American people in it!
The tour through the American museums which hold Brancusi’s sculptures is supported by a subtle, always relevant narrative thread of artistic and just slightly personal biography: Mademoiselle Pogany was not French but Hungarian and Brancusi was open to other Central or East European influences – photos of which are interspersed in the tour (novices won’t have heard of Elie Nadelman, the Polish-born American whose work Brancusi admired). Likeable, illuminating is also an occasional personal wordless comment of the blogger about later influences of Brancusi’s masculine torso carved in incredibly polished maple wood and John Otterbridge’s 1969-72 “Broken dance” in the MoMa. Special thanks for virtually bringing together so many of Brancusi’s works, some of them hardly remembered from non-virtual American, French or Romanian visits. Oh, the Sorceress – what a powerful work to be seen from so many angles!
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dr Blogger!
Thank you, dear Lover of Brancusi. This is a generous review of my post. More it is an appreciation, equal to mine, of a great-souled artist.
He is dear to me not only for his art but also for the example of his life as a man who lived in more than one culture – as many of us do – finding that each is a treasury and not a cause for complaint or for partial identification. A man who actually halted his creation at a certain moment to spend the rest of his life thinking about the creations he had created by polishing them into the much admired light-reflectiveness.
Thank you for not being so much of a purist that you minded the inclusion of John Otterbridge’s work: his own creation on his difficult trans-cultural path.
Thank you also for pointing to the Sorceress. I did not discuss her but, of course, she is an archetype flying underground in ‘Western’ Europe since the ‘conquest’ of Protestant Rationalism; but still alive in many parts, I am sure, of ‘Eastern’ Europe not to speak of the Rest of the World!
Brancusi’s work reflected archetypes and it carries universal values. I am grateful to him because I carry three separate cultures and without the Brancusis, I might long ago have been burnt up in the crossed wires of such a heritage!
Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I much appreciate it. Sarah Abraham
I wrote you a slightly longer answer to say it is entirely thanks to you that I had anything to say in response – but my message got lost. Every time I read and look at your post, new thoughts come up.
I am grateful for your – long – answer!
Thank you again for looking at my post. And may I tell you also that we – in Philadelphia – have a foremost sculptor among us? Viorel Farcas. I don’t know if you have been able to see my post about his work. But it is marvelous. Sometimes he speaks of Brancusi and when he does, I wish I could record him, especially when he pronounces the name of his compatriot because the final ‘i’ is all but suppressed and you have the power of his name hanging in the air!
Best wishes in this difficult time. I am thinking now of the Sorceress, because of your comment and shall address a post about all of us who approach her age if not her wisdom!
To my delight when I woke,the heavens had opened with another significant snowfall. I sat up in bed to read Sarah’s ‘Constantin Brancusi Whole’. Through a large window at the foot of the bed -huge snowflakes were flying about en masse, while black crows moved about the high treetops in the distance.
“On February 19,1876,the day of Constantin’s birth, immense,incredible,mythological snowflakes fell on Hobitza burying the countryside in a white blanket of silence- Only the spires of the two wooden village churches remained visible in Hobitza on Feb 19; but in a crystal-clear sky the evening star blazed in daylight.”
This was Brancusi’s ‘guiding star’.
“The redemptive and infinitely refreshing light of the evening star was to accompany him to the end of his days and, despite the encircling dangers,secretly direct his steps upward on the steep slopes.”
I like to imagine Brancusi hiking the snow adorned forests of the Carpathian Mountains of his native Romania and him shepherding their hills in summer. Perhaps he sang for “he always cherished singing.”
Thank you,Sarah,for your generous offering and testament to the brilliance of Brancusi.
This contributed to the memorable experience that follows. You elevated us and my imagination
I went out into our white world -in the late afternoon.
I was trudging through wide open fields of deeper snow. I was alone.
With cold wind at my face,I got so thirsty.
A very long stretch of bare,dark trees bordered the fields.They were still.
Out of nowhere blew in a snowsquall. Through the dense snow I could barely make out 7 figures,
though what each carried was crystal clear-
Brancusi’s white marble magnificence.
They moved in single file.
The first,her arms extended out in front of her,was holding The Newborn. Then some distance of respect.
The Sleeping Muse followed and then La Negress Blanche, Mlle Pogany, Maiastra,
the soaring Bird In Space ( “Everything that rises exalts me.” ) and at the tail in gleaming polished bronze, First Cry.
The bearers of these radiant masterpieces stood straight. It was a quiet, sacred procession
right out of a piece of Fellini footage.
In the distance on a knoll was The Prayer.
“Don’t search for obscure formulas or mystery.
I give you pure joy.Look at the sculptures until
you see them..”
( Sarah,I remember when working at The Phila. Museum of Art,several decades ago,taking a sculpture class -adults who were blind -to the Rodin Museum They were permitted to put on thin,white gloves and stroke and touch his work. I was not.
I ask myself if this experience were permitted me with Brancusi’s art what would I do.
I’m quite certain I would decline. And you?
I feel that I can feel them. I wouldn’t want to intrude.)
Thank you, dear Jane, for your thoughtful response to the post about Brancusi’s sculptures. I like his advice not to look for obscure formulas because these seem to have multiplied in recent art. I like the description you provided about the day of Brancusi’s birth: we are never going to know now the sources of his art which came from the place and circumstances of his birth.
Yes, though, I would like to touch his sculptures, so fine they are.
Thank you again. Sarah
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