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Brancusi – The Essence of Things

Have you ever wondered how art can affect us all so much in spite of the strange paradox that you can’t touch itt? What seems fair enough for paintings and installations sometimes seems questionable for sculpture, especially bronze sculpture. A gentle touch of skin on bronze would do no harm and go a long way in elevating our perception of the sensuality of the body rendered by a Degas, Rodin or Maillol, amongst so many others.

For me, the one sculptor where the “Do Not Touch” sign is irrelevant is Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957).

Brancusi, Muse (1912), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC

Even though I know I can’t touch a Brancusi sculpture, it does the work for me, it touches ME. But why? and how?

Minimalist and flirting on the edge of abstraction, a sculpture by Brancusi is still very much rooted in the figurative.

Brancusi, The Seal (Miracle) (1924-36), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC

This is despite US customs officers contributing to history when they tried to levy a 40% duty tax on Brancusi sculptures sent for an exhibition. They thought his sculptures were raw materials (therefore taxable), instead of works of art / abstract sculptures (tax exempt).

In his approach to sculpture, Brancusi just took what a Torso or a Head can be and got rid of superfluous details. You can see Torso of a Young Man (1923), a walnut sculpture on the far left of the picture below, along with a plaster cast of Newborn I (1915) in the foreground.

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris.

It is as if, negating the two senses of vision and touch most associated with sculpture, he makes viewers comprehend his work as Sculpture For The Blind; this possibly being one of his most mind-boggling work and title, nonetheless nailing (I think) his avant-garde way of sculpting.

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris. Bottom shelf displaying amongst others, Sculpture for the Blind, Sleeping Muse and Mlle Pogany. Top shelf showing Newborn and Sleeping Muse.

Sculpture For the Blind (1920) is an ovoid shape of the smoothest veined marble. If you compare it with Head of a Sleeping Child (c.1908), Sleeping Muse (1909-10) and Beginning of The World (c.1920), the progression towards abstraction may very well look like the simplification and stylization which critics described as “the purity of zero” (Salmon) or a “distillation lead(ing) to superficiality” (Dermée).

That is unless you allow yourself to remember how the perfect roundness of a child’s sleeping head felt to your eyes, your hands but more importantly to your mind. How this incomprehensibly pure moment was a marvellous experience that almost did not require any use of any senses because it was “the essence of things”: exactly what Brancusi declared as his ultimate focus when sculpting.

At the turn of the century, when Brancusi apparently arrived to Paris all the way from Romania on foot, such an endeavor called for a different approach to 19th century sculpture, over which Rodin reigned supreme. Heavily worked and textured, Rodin’s style is tormented, full of realistic details over which he agonized, but sometimes it can feel too close to what the noise of reality can be. Too much information.

Brancusi actually came to work for Rodin upon arriving in Paris but he only stayed one month: the two artists had opposed artistic visions. Rodin’s sculptural classicism was constantly aiming to produce monuments of dignified statuary.  Modelled in clay by Rodin himself, then cast in bronze or carved in marble by an army of assistants, this did not really fit with Brancusi’s Romanian upbringing and his reverence for the land and the honesty¹ of working his material of choice with his own hands.

“Direct carving is the true road to sculpture”, declared Brancusi.

Brancusi, King of Kings (1938), The Sorceress (1916-24) and Adam and Eve (1921), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC

Going back to medieval art and exploring Non-Western art (much like Picasso and Modigliani being influenced by the raw expressionism of African masks), he bifurcated from Rodin’s classic realism and pathos, choosing to focus on the simpler yet still expressive forms which would soon be associated with avant-garde and modernism.

Harnessing the rugged texture of stone, Brancusi’s approach stayed far from a naturalistic depiction of the body, concentrating instead on raw emotion with his famous The Kiss.

Brancusi, King of Kings (1938), The Sorceress (1916-24) and Adam and Eve (1921), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC

Using wood as the honest material that it is, he searched for the energy of a form and the essence of an expression rather than the sculpture of reality. Witness how The Sorceress, borrowed from medieval art, is treated with such simple and timeless eloquence.

In all his work, Brancusi aimed at carving out and polishing until “universal significance” appeared. No wonder the egg shape is a recurrent form within his body of work: an egg (the Golden Egg) is mentioned as the beginning of the world, cosmic creation and origin of Brahma God Creator in Hindu text The Laws of Manu².

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris.

The simplest shape, the economy of cut, again I keep drifting back to Sculpture For The Blind and what it truly meant for Brancusi.

Is a deeper religious layer lying under cover of his minimalist shapes? Could it be that his work aimed to welcome a blindness towards reality? This would be much like Islamic miniaturists going blind from working on the smallest of scale but actually stoically welcoming the affliction as it elevated their way of painting a little closer to how Allah “painted” the world.

“My Excellency, I could illustrate the greatest manuscript of all time for you. Since my eyes will no longer be distracted by the filth of this world”

– Alif in My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (p.94)

To be honest, visiting Brancusi’s Studio next to the Pompidou Center in Paris is not dissimilar to a religious experience.

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris.

Diffused natural light, an ethereal feel shrouding his tools, his plater casts and countless sculptures: you almost expect Brancusi to pop in and go back to work on his Bird in Space.

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris. At right, three versions of Colonne Sans Fin with a bronze Bird in Space against a red background.

Carmen Giménez talks of “his work appear(ing) to hang in suspension, on the verge of taking flight” and this is all too evident in the Studio, where various iterations of Colonne Sans Fin, The Cock, Bird from the 1940’s and finally Bird in Space force your eyes to reverently look up and up. Mindfully.

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris. Iterations of The Cock in the background with Mlle Pogany at mid right.

This exploration on the theme of verticality expands this expressive search of Brancusi’s to sculpt movement, or the idea of movement.

Brancusi, The Cock, Fondation Gianadda, Martigny.

There is no question that his Birds (which don’t look like birds) ARE birds.

Atelier Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris. At left, iterations of Bird in Space.

They give you the elevator feel of travelling without moving, the grounding force of recognition without requiring all the details, the beauty of artist and viewers finishing each others’ sentences.

Brancusi, Bird in Space (1931), Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA.

As Alexandra Parigoris declared, Brancusi encourages us all to try “seeing with the inner eye, and thus not needing one’s eye to see what really matters”. His work also “defies that other basic instinct when dealing with sculpture: touching with one’s hands”. For a moment, it turns us all blind to everything but the “essence of things”. Amen to that.

You can visit Brancusi’s Studio at the Pompidou Center in Paris. All visiting information are on the link.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has a collection of Brancusi sculptures on permanent display.

© 2018 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.

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¹ Matthew Gale,  “Brancusi: An equal among rocks, trees, people, beasts and plants”, essay published in Brancusi, The Essence of Things (2004), Tate publication.

² Melvin Bragg, In Our Time, Hindu Ideas of Creation, December 2013.

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