Constantin Brancusi, born in Romania in 1876, in a village in the foothills of the Carpathians, had left his homeland in 1904 and had come to Paris via Budapest, Vienna, Munich and Zurich. He was a gifted sculptor, even before he arrived in the artists’ colony on Montparnasse. Auguste Rodin became aware of him and took him as an assistant. Brancusi did not stay long because he knew that “nothing can grow in the shade of tall trees”.
So Brancusi stepped out of the shadow of the great Rodin – and began to grow his work into the sky. At first, the decision was sufficient to break away from all models and conventions. At the same time, however, he did not want to and did not want to lose the connection to tradition and generally understandable language of form. Brancusi’s creation holds itself in this delicate balance – a miracle of harmonious balance, a poetic construction whose endpoints connect earth and sky.
To beat this cosmic arc, Brancusi manages to come up with a few forms that he repeats, that is, he varies them slightly, transforms them into other materials, gently shifts their accents, changes their dimensions. His work is like a stream, always the same and always different. And you can read it like a great poem, a poem about the state of the world, about the origin of things, about ways of life and survival.
At least, these perspectives open up an exhibition that Margit Rowell, together with Ann Temkin and Friedrich Teja Bach, has prepared for the Center Pompidou in Paris, the first comprehensive synopsis of 25 years. (1969 and 1970 in Philadelphia, Chicago, and The Hague.) In 1976, the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg organized a remembrance show on Brancusi’s 100th birthday.) 103 sculptures, 38 drawings, and 55 photographs are gathered in Paris. The Musée d’Art Moderne in the Pompidou Center has the largest number of works, after the Philadelphia Museum, thanks to the Brancusi donation; After Philadelphia numerous Brancusi works by American collectors who were very interested in the extraordinary work very early. This is how Brancusi’s first solo exhibition ever took place in New York: in 1914, in the Photo-Secession Gallery by Alfred Stiglitz, which the photographer Edward Steichen had arranged during a stay in Paris.
The Paris exhibition now is a unique event and hardly repeatable, if only because of the great fragility of the works. But the hundred sculptures shown there are a quarter of the undoubtedly Brancusi attributed works, that is: finished by him. (The history of authorizing posthumous castings is a chapter in art history in and of itself.) The presentation in 15 chapters on the fifth floor of the Center Pompidou provides a reading in stanzas as well as chronological information on developments in Brancusis Conception of sculpture. Thanks to an ingenious safety system elaborated by Lorenzo Piquera, the works can be seen without ugly barriers. They stand on concrete slabs, which are embedded in the ground, so that one can not only look at the sculptures from all sides, but also virtually in eye-to-eye with them. These technical preconditions facilitate the approach especially to a groundbreaking innovation, which Brancusi put into discussion for all subsequent sculptor generations: the integration of the pedestal into the sculpture itself.
Another innovation offered by Brancusi’s work is to attach importance to the space between the individual sculptures. The photographs Brancusi made of his studio at Impasse Ronsin give us his idea of what we would call installation today. The works are assigned to each other so that each individual has enough space to develop. They remain flexible, but together they always create a sound that reveals art and life as an indissoluble unity. This principle of installation was followed by Margit Rowell in the presentation. As a leitmotif, Brancusi’s insistence on the subject is as follows: “As soon as one approaches the deeper meaning of things one reaches, without wishing to do so, simplicity.”
If one wants to speak of a development in the work of Brancusi, then certainly only in the sense of a way to that simplicity. The Paris exhibition follows this trail, defined by the temporal sequence of the creations. In the first room works can be seen, which are still clearly from the sculpture-conception of Rodin. So “The Sleep” (1908), who cites the role model in title and movement. But Brancusi already finds his own unmistakable expression in the still quite realistic sculptures. His “Kiss” (1907/1908) has only the same title as Rodin’s sculpture of 1888. Brancusi turns the intensity of the view from the surface to the inside. Rodin’s “kiss” gets an extremely erotic attraction due to the surface appeal of the marble forms. Brancusi’s “Kiss”, on the other hand, is a symbol of the bond of touching depth of expression, an unwavering sign that the blocky stone expresses. The means of creating such archetypes was for Brancusi the direct carving of the stone – which had been rejected as “too primitive” at least since the application of the most sophisticated casting techniques in the Renaissance. The direct processing of stone, marble, wood, even the final polishing of the bronzes meant for him to expose the “essence of matter”.
In the same room as the “Kiss” stand on high stelae, two birds that Brancusi raised from the Romanian saga treasure: “Maiasta” (1919-1912). The flight, which was to lead to the highest heights of sculptural art, thus began a few years after the Romanian settled in Paris. In the following rooms Brancusi’s “simplicity” of expression in the “liberation” of the material becomes more and more intense. His “sleeping muse”, his “penguins”, his “Danaides” grow directly out of the white marble – and lie dormant in him. Drawings accompany the sculptures and illustrate how the sculptor circled his object of desire before he confronted it with precisely selected material, but also returned from sculpture to drawing. The photographs Brancusi made of his sculptures and his studio, based on elementary instructions by Man Ray, draw attention to what he considered to be essential in his art. Often his quest for light shines through, as exhibition organizer Margit Rowell emphasizes when she places the mirror-polished bronze cast of Brancusi’s “Leda” (1926) among the photographs.
After this foreplay at the latest, the exhibition can be read as a great hymn to nature, to man. A room with male and female torsos, inspired by East Asian art, opposite a room with wooden sculptures that could be of African descent, but completely attached to Brancusi’s world of forms: “The First Scream,” the “endless column,” “The Cock “. The sculptures – and their presentation – are becoming lighter and lighter, seeming to stand out from the ground: a “bird” of yellow marble and a marble “fish”, the marble-white “Mademoiselle Pogany II” and “The Newborn” of bronze, opposite three big “birds in the room”.
A pinch of mockery and friendly humor are a surprise in this universe: Miss Nancy Cunard is characterized as a “très sophistiquée”, it is immediately believed to be the hairstyle dumpling on the narrow oval of the head (1925-1927 in wood, 1928-1932) in polished bronze). Or “The Boss” (1924-1925) with his wide wooden grin and iron crown on his head. They are joined by two “little birds” and a “rooster”. Or there is a room with an “exotic plant” composed of a flower with round wooden shapes and pointed limestone elements (1923/24), the “white negress” with an arched mouth and a cheeky hairpiece (1923, the bronze version “The blonde negress “Was made in 1933), together with” Eileen “(1923), a completely desinkarnierten portrait in white onyx, the extravagant” sorceress “(1916-1924) made of light wood, a polished” bird “and the” beginning of the world “: ein as enigmatic as poetic ensemble.
Two rooms give an impression of Brancusi’s architectural ideas, installations on a large scale magical power.
The last form that Brancusi invented was “The Flying Turtle”. In the Paris exhibition is the – surprisingly – horizontal marble form (1941-1945) in the company of two variants of “Mademoiselle Pogany”, of a bronze “bird” and “cock” and the “blond negress”. Almost at the end of the exhibition, one greets the familiar forms without boredom and is amazed at a “turtle” that is supposed to fly. But even “Der Fisch”, also in the large version of white-grained blue marble from 1930, seems to fly: Sharp as a knife, gentle as a flower, it is the final point and the beginning of this stream of forms.
Like an appendix, Brancusi’s studio appears in fragmentary reconstruction. It is more likely to be interpreted as a promise that the French state wants to redeem until 1997: When Brancusi wrote his studio with all the sculptures shortly before his death in 1956, the condition was as it was installed by the artist preserve. The house at Impasse Ronsin was demolished in the early 1960s and Brancusi’s studio was temporarily set up at the Palais de Tokyo until it was installed in a small neighboring building on Beaubourg in 1977, when the Pompidou Center was opened. In 1990, that had to be closed after floods. It is to be given a new lease of life for the twenty-year celebration of the center – hopefully in the spirit of Brancusi, for whom his studio was the site of creation and sanctuary in this sense.
Tristan Tzara, one of the artists of Montparnasse, who used the beginning of this century to set out to new shores, wrote in 1917: “In the early days, art was prayer. Wood and stone were the truths. In man I see the moon, the plants, the negro, the metal, stars and fish. “Brancusi’s” prayer “strives vertically to heaven. The sculptor opens up a spiritual dimension by combining material and artistic gesture into a unity: he succeeds in revealing the hidden essence, “the truth”, of matter in simple forms. He followed the grain of the marble to perfect the hairstyle of a “sleeping muse.” He used white onyx to elicit the soft forms of a “girl’s torso”. He polished the bronze castings in such a way that every cast becomes a light form and an “original”.
And he combined the sculptures – almost according to the rules of collage and assemblage: on the one hand he exchanged their places among each other in the room, on the other hand their pedestals, some of which are to be regarded as autonomous sculptures. This combination can give the impression of endless movement, endless possibilities. For Brancusi sculpture was “a form in motion”. And in his circle around a few forms one could see the natural “die and die” to which the artist – consciously or unconsciously – surrenders.
The starting point for Brancusi’s inventions – “how one leaf is reborn again and again” (as his sculptor friend Isamu Noguchi says) – could be art or life: a legend like the bird “Maiastra” from the Romanian saga. An encounter with the Hungarian painter Margit Pogany. The memory of carving in his homeland, which may have left its mark on Brancusi’s “Endless Columns”. Visits to the Parisian ethnological museums, which evidently inspired wood sculptures in African “primitivism” or torsos inspired by Asian forms.
However, Brancusi did not want his inventions to be too close to foreign role models. So he destroyed the body of his sculpture “The first step” after the exhibition of the figure 1914 in New York. Apparently, one could see in her – in the reduction of forms and expression – too much the implementation of an African formal canon. Brancusi only left his head, coloring the oak even darker, patinating it and placing it horizontally – like his “sleeping muse”, the “first cry” or the “beginning of the world”. He had early recognized the fragmentary as a guarantee of timelessness. Timeless and universal should be his art. The cyclical repetition of the forms can be interpreted as the beginning and the goal of this wish.
For example the “bird in the room”. At the beginning is the dream of flying. “Throughout my life, I have sought nothing but the essence of flying. Fly, what luck! “That’s what Brancusi said. (He is one of the few Montparnasse artists to whom virtually no anecdotes and few citations have survived.) In 1910-1912, he created “Maiastra” of white marble, an almost literary account of the legendary bird, legendary for its beauty Song and its plumage. For Brancusi he has a mighty arched breast and a wide open beak – a picture of a roused soul “. The bird stretches until it seems to swing into the air as a “bird in space” (1923). A marvel, as the narrow high form remains in the vertical.
Brancusi’s friend, the writer Ezra Pound, certainly took up sculptures like this one or the “Endless Column” when he wrote in 1921: “It is probably just as impossible to convey in words of Brancusi’s sculpture an idea as incomplete as by the help of photography. A man swings himself up into infinity, and his works of art are the mark he leaves behind in the world of appearances. “
Perhaps you must have gone to the foot of the Carpathians and seen Brancusi’s Gesamtkunstwerk of Tirgu-Jiu to recognize the scope of his design, the dimension of his formal universe. From the “Table of Silence”, through the “Gate of the Kiss”, the path leads to the “Endless Pillar”. It is the only project of this magnitude that Brancusi was able to realize. The plan for a temple, which he had worked out between 1930 and 1938 on behalf of the Maharaja of Indore and which would certainly have become one of the most amazing monuments at the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures, was not carried out. Also the big “bird in the room”, which Brancusi designed for the house that Charles de Noailles had built by Robert Mallet-Stevens in Hyère, could not be realized. How disappointing it must have been for Brancusi not to be able to realize these projects, one would guess, if one illuminates his relationship to architecture: If he arrives by ship in New York, then the skyline would look like his studio there, only on a large scale. Of course he knew that it was not the size that made the difference.