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What was happening to sculpture? In Europe, the rules for creating great sculpture had been set in stone for hundreds of years. Yet, during a relatively short time span, the consequences of a rapidly changing modern world had revolutionized painting and now sculpture was about to undergo a profound transformation.
For example, compare three sculptures that were all made between 1874 – 1910.
1874: This idealized figure was composed to remind the viewer of the grace and sensuality of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Without understanding the title, the viewer may wonder what she’s doing.
Randolph Rogers; The Lost Pleiad, Modeled 1874; carved 1875-1882; Marble; Philadelphia Museum of Art
After Zeus forced Atlas to carry the heavens on his shoulders, the giant huntsman Orion began to pursue Atlas’s seven daughters, the Pleiades. Zeus turned the daughters into stars to comfort their father.
However, only six are visible to the unaided eye – the brightness of one of the sisters dimmed after she dared to marry a mortal. Her pose, windswept hair, and drapery convey a forward motion as she searches the heavens for her sisters.
Creepy Orion still follows them through the night sky.
1890: The title of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture may reference Venus, but no explanation of the myth is required to understand the subject. It doesn’t matter if she’s Venus; she’s Rodin’s vision of a modern sensual and sexual woman.
Rodin; Awakening (The Toilette de Venus), Modeled c. 1890, carved by 1906; Stone; Rodin Museum of Art, Philadelphia
His figure’s flesh looks like what a hand feels when caressing a body.
At the time, viewers were often shocked by Rodin’s figures, so, he often added secondary titles to make the work seem more acceptable. If viewers felt more at ease admiring the nude figure as a reference to a mythological goddess, sure, go ahead.
1910: While museum-goers were still adjusting to Rodin’s ideas, Constantin Brâncuşi arrived in Paris with radically new convictions about what sculptural form should reveal.
Brâncuşi; Sleeping Muse I, 1909–10; marble; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Constantin Brâncuşi in Paris, c. 1905; often pronounced Bran-COO-zee, the Romanian pronunciation is Bran-COOSH
Brâncuşi must’ve been born determined. Born in a remote area of Romania in 1876, Brâncuşi ran away from home around age nine and supported himself by doing various jobs in a nearby village. After receiving traditional academic training in sculpture at the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, he then walked for two years from Bucharest to Paris to enroll in the prestigious art academy, École des Beaux-Arts.
After Brâncuşi graduated in 1907, he was hired to work as an assistant to master sculptor Auguste Rodin. It was an extraordinary opportunity for an aspiring sculptor to learn under the supervision of a master.
Or so he thought.
After Rodin modeled sculptures in clay or wax, he turned them over to assistants to translate his vision into bronze or marble (see indirect-carving) so that multiple originals could be made.
To Brâncuşi, the technique of indirect carving felt fraudulent and nefarious, more like a factory production line than an art studio. He considered the resulting sculptures to be no better than an industrial product – he referred to them as corpses. After about six weeks, he quit, explaining, “Nothing grows under the shade of a big tree.”
He had other ideas in mind. Instead of telling a story or expressing an emotion through a figure’s pose, what if sculpture became an exploration of the properties inherent in the material itself (space, form, volume, texture, curves, planes) and how they interacted with the surrounding space and light?
What if the unique veining patterns in marble or the distinct burls and grains in wood determined how a work evolved during the process of sculpting?
Is it possible that a viewer’s visual experience of a sculpture could involve something spiritual or mystical?
Since the well-trodden path presented no resolution to these questions, Brâncuşi began to investigate alternative approaches to sculpture for inspiration.
His Romanian heritage held a long tradition of hand-carved oak gates that mark the entrance to a home or town. In Romanian folklore, the natural patterns, forms, and textures of the wood are thought to offer spiritual protection.
Brâncuşi, who had been carving in wood since he was a young boy, believed that the meaning of a work was not due to its appearance, but in fundamental energies hidden within the material and that it was the sculptor’s responsibility to respect and reveal the forces and forms inherent in the wood, stone, or bronze.
His search for other precedents led him to prowl the museums of Paris and immerse himself in the hand-carved indigenous and ancient art forms from Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Not only were these works rooted in a time when mankind lived closer to nature, they circumvented the classical Western tradition of sculpture.
For example, in hand-carved wooden African figural sculpture, the concave and convex rhythmic forms, curves, and geometric elements create an abstract symbol of a human form.
Instead of accurately depicting anatomy, they embody the spirit of an ancestor and suggest an intense power that emanates from within.
Funerary Figure, Dogon peoples (Mali), undated; Wood; Musée de l’Homme, Paris
In ancient Cycladic, Assyrian, Egyptian, Iberian, and East Asian works, he found sculptors who, instead of carving numerous intricate details, focused on the fundamental qualities of their materials to create harmonious, simple, balanced forms.
Left and Middle: Female Figure and Head, Cycladic c. 2500 BCE; Musée Louvre, Paris; Right: Statuette of a Woman (“The Stargazer”), c. 3000 BCE, Cleveland Museum of Art
“Simplicity is complexity resolved.” – Brâncuşi
Brâncuşi was also inspired by ancient heads of the Buddha. Despite having been removed from the rest of the figure at the archeologic site, their contemplative faces still maintained an intense spiritual serenity that was timeless. A fragment had become the whole.
Gandhara Buddha, 1st – 2nd century CE, Musée Louvre, Paris
Brâncuşi was obsessively interested in how surfaces responded to light. The radiant surfaces of the burnished figures of the Buddha extend the sculpture’s form and volume through light and reflection, blurring material and immaterial.
Amidanyorai Buddha; Japanese, Edo Period (1615-1867); Gilded and polychromed wood; Musée Guimet, Paris
Brâncuşi set out on his own and converted a space along an alley in the Montparnasse area of Paris into a studio. With a very little money to buy supplies, he began to carve directly into salvaged blocks of stone and scrap timber, with a preference for oak, that he purchased from demolition contractors (see direct carving).
Freed from the restraints of representational art, he simplified forms, minimized details, and polished the surfaces of his sculptures to enhance the texture, color, density, graining, and warmth of the material. This emphasis on the natural qualities of an artist’s medium is known as ‘truth to materials’.
Brâncuşi working in his studio.
Brâncuşi’s sculptures can be seen as a pursuit of simplicity but they are much more than that.
These are the stories of several of them.
Prodigal Son The Prodigal Son is a parable from the New Testament about a spendthrift son who demands to receive his inheritance from his father and then leaves home and hedonistically spends it all. Years later, now wiser, destitute, and feeling unworthy, the son returns home, throws himself at his father’s feet, and begs forgiveness.
Compare the differences between Rodin’s and Brâncuşi’s aesthetic approaches:
In Rodin’s hands, sculpture became emphatic and adamant. In his The Prodigal Son below, the contorted surface of the highly reflective bronze and the tensely stretched, twisted pose of the figure convey an outpouring of grief and suffering.
Rodin, The Prodigal Son, modeled in late 1880s, cast in bronze in 1905; Musée Rodin, Paris
Brâncuşi; Prodigal Son, c. 1914-15; Oak; limestone base; Philadelphia Museum of Art
In Brâncuşi hands, sculpture became private and quiet.
Unlike Rodin’s version, the power of Brâncuşi’s figure rests in its lack of implied movement.
To best link the material with the subject, Brâncuşi chose a discarded block cut from an old oak beam with a natural split. Using only a saw, he removed sections of wood so that an irregularly shaped bulky upper mass supported by three columns with various shapes and angles remained.
A kneeling figure who bears a domed, curved burden upon his back and shoulders materializes out of the remaining wood and surrounding space.
His left hand and knee touch the ground, with perhaps a limb or walking stick on the right. Imagine the position of a runner at a starting block, except all of the energy is turned inward.
A bowed head without eyes, his gaze is inward and contemplative.
The limestone base projects his plea forward and creates a void of space that suggests he is kneeling before his father. The addition of a father figure would have obscured what Brâncuşi thought was most essential – the tragic nobility of a kneeling son, reverent, pious, and very alone who is waiting for his father’s response.
The sculpture’s complexities of balance, asymmetry, and assortment of volumes are indebted to Brâncuşi’s interest in African art. Prodigal Son is the earliest sculpture in wood by Brâncuşi’s that survives in its original state.
The Kiss Again, compare Rodin’s and Brâncuşi’s aesthetic approaches: Rodin’s work shows two lovers seated on a rock (see Rodin’s The Kiss). In Brâncuşi’s version, the figures are the rock.
Left: Rodin; The Kiss, modeled in clay c. 1882; carved in marble 1888-98; Musée Rodin and Right: Brâncuşi; The Kiss, 1916; Limestone; Philadelphia Museum of Art
This kissing couple became one of Brâncuşi’s signature themes; the first sculpture dates to about 1907-8. He then carved several variations over a number of years; the one at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the fourth.
Unlike Rodin’s moving and muscular figures, Brâncuşi’s lovers are block-like and still. There’s no doubt that the couple and the block of stone from which they came are wedded. Their flattened arms and hands wrap tightly around one another at right angles that align with the corners of the material. Their hairlines form a single arc. Only one carved line separates them; without it, they could be read as one figure with a single eye in the middle of the forehead. The woman (right) has a curving breast and longer hair. She’s just slightly thinner and shorter than the man and her eye is the tiniest bit smaller. Their lips reach out to one another and are one. Together, they are stronger, they are whole.
Tom Lubbock, the late chief art critic of the British newspaper The Independent, wrote that beside the Rodin, the Brâncuşi looks absurdly crude and inarticulate and that beside the Brâncuşi, the Rodin looks absurdly grandiose and explicit. Rodin’s lovers are a union of bodies and limbs, trembling, pulling each other close. Brâncuşi’s lovers are a coupling of the essential elements of sculpture, like harmony and balance, with the material. Their merging is as pure as the kiss of lovers, as creation, as art. In neither Rodin’s nor Brâncuşi’s interpretation is a kiss just a kiss.
“Like a dream that silently stirs the deep-lying spirit of the stone or wood, I made my material express the inexpressible, the idea behind it.” – Brâncuşi
Sculptures of Heads
Within ancient sculpture, for example in the Cycladic head at left, Brâncuşi saw the origins of creative possibilities. One ancient archetypal form, the ovoid, recurred throughout his body of work.
“With this form,” Brâncuşi declared, “I could move the universe.”
Between 1906 and 1908, Brâncuşi sculpted several heads of sleeping women and children. (Academic studies of expression, such as this child in pose of anguished contortion, were common themes for sculpture competitions.) At first, his figures retained the descriptive naturalism that he’d learned from Rodin.
Imagine approaching this figure of a suffering child; what feelings arise? To experience Brâncuşi’s use of the properties of a material to “express the inexpressible”, now imagine encircling it and seeing your reflection visualized within the highly polished surface; let feelings flow.
“That what they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the external form but the idea, the essence of things.” – Brâncuşi
In 1908, he began to produce a series of ovoid-shaped heads in marble that began with Head of a Sleeping Child. Rather than altering their shape with traditional sculptural techniques, he removed all non-essential elements in order concentrate solely on the sculpture’s theme. The shape also brings to mind a number of associations – an egg, a womb, a fetus, fertility, a cell, a brain, a sleeping face, as well as the ancient heads of the Buddha that emanate spiritual serenity.
Brâncuşi related the complex nature of sleep to the interior of an egg, where an entire being and its universe exist in an embryonic form.
Brâncuşi; Head of a Sleeping Child, 1908; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. To Brâncuşi, children were the purest symbol of creativity.
With each new sculpture, the unique facial features of the model became less important.
In Sleeping Muse I, the features are nearly absorbed into the surface. The head tilts slightly, as if ethereally suspended from the body while dreaming.
Brâncuşi likened the serene expression of the sleeping head with the delicate intimacy of an embryo from which life emerges.
In 1910, Margit Pogány, an art student who became Brâncuşi’s model and lover, sent a translation of Goethe’s poem, Prometheus, to the sculptor:
When I was a child,
And did not know the in or out,
I turned my wandering eyes toward
The sun, as if beyond it there were
An ear to hear my lament,
A heart like mine,
To take pity on the afflicted.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Prometheus, 1772-74
Taken by the poem, Brâncuşi began to sculpt the subject and arrived at a radical simplification of form in Prometheus.
Prometheus is a powerful, immortal giant from Greek mythology who fashioned humans from clay. Taking pity on his creations, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. This angered Zeus, the king of the gods, who chained Prometheus to the side of a mountain and sent an eagle to tear out Prometheus’s liver. As an immortal, Prometheus’s liver regenerated and the daily torture continued for centuries.
To create the sculpture, Brâncuşi asked the seventeen-year-old model to pose with his arm raised and head tilted in a gesture reminiscent of historical paintings of Prometheus.
Peter Paul Rubens; Prometheus Bound, begun 1611-12, completed by 1618; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Instead of sculpting the literal story of Prometheus, Brâncuşi isolated an essential moment by tilting the head, a gesture borrowed from his previous work to indicate suffering. Subtle arched continuous carved lines barely interrupt the convex surface to indicate brows, eyes, the bridge of a nose. A hint of an ear is exposed on one side. A tiny protruding piece of marble at the bottom of the head could be interpreted as a slightly twisting neck, the only reference to the absent body; a fragment becomes the whole.
There are several versions of Prometheus around the world: two in plaster, one in marble, four in bronze (all personally cast by Brâncuşi in 1911), and two in black cement. Because he didn’t use the technique of indirect-carving, each is slightly different.
Brâncuşi remarked that, “If [the sculpture] is properly set, you see how [Prometheus] falls over on his shoulder as the eagle devoured his liver.”
Imagine the head in a transitional realm between light and shade; the provider of fire is trapped in partial darkness.
Scholars have interpreted the sculpture as a fusion of two Prometheuses, as the sleeping boy from Goethe’s poem and as the fire-stealing adult. As a sleeping boy, it evokes a fetus or an egg, full of possibility and potential. As an adult, it recalls the artist who formed humans from clay and the bearer of light whose actions sparked the founding of the arts and sciences.
Throughout art history, Prometheus has been used as an allegorical symbol for artists with heavenly aspirations who are bound by human limitations. Therefore, scholars have also viewed the sculpture as a metaphorical self-portrait of Brâncuşi: the paradox of the solid weight of the resting head and the luminous weightlessness of the reflective surface exemplifies his struggle between human limitations and unbounded artistic freedom.
Others see it as an observation on how elemental forms, like the ovoid, have been used since ancient times to express universal themes of beginnings and endings, life and death.
Perhaps it’s all about the potential expressivity of material, for example, how reflectivity can make a heavy material like cement appear as if it’s floating.
After Prometheus, Brâncuşi created a long series of ovoid heads that included:
Newborn [I], 1915; White marble; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Only a small curl of marble remains at the bottom to suggest a chin. The oversized opening indicates a baby’s wide-open mouth emitting a noisy wail.
Sculpture for the Blind [I], c. 1920; Veined marble; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Brâncuşi intended this for this sculpture to be seen and touched, perhaps even touched instead of seen. There’s an unconfirmed story that it was shown in 1917 at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York, enclosed in a bag with two sleeve-holes for hands to pass through.
The series culminated with Beginning of the World, 1920; Dallas Museum of Art.
The reflection of the marble ovoid in the metal disc creates the illusion that it floats slightly above the rough stone base that supports it.
Imagine the layers of possible angles, shapes, spaces, and planes to be discovered in the reflections and shadows of the polished and unpolished forms in The Beginning of the World.
“A true form ought to suggest infinity. The surfaces ought to look as though they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.” – Brâncuşi
In 1927, the young aspiring sculptor Isamu Noguchi secured a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move from the U.S. to Paris to work as an assistant to Constantin Brâncuşi. It was an extraordinary opportunity for an aspiring sculptor to learn under the supervision of a master. Noguchi worked happily under Brâncuşi for seven months and eventually became a master sculptor, designer, architect, and craftsperson whose works explored dichotomies of form and space.
Isamu Noguchi; Avatar; 1948, cast in bronze 1982; Philadelphia Museum of Art
The revolution in sculpture continued to evolve, through and beyond two world wars, into new considerations of space, volume, reduction, abstraction, construction and use of materials. Within its origins, you’ll find the sculptures by Constantin Brâncuşi. Look until you see them. You’ll find that he offers pure joy.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has the largest collection of works by Brâncuşi in the United States. They reside in a gallery that was designed by the museum’s first director, Fiske Kimball, to look like a chapel from southern France. The exhibited works are tucked into the various “side chapels” that divide the space and echo the geometry of his forms. Two of the walls recall the skylights of his studio in Paris.
Top Image: Photo by Edward Steichen; Brâncuşi in his Paris Studio, 1925
– Meighan Maley
- Artsy: Brâncuşi’s Studio https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-how-Brâncuşi-turned-one-paris-alleyway-into-a-haven-for-artists
- Artsy: How Constantin Brâncuşi turned Paris’s Impasse Ronsin into a Haven for Artists https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-how-Brâncuşi-turned-one-paris-alleyway-into-a-haven-for-artists
- Brâncuşi: A Study of the Sculpture. Sidney Geist Sidney. 1968.
- Brâncuşi’s Studio – Center Pompidou https://www.centrepompidou.fr/en/Collections/Brâncuşi-s-Studio
- Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957). Bach, Rowell, and Temkin. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 1995.
- Constantin Brâncuşi Sculpture https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3933?locale=en
- Constantin Brâncuşi: Shifting the Bases of Art. Anna Chave. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993.
- Christie’s; Brâncuşi – The High Priest of Modernism https://www.christies.com/features/Brâncuşi-high-priest-of-modernism-9156-1.aspx
- Honesty of Materials and Purity of Forms: Brâncuşi’s Influences. William Hallgren. Construction Lit Magazine http://constructionlitmag.com/architecture/honesty-of-materials-and-purity-of-forms-Brâncuşis-influences/
- Sotheby’s; Torment II https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2006/impressionist-modern-art-day-sale-n08197/lot.168.html
- Tate: Constantin Brâncuşi: The Essence of Things Tate.org.uk
- Cleveland Museum of Art’s Stargazer https://joyofmuseums.com/museums/united-states-of-america/cleveland-museums/cleveland-museum-of-art/masterpieces-of-the-cleveland-museum-of-art/the-stargazer-statuette-of-a-woman/
- Cycladic Themes https://cycladic.gr/en/page/techni and https://cycladic.gr/en/page/i-morfes-tis-archis#
- The Guennol Stargazer https://www.christies.com/features/The-Guennol-Stargazer-8195-3.aspx
- Khan Academy: Harp player, Early Cycladic Period https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7C7do85sfXA
- Louvre https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/head-female-statue-idol-crossed-arms-type
- These 5,000-Year-Old Sculptures Look Shockingly Similar to Modern Art https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-5-000-year-old-sculptures-shockingly-modern-art
How the Invention of Photography Changed Art http://www.peareylalbhawan.com/blog/2017/04/12/how-the-invention-of-photography-changed-art/
Pia Brinzeu; Romania and India: Spaces of Initiation for Eliade and Brâncuşi http://www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~geszonyi/ESSWE3-2011/Plenary%20info.pdf
Prodigal Son (Brâncuşi) https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51642.html?mulR=415435102|1
- What is This Fire? Philadelphia Museum of Art http://awp.diaart.org/kos/dialog2.html#branprom
- Sotheby’s: Prométhée http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.pdf.N08850.html/f/43/N08850-43.pdf
- Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge https://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/collection-item/prometheus/
Proto-Impressionism: The Seeds of Modern Art. https://protoimpressionism.blogspot.com
Rodin’s Head of Sorrow (Joan of Arc) https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/103424.html?mulR=2129001507|2
Romania – Wooden Gates http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOV-ua0R6kI