PRINT March 1967


THE HISTORY OF MODERN ART presents the rare spectacle of two oeuvres, parallel to each other in time, whose evolution is marked by an exemplary continuity and reasonableness—those of Brancusi and Mondrian. But while Brancusi’s work after 1907 is sharply different from his production of the previous few years, Mondrian’s development shows no strong break or leap of style; long in extent, fine in grain, it is the model of the idea of artistic evolution.

The biographies of these artists, as distinct from their abilities, shed some light on their difference in this respect. Mondrian was born into an artistic milieu, whereas the young Brancusi had to find one. The move to Paris was easy for the Hollander; for the Rumanian it was an uprooting.

Brancusi makes himself over in 1907 by an act of will, intelligence and ambition similar to that which made him leave his country four years before. Never again did his talent for faithful portraiture manifest itself, though the human head remained an important motif for him. A mimetic talent that he had exercised on the skin of things would henceforth be applied to their spirit.

But his tact survives his change of mind and focus. It had been evident before 1907 in his relation to his models, his task, and the style under whose influence he worked; it, rather than talent, rescues his portraits from the mass of histrionic Rodinesque portraiture of the early years of the century; and it serves to contain the emotionalism of his own Nicolae Darascu and Torment.

After the studious beginnings, one feels in the Petre Stanescu and The Prayer, for the first time, I’air de Paris. From now on Brancusi proceeds with tact and audacity, and his audacities will be the most gracefully, the least sensationally offered in modern sculpture. Indeed, the tension between the boldness of his thought and the gentle fashion in which it is presented gives the work of Brancusi its particular frisson.

Brancusi never spoke of tact, but in later years he often used the word “mesure.” Mesure is tact shifted from the moral plane to the visual; it is the tact of dimension.

In 1907, with The Prayer, Brancusi attempted to go beyond the influence of Rodin. His gesture, though similar to that of a whole generation of sculptors, was complicated by an involvement with the Master unmatched by most of his contemporaries.

In the effort to move along a road that seemed blocked by Rodin, only the Frenchmen Duchamp-Villon (who was Brancusi’s age), Despiau (who was two years older) and Matisse (who was seven years older) went through him. The foreigners in Paris all resorted to the more radical solution of taking another path; of them, Brancusi alone submitted to Rodin and then changed course, forever carrying with him the effects of his passage.

In his revolt against Rodin, only Picasso, Nadelman (who had settled in Paris in 1903) and Derain, in a few pieces, preceded him. The rest of an amazing constellation of sculptors—Laurens, Gonzalez, Modigliani, Lipchitz, Csaky, Orloff, Archipenko, Lehmbruck, Zadkine, Freundlich, Gargallo—either arrived in Paris between 1908 and 1910, or began their “new” work during those years.

Whether primitivistic, Cubist or “hellenistic” in character, the new sculpture proclaimed its freedom from Rodin by the abandonment of theatricality and an accumulated sculptural rhetoric of touch and gesture and by the adoption of formal hardness and clarity. Much of it still displayed a Rodinian complication of theme or construction, and in this respect Brancusi made a cleaner break from Rodin than his contemporaries did. Yet his own efforts toward simplicity and reductiveness were made possible by the daring truncation of the human form that Rodin had initiated. He was probably referring to the partial figures of Rodin when he said, in 1928, “Without the discoveries of Rodin, my work would have been impossible.”

In pre-World War I modernism, the reaction against Rodin was one aspect of the general search for vital sources in the primitive, ancient and folk arts. In Brancusi this turning to the past took the character of a return to beginnings, of a dream of beginning that linked primal innocence with sculptural simplicity. The stylistic archaism and the direct carving (as against “pointing”) of the works of 1907 and 1908 announce the mood it is continued in the many early sculptures of children and infants, and later in Beginning of the World; and it finds explicit statement in one of Brancusi’s aphorisms: “When we are no longer like children, we are already dead.” In the sculptor’s brief relations with the phalanstery of Abbaye de Créteil in 1907 we may read a return to beginnings on the social plane.

A similar effort in the opening years of the century marks the work and thought of Gertrude Stein and Erik Satie, who rebel against the examples of Flaubert and Wagner. Miss Stein spoke of beginning, of “beginning again and again.” She achieved a fresh, childlike tone in her writing by using the present tense. By this device she produced, not a separation of the chronological present from the past and the future, but an artistic now without temporal resonance, a continuous present that corresponds to the actuality, the non-illusionism of Brancusi’s surfaces. The concern over beginnings led Gertrude Stein to an examination of words, verbal relations and the very parts of speech; it led Brancusi to find a clear and limited sculptural syntax.

Satie, for his part, eschewed sonorities, made each note audible, looked back to Greek and medieval modes of composition. His work is brief and witty, and in this too both Stein and Brancusi resemble him. He and the sculptor were to be joined, after the first World War, in a friendship based on perfect sympathy for each other’s art; he was also a friend of Miss Stein, who wrote a “portrait” of him.

Satie, Stein and Brancusi were the strict and elegant extremists of the new spirit. Going beyond primitivism, they sought an art that was fresh, clean and unencumbered. In the realm of painting their closest counterparts were the Fauves; their precursor was Gauguin; their innocent exemplar, le Douanier Rousseau.

Brancusi’s work in the years immediately after The Prayer may be regarded, not merely as unRodinian, but as anti-Rodinian. With The Kiss of 1908, on every score the antithesis of The Kiss of Rodin, he turns against the master of Meudon. His squat block of ordinary limestone accuses Rodin’s tall gleaming marble. It is cut directly, by the sculptor, into a composition that is clear and periodic. The Rodin is not only cut, but enlarged, by technicians employing a “pointing” device; its composition is intricate and elusive. Rodin’s protagonists are a man and a woman, frankly energetic and erotic; they imply a past and a future. The gender of Brancusi’s personages is indicated by gentle variations in design; his Kiss is enacted in an eternal present, without memory or anticipation. Rodin’s marble lovers are continuous with the marble “ground” they rest on, fictions in a fictional space; Brancusi’s terminate at their own extremities, stone designs set in real space.

In the following ten years Brancusi was to create works entitled The Muse, Danaide, The Prodigal Son, Caryatid, and a little later, Hand and Eve. These are also the titles of works by Rodin (though it is Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse which resembles, or comments on, Rodin’s Muse); and while they are not uncommon in the catalogs of the period, the coincidence of seven titles in the work of the two men is surely not accidental. Rather, it appears programmatic on the part of the younger man.

Brancusi’s vision, up to 1910, is of a formal world seen with childlike innocence and rendered with archaic simplicity. Intuition rather than intellect guides his hand. But the formal component of archaism—first glimpsed perhaps in The Kiss of Cimetière Montparnasse—responds to the needs of Brancusi’s intellect and sense of humor, and he reforms his first decisions. In the following years he makes a number of quite round sculptures in stone and bronze followed by a number of long sculptures in wood which establish the large elements that he will vary and combine during the rest of his artistic life. A set of quasi-geometrical elements replaces the “sensitive,” intuitive motifs of his first stone carvings; he now has a lean grammar of forms intended to cope with some fundamental matters.

In shedding his first archaism, he preserves his innocence of vision, but his means are no longer innocent. Intelligence, rationality and precision are his new tools, and his work records the struggle to apply them to a joyful view of the world; this struggle is the chief feature of Brancusi’s modernity. In 1925, referring to an exhibition in the coming year, he expressed “the hope of being admitted as one belonging to this century.” Modernism was for him an enterprise gleaming with promise and the anticipation of wonders to come. “There still hasn’t been any art,” he said in 1927, “art is just beginning.” And thirty years later, a few months before his death, he said of a projected Endless Column in steel, “It will be one of the marvels of the world.”

BRANCUSI’S WAS NOT A FORMALISM for formalism’s sake. His rationality was in the service of intuition, esthetic delight and philosophic reverie. It was intended to cut through the dross and habitual excess of things in order to arrive at the essential. Brancusi seeks essences which by their clarity, unity and immediacy will be apprehended in joy. “I give you pure joy.”

In assimilating the shapes of the natural world to the uses of art, the twentieth century has seen much of a kind of stylization that is simplification; it consists in the reduction of the number of forms in the subject, and in the suppression of detail. In some instances, forms are joined under a continuous skin, as though by the abrasion of projections and the filling in of crevices, and this has been possible whether curved or flat surfaces are employed. Most of these modes of simplification are mannerist. Brancusi proceeds by other means: he redesigns the shapes of the visible world and presents them in a rationalized form.

Rationalization is reduction to quasi-geometrical form, to surfaces and edges that may be plotted, that meet and progress unambiguously, moving along their paths in logical fashion. It brooks no mysteries of articulation, whether of surface or axis (as in Arp or Moore), and its gentle or sliding transitions are as strict in design as the abrupt changes.

Rationalization is the method of the scientist who reduces the chaos of facts to intelligible form; it is the method of the craftsman who “sizes up” a job so that he can work without wasted effort. And it is the method of much primitive sculpture and of many sculptors contemporary with and after Brancusi. But in no body of sculpture is it employed as rigorously and exclusively as in his. We observe in Brancusi the almost complete absence of decoration such as exists in primitive sculpture. Absent, too, is intricacy of articulation, the very number of the elements being contained by a rationalization of the total shape. Rationalization is evident not only in the formed object, it makes itself felt as an act of mind and as a movement of the shaping hand; Brancusi’s mental chisel, its effort must satisfy the demands of poetry on the one hand, and of a strict economy on the other.

Brancusi’s syntheses did not lead him to a simplistic system of forms. There is no sphere, no cube, no easy oval in all of Brancusi’s sculpture, geometry being reserved for the ensemble at Tirgu Jiu, for Architectural Project and for his bases and pedestals. Only in the vertical column of Torso of a Young Man do we find a cylinder, and here the slanting plane at the top has the effect of distorting it.

Thus, while the mind swiftly acquires an impression of a particular sculpture by Brancusi, it is not lulled by the automatically accepted forms of Euclidean geometry; it is held, in fact, by the deviations from them.

Likewise, there is no system in Brancusi for translating natural forms into sculpture. In the long series of portraits—Sleeping Muse, Mlle. Pogany, Eileen, White Negress, Nancy Cunard, Mrs. Eugene Meyer—no one work supposes any of the others. All, while clearly from the same hand, have unique structural bases.

Brancusi was not occupied with fashioning either handsome shapes or stylish versions of the natural world. His artistic seriousness lies in his demand that a sculpture carry meaning in its shape—that it be the shape of meaning. In spite of the near geometry of his forms, there is no Brancusian method; there is only Brancusian thought or intelligence, and a Brancusian absoluteness where idea and effort, design and process, are one.

Rarefied as the atmosphere of Brancusi’s art may appear, it is a realm of certainty that offers real rewards. It is intended to give joy, rather than raise intellectual problems or existential doubts. “Don’t look for obscure formulas or for mystery,” said the sculptor.

Joy has thematic limitations: pleasant or pretty subjects, the elimination of conflict, the banishment of trouble of any kind. Brancusi’s first subjects are children, beautiful young women, and parts of young bodies; a Vieille Heuimière by Brancusi is inconceivable. As time goes on the animal kingdom increasingly supplies him with motifs, and these belong to the lower orders. Man and the quadrupeds are neither shadowless nor bright, and are carriers of conflict and trouble in direct proportion to their physical complexity.

In the Brancusian vision the need to project joy has formal consequences. It avoids situations involving complicated joinery or the meeting of several forms, always the sign in sculpture of opposition or conflict. It shuns an intricate play of edges and planes, and the multiplication of axes.

The pursuit of essence, for its part, keeps the sculpture in a crisis of unity which provides the main drama of Brancusi’s formal effort. Having achieved the modulated ovoid of Sleeping Muse, Brancusi embarks on a series of more complicated massive works—Portrait of George, The Muse, Mlle. Pogany, the Penguins—while still pursuing the unitary shape in works like Prometheus, The First Cry and New Born. After the open, axial and relatively disorderly organization of Prodigal Son and The Sorceress, Brancusi will never again undertake a massive composition of any inner complexity or a complex distribution of axes. Unity will be achieved by the concentration of mass in a single form—a mono-form—or by the long axis which will join such forms serially. A late solution will be the radial grouping of forms with respect to a central feature. Escape from the confines of these solutions will be found in the areas between and around them.

The question of unity has an extreme form: Since a work of sculpture is one thing, how many parts may it have? A clear tendency in Brancusi’s formal strategy leads us to think his answer would have been, unqualifiedly: one. The later works are a noble and touching record of his attempts to achieve oneness.

Unity is troubled by the very nature of solid form, which is multiple in having a top, a bottom, sides and edges and which contains shadow and presents variety of aspect. A sphere, from this viewpoint, may be considered as the ideal shape of unity: one surface, one center, one image regardless of the angle from which it is viewed. Brancusi’s oeuvre does not include a sphere, but he is never far from its influence, while refusing its geometry. The works of cubical or faceted mass are few, while a great many of the sculptures in stone (and, consequently, in bronze) and parts of some works in wood, may be understood as variations or distortions of the sphere, or as incursions upon it.

The unity of spherical and ovoidal masses reinforces the sensuous attraction that curved surfaces undoubtedly held for Brancusi. Of his Leda he said, “It is Leda, not Jupiter, changing into a swan. A man is as ugly as a frog; a swan has exquisite curves like those of a woman’s body.”

THE DECISION TO MAKE a polished bronze is not haphazard. Only four out of some two dozen designs in wood achieve the state of shiny metal. Most of the works in wood, like the early stone heads, Wisdom of the Earth and all versions of The Kiss, would be unintelligible in metal. Of twelve marble Birds, four have no polished metal versions and these four may be considered transitional. The remaining eight marble Birds lead to fourteen metal versions; and eleven other motifs in marble produce some thirty-five polished bronzes. The versions of Child’s Head would probably be unreadable in shiny metal; the large Fish, Seal and Turtle might have proved to be distorting mirrors. A Mrs. Eugene Meyer in shiny bronze would have necessitated casting the large geometrical base, which would have looked like metal stock. Finally, Brancusi cast none of his six carvings of the female torso in metal; three of these are in translucent onyx, and it is possible that Brancusi thought the metal not delicate enough for these images.

Brancusi’s gleaming surface is his ultimate invention. While having the traditional quality of splendor both in craft and material, it is, in his hands, the absolute state of absolute form. Every marble, except perhaps The Muse, is perfected in the succeeding bronze, and later marble versions—of the Bird in Space, Mlle. Pogany, New Born and White Negress—learn from the intermediate bronzes. At the same time the dense material is rendered transparent by reflectivity, and Brancusi’s realm of certainty is invaded by a glamorous element of chance.

Materials have sensuous qualities and structural properties, but no intrinsic artistic content, and a mystique of material is limiting, delusive and finally a concern of craftsmen. “Love of material” is a psychological, not a sculptural, affair; “truth to material” is a truth which changes from style to style and sculptor to sculptor. Materials are only more or less useful, more or less adaptable to certain ends. Beyond that, a simple negative principle comes into play: it is unwise to violate the structural properties of a material if a sculpture is to exist at all.

There is no doubt that after the initial period of the “stony” work in limestone, Brancusi carved marble, with few exceptions, to emphasize its sensuous character, disregarding its structural properties. The fin-like noses break, edges chip, unstable masses slip from their mountings, smooth and heavy shapes are almost impossible to grasp. It is not that Brancusi is simply unwise: he wishes to go beyond the material. In fact, he dissolves it: the attenuation of Bird in Space provides a thrill of the dangerous, the impossible. Ultimately the estheticism and structural difficulties of the marbles are redeemed by the versions in bronze.

The sculpture in wood, unforced and “natural,” is one of the classic handlings of the material. Born in a region with an ancient heritage of woodworking, a whittler since childhood, trained in carpentry, Brancusi was completely at home in this medium, and it responded easily to his thoughts. Wood is the medium of his deepest nature; it is the material of Endless Column, his most “Rumanian” work. Marble remains for him the material of artistic aspiration, of “fine” art.

BRANCUSI HAD SECRETS. He had, for one, a “secret” process for arriving at the high polish of his bronzes; and the internal structure of the marble Bird in Space was unknown till recently. He used every possible primitive and motor-driven tool, and he had a wall covered with calipers and other instruments which he called his “arsenal.”

But his real secret, the instrument he employed on every occasion, was his “eye.”

Working within self-imposed strictures, Brancusi has seemed at times to have subscribed to a mystique of number or to an a priori proportional system. Nothing, and surely not the references to number and measurement in this study, can be produced in support of such theses; they would seem, in any case, to be refuted by the many trials and versions in different sizes. It appears that the proportions of Brancusi’s works were arrived at intuitively. I have suggested a precise variation in proportion between the wood and bronze versions of The Cock, but this kind of change is unique in the oeuvre. The variation between the Cups may be stated mathematically, but the elements here are conveniently few, and the series is a study in changing proportions. The clear relation of the dimensions of Beginning of the World II is a sensible solution to the curious problem Brancusi seems to have undertaken here. The module of Endless Column is the only object whose inner proportions may be stated in magically neat terms which have the appearance of a formula. Once these were established, Brancusi had no hesitation in varying the size or number of modules in any column. The proportions of the module of Endless Column are clearly a find.

The sense of measure arises from the harmonic inner relations of a work. Given his calm of spirit, his health and classic sense, Brancusi produced works whose proportions seem precise, immutable, established sub specie aeternitatis.

Measure achieved, absolute size was of minor importance to Brancusi. When questioned about the dimensions of his work, he would reply, in an aphorism difficult to translate, “Measurements are harmful, for they are there, in the things themselves. They can rise up to heaven and come down to earth again without changing proportion.”

Measure assumes an awareness of such imponderable factors as the psychology of imagery, the fitness of size and subject, what we call “scale.” In achieving measure, Brancusi’s native tact was transmuted into something at once Gallic and technical.

BRANCUSI BROUGHT ALL the resources of his talent for decoration to the teasing problem of the pedestal. In its simplest terms the problem is: how to get from the sculpture down to the ground. If the sculpture is tall, there is no problem since it stands on or near the ground. But when it is a question of a small piece, or a large piece not intended to stand on the ground, how is the transition to be made? The pedestals available to the modern sculptor are banal, a makeshift; they leave the sculpture suspended and isolated. On the other hand, a pedestal in close relation to the sculpture may fog or overwhelm the sculptural statement. We lack a period style that can embrace both.

Brancusi made all kinds of pedestals, simple and elaborate, solid and pierced, smooth and surfaced, in flat and curving planes, in wood, stone and plaster, and in combinations of these. Most have a vertical axis, some are in the form of brackets. The pedestal of Pasarea Maiastra includes a pair of figures; for an early carving and a bronze Maiastra, stone capitals serve as bases. Because most of the sculptures are small, many of the pedestals are more voluminous than the objects resting on them; several are far more complicated, finally, than the sculptures they support.

But regardless of their degree of elaboration, of their beauty and aptness, they are not, as many claim, works of art but decorative objects of the same kind as picture frames. The sculpture can exist without them; the reverse is not true. They were all made after the fact of the sculpture, and they are rarely specific to a sculpture, different works having the same supports and similar works having different bases and pedestals. Those critics of Brancusi who consider his sculpture to be merely formal exercises have only to compare it with the bases—truly formal exercises—to become aware of its expressive character.

The problem of the pedestal does not manifest itself in Brancusi’s work till about 1915, and then with unequal intensity. It makes its appearance as the sculpture becomes thoroughly rationalized and begins to lose its iconographic force: the pedestals are most elaborate where the sculpture is most simplified—The Fish, Beginning of the World. Brancusi’s solutions are certainly handsome, the pedestals functioning usually as counterpoint to the sculpture. In their size, vigor and clarity they provided Brancusi with a relief from the subtleties of sculpture.

The real ambition of those who fear isolation by the pedestal is to design or re-design the whole world, since anxiety does not stop at the foot of the pedestal. Total control being impossible, the next best solution is to create a limited world, which the studio was, or to occupy a piece of the world, and this Brancusi accomplished in the park at Tirgu Jiu. Later he addresses himself to other public projects none of which came to fruition.

THE PRIMARY EXPERIENCE on seeing a sculpture by Brancusi is that of knowing it at once. Prolonged attention or the accumulation of a series of views from a series of angles of vision adds nothing or little to the initial knowledge. Time only confirms what the first instant revealed; time continues to reproduce the first sensation. Many works of sculpture induce immediacy and totality of impression, but Brancusi’s oeuvre after 1907, almost in its entirety, enforces them to an absolute degree. With less speed there develops a realization of the effort and calculation required in its making, succeeded in its turn by a poetic or philosophic reverie induced by the sculptor’s image. And certain works—The Kiss, Bird in Space, Endless Column—have implications of time in their subject.

Many works of art give rise to a variety of temporal effects which are usually experienced either exclusively or as enveloping each other, but in the presence of a Brancusi there is a unique and curious sensation of a friction of durations as the slower speeds of insight and reverie run counter to the instant of revelation, constantly sustained.

This friction of different times—like the confrontation in his work of object and essence, of weight and lightness, of density and transparency, of order and accident, of the brand-new and the eternal—is another instance of Brancusi having it both ways.

If the experience of seeing a sculpture by Brancusi is that of revelation, the after-experience is one of recall. Whatever else it may be, Brancusi’s sculpture is memorable; and it is so in two senses of the word. Rodin’s sculpture is memorable in only one sense; it is impossible to recall every feature of the form. In Brancusi, the paucity of elements, their clarity and the clarity of their articulation, their repetition (when it occurs) and their difference create a tight system and a total image which inscribe themselves on the memory. The mnemonic is carried to an absolute point since it is possible to see all and remember all without the expenditure of effort; memory is fixed by the ravishing surface and sustained by a parallel memory of the world.

BRANCUSI PROLONGS HIS WORKS in series, and these series are of different kinds. The versions of the Cup vary the proportions. Sleeping Muse gives rise to a subtly nuanced series. White Negress and The Seal move toward perfection of the motif. The Birds develop toward the ultimate expression of an idea. The versions of Torment and Torso of a Young Man, and the passage from Torso of a Young Woman to the last Torso of a Girl are examples of reduction—different in each case—to essentiality. The Pogany series is an essay in purification. The Kiss makes its first appearance as gentle, “felt” form and ends as emblematic, anonymous design. The Cock passes from the state of intimate object to that of public monument. There are certain themes which are explored twice as if to test their limits.

But except for these obvious repetitions, Brancusi touches every idea only once. That is, while he examines and develops his ideas with an intensity unequalled in sculptural history, he never exploits them by running out a series of different works based on the same structural notion. The structural variety of the heads is an example of his changes of approach.

In Sleeping Muse the content of a head is achieved under a continuous, modulated skin, while Mlle. Pogany suggests an interior by means of its rimmed eyes and slit mouth. In White Negress the features are applied. Eileen is a mono-form, no facial feature being delineated in any way. The central element of The Chief has a large section removed at the mouth in such a way as to create a situation that partakes both of the sense of continuous surface, as in Sleeping Muse, and of the sense of inner space, as in Mlle. Pogany. The Nancy Cunard has the same lack of features as Eileen, but delineates a personality of greater fullness by a new use of restricted means. The Mrs. Eugene Meyer, also smooth of face, is the only columnar portrait.

There is only one true column in Brancusi’s oeuvre; there is only one naturalistic torso, one monumental carving and one monumental sculpture intended to be cast in metal. The form and content of The Prodigal Son, Timidity, The Sorceress and Socrates are in each case unique in the oeuvre. Little French Girl is the only carved “full” figure. The Chief is the only sculpture that incorporates a piece of metal. The Kiss and the Penguins are Brancusi’s only “group” compositions, The Kiss being the only sculpture that shows an interlace. The surfaces of the Stanescu and The Prayer are unique; the sketchiness of Sleep is different from that of Double Caryatid; the tenderness of touch in the first Kiss is transmuted in time to the almost mechanical hardness of Flying Turtle, and in between are the tooled surfaces of the carvings, both in wood and stone, and the reflective surfaces of the bronzes. Sizes vary from the tiny children’s heads to the hundred foot high Endless Column, while these same objects signify the range of imagery.

“It is only of the new one grows tired,” said Kierkegaard, “repetition is the seriousness of life.” But again Brancusi has it both ways: he repeats his work and moves to fresh areas, doing both in unique fashion and seeming to destroy the distinctions between the new and the repeated.

Sidney Geist