PRINT December 1968


Brancusi, A Study of the Sculpture

Sidney Geist, Brancusi, A Study of the Sculpture (Grossman Publishers,
New York, 1968), 248 pages, illustrations.

Toward the end of his life Rodin was asked how it felt to be the greatest sculptor of the last century. He replied that this was no great honor as there were so few great sculptors in his time. To say that Sidney Geist’s book on Brancusi is the best on a modern sculptor beggars his achievement, for there are so few good books to begin with. What has hindered our understanding of modern sculpture is not the lack of a bibliography or its neglect by historians in favor of painting, but the surfeit of bad writing in the name of surveys and concise histories as well as many hastily-produced monographs.

Geist’s book is distinguished not just because he sets simple but important goals for himself and meets them, but because they are in the service of increasing our understanding, and in Brancusi’s case, reducing the misunderstanding, of one of the most important sculptors in history. There is no need of seconding Geist’s statement, “Considerations of form can never again neglect the example of Brancusi, he is the conscience of form in our time.” This is a major book on a major artist, one of those rare times when the author’s background as a sculptor succeeds in bringing meaningful insights into another artist’s work.

Despite the disclaimer that his is not primarily a scholarly work, art historians can learn much from Geist’s approach to Brancusi. They could start with his “Searching For Brancusi” in the October 1964 Arts for an example of imagination and energy in tracking down his subject, unsponsored by fellowships, in Roumania. His book reviews of GeidionWelcker (“Brancusi Sanctificatus,” Arts, January, 1960) and Jianou (“Brancusi Catalogued?” Arts, January 1964) prove the searching, questioning character of his approach to the work of his predecessors, based on first studying the sculpture itself. Geist’s dedication and thoroughness come through in his meticulous measuring of the sculptures themselves, from which came inspiration and confirmation of his important generalizations. His resourcefulness, apart from undertaking a world-wide search, without foundation or university support, was proved in the learning of Roumanian and contributing to publications and symposia in that country’s native language while pursuing his researches. This considerable effort is augmented by the model of sensitivity and purity of diction that complements the sculpture of Brancusi. Consider the following quotations, the first a characterization of a single sculpture, the second of Brancusi’s art as a whole:

It appears [the Endless Column made for Edward Steichen’s garden] as a repetition without monotony, diminishing perspectively, but ever present in the mind. Stiff where all is swaying, regular where it is varied, it is the shape of intelligence amid floral exuberance, a human gesture in a natural world.

The works are, except for a very few cases, physically modest; possessed of only the mildest ‘presence,’ and unemphatic in their claim for attention. Neither implying nor figuring forth action, their movement is inner; they react to the outer only in their fleeting absorption of reflection, they go beyond their skins only in the light they throw off. Their unique spatial gesture is the creation of an atmosphere of calm. Their tact is perfect: they do not cry out or speak so low as to demand general silence: they are neither haunting nor spectral nor threatening; one may pay attention to them or not.

Both in its conception and production this book is a conscience for authors and publishers. To the credit of Sidney Geist and Mr. Grossman is its modest and manageable size, which permits reading and rereading in bed, on a plane or in the office, without the aid of a monastic lectern. Typical of the thorough planning and taste that went into the book is the one-inch-to-one-foot scaling of the generally small marginal illustrations. Image and text conjoin and scholarly apparatuses are sent to the rear in the healthy appendix, which includes a meticulous listing of the sculptures’ chronology and valuable photographs of Brancusi’s portrait subjects.

The book is sensibly divided into three parts. First is an unsentimental recounting of what little is known of Brancusi’s personal life. It includes such excellent observations as, “Anyone with a poetic sense of existence might see his life as constantly marvelous, and Brancusi had such a sense. But it operated not in a mystic’s passive reading of the world, but in an active transformation of the given, by art and thought.” Where Geist’s book outdistances its predecessors in terms of writing history is in the second section, where, for the first time, we are given a year-by-year chronological development, an heroic achievement of unscrambling problems of dating and sequences within sequences. The third section consists of personal reflections on the sculpture which have a history of many years. In all there is love and respect in place of uncritical awe. Rather than metaphysics there are facts, enlisted at the command of truths more interesting than the myths they have mustered out of service.

To the reader unfamiliar with the mass and maze of Brancusi literature and the complexity of the problems enveloping his work before this book, Geist’s effort will not be appreciated. (He tactfully does not reprint the follies of his many predecessors.) As he himself puts it, he has given us the “first word” on much of Brancusi’s art, such as the relation of sculptures like The Kiss to the sculptor’s biography. For some this may be the book’s important contribution, and one which raises the temperature of the sculpture for those who see it as being too cold and remote from life. To readers who have only seen poetry in Brancusi, Geist displays his precision, and for those fascinated with the sculptor’s precise shaping of forms, there is the revelation of poetry. The reader senses that the poetry, logic and precision of Brancusi have touched his most recent biographer to the extent of influencing the form and content of the book.

There may be regret and resentment that Geist did not treat the drawings and what he refers to as the “artifacts” such as stools, tables, doorway, bases and pedestals of Brancusi. The recording and discussion of 248 objects, which occupied the author for many years in various parts of the world have provided abundant material for such a relatively small book. Gracious in his thanksgiving to other scholars, he makes available in English some of the important findings previously published only in Roumanian. This patient reconstruction of Brancusi’s life, art and thought reveals an artist who was “neither peasant, Milarepa devotee nor solitary.” Not only has Brancusi become more human in Geist’s words, but more credible, and one should say the same for the sculpture.

In his realistic and historical appraisal of Brancusi’s early evolution Geist makes many important connections between this sculptor and other independent artists such as Epstein, particularly during the period before the First World War. In terms of what Brancusi reacted against, Geist has perhaps too narrowly focused on the art of Rodin. Like so many before him, he sees Brancusi’s first version of The Kiss as a specifically anti-Rodinian gesture. But the motif of embracing couples was frequent in salon and public art before 1908. In terms of showing only the upper portions of an embracing couple, Brancusi could have been engaged in a commentary (or persiflage?) on Derrés’ column capital of this motif shown in the salon in 1901; later its stone version was erected atop an Egyptian column in the Luxembourg Gardens, in 1906. It is not clear why Geist writes of the space of Rodin’s life-size lovers in The Kiss as being “fictional” while Brancusi’s much smaller embracing couple exists in a “real space.” They don’t partake of our space and could be viewed as living in the space of the implied block. While there are a number of titles shared by Rodin and Brancusi, as Geist points out, these titles were common currency in the salons at the beginning of the century. Brancusi’s early art might be better seen against the broad range of salon sculpture of the period to which he had once contributed, in addition to that of Rodin.

On occasion Geist polarizes the routes taken by Brancusi and other sculptors where in fact the differences were not so neatly marked. He indicates that in rebelling against Rodin, Matisse went “through” Rodin, whereas Brancusi and others took different paths. As I have tried to show in my series on the sculpture of Matisse in this magazine, Matisse did not spend his life within the shadow of Rodin any more than did Brancusi. The latter “went through” Rodin as a modeler, thematically, and in the use of the partial figure. One of the points where further elaboration by Geist would be welcome is his accurate observation that Rodin’s partial figures made possible many of Brancusi’s efforts. I believe that the step of the partial figure taken in the Prayer of 1907 was crucial to changing Brancusi’s attitude towards likeness, in part made reductiveness possible, and influenced his drive for formal concision and analogizing.

To set Brancusi more within the historical context of the beginnings of modern sculpture at the turn of the century, it should be pointed out that when he sought to arrive at the “essential,” or tried to achieve “essences,” which by their clarity, unity and immediacy would be apprehended in joy, he was in concert with other sculptors such as Maillol and Matisse. Rodin was interested in essences and joy, and so was Gauguin. Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter,” published in Paris in La Revue of 1908, in which he speaks of his aim as being the search for the essential, the reality behind appearances, may have been known to Brancusi along with Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics about which Geist writes so convincingly. On the subject of Brancusi’s turning towards essential reality in sculpture we could use more Geistesgeschichte.

Although he cites only Derain as a contemporary precedent for Brancusi’s turning to direct carving (refusing to have his stone cut by others or employing compasses to transfer the image from a plaster model), the wood and stone sculpture of Gauguin and Lacombe, Picasso’s forty whacks at wood carving, and Maillol’s wood sculpture anticipate Brancusi’s initiative. Along with Robert Goldwater’s essay on “Truth to What” in Contemporary Sculpture, Geist helps to write the epitaph for the championing of Brancusi as the inspiration for a bogus “truth to the medium” cult among sculptors and art educators. In the writing about this subject one can understand Sidney Geist’s reputation as an outstanding teacher of sculpture:

Materials have sensuous qualities and structural properties, but no intrinsic artistic content, and a mystique of materials 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. There is often thought to be an original rectangular block of stone which the sculptor emphasizes or expresses. Do the several versions of The Kiss ‘express’ the rectangular block? We do not know. Does The Beginning of the World ‘express’ an original large pebble of marble? Again we do not know. What is likely is that Brancusi . . . wanted a blocklike and an ovoid sculpture, and would have carved them out of any piece of stone of sufficient volume.

Geist denies that Brancusi was occupied with fashioning “stylized versions of the natural world,” yet several times he uses the adjective “stylized” to indicate a certain development within a series of sculptures. This raises the question of the origin of Brancusi’s individual style. (I cannot agree with Geist that Brancusi had no style.) By not having reproduced for him the drawings that often accompanied the portraits of women, the reader is not able to completely judge for himself the extent to which Brancusi’s early evolution may have been influenced by the desire to make stylish, if not stylized portraits of women. Before 1908 he had supported himself by making portraits of men and women, and had himself photographed in his studio with some very attractive young girls. Geist himself refers to Brancusi’s tendency towards “gracile designs.” The drawings of women, sometimes with rouged cheeks, often with stylized hairdos, have a flavor of the chic. Personally I find his portraits of women, excluding those of Mademoiselle Poganyi, but including the White Negress, and Nancy Cunard, Brancusi’s least impressive works in terms of form as well as content. Brancusi was fortunate in not suffering the fate of Elie Nadelman, whose stylizations became an international cosmetic symbol. Is it not possible that along with such highminded Bergsonian philosophical objectives regarding the absolute, Brancusi’s development also included advanced ideas on the fashionable?

One of the author’s less convincing arguments is that in a portrait series by Brancusi “no one work supposes any of the others. All are clearly from the same hand and have unique structural bases.” But each portrait presupposes his convictions about rationalization of the face, and what he would not show of a particular subject, as well as a particular experience of analysis, all of which proportion and polish that woman’s portrait. Could Brancusi be naive every time he made a portrait, and are we to believe that he had no method, style, or memory?

This book was written for “any interested reader,” not just for the artist or Brancusian specialist. But when the writer says, “the primary experience of seeing a sculpture by Brancusi is that of knowing it at once,” the potential readership that can acknowledge this statement must surely shrink. Brancusi’s wood sculptures such as The Prodigal Son are his least decipherable images, despite Geist’s assertion that “It takes a sense of humor to see here a kneeling figure, one hand on the ground, the head thrust forward, a pack on the back.” (Was this an autobiographical recollection of his walking with a knapsack part way to Paris, or a return to Roumania?) Nor is it explained why Geist ascribes the “openness” and “dynamism” of this piece to Cubist influence. Why not Rodin if he was the source of the title?

Another occasion when Geist may have misjudged the response of the viewer is when he writes that by contrast with Rodin, “in a sculpture by Brancusi one sees the form and at the same time has the intuition of the thoughts and acts that went into its making . . . However much one may study a sculpture by Rodin, there is no possibility of reconstructing the steps by which it was made. The miracle of expression outshines the miracle of modeling.” By leaving traces of his hand and decisions in the form of gouging, squeezing, caressing or slashing, Rodin calls attention to the process. Brancusi eradicates all such evidence, and as Geist pointed out, we cannot for certain retrace the original shape of Brancusi’s stone blocks.

There are many times when the reader is grateful for Geist’s intuitions and discernment of subtle hidden connections between dissimilar works, such as The Prodigal Son and Timidity, or between Brancusi and Giacometti, but in one instance he takes flight out of range of our radar. “His peasant origin and eventual urbanism made Brancusi the natural arena of a struggle between traditional and rational modes of behavior. That struggle is sometimes visible in the difference between sculpture and base.”

By contrast with Brancusi’s previous biographers, Geist displays a commendable critical sense and frankly and convincingly evaluates the artist’s output from first to last as well as citing the limitations of the themes. When he tries to put Brancusi into an historical framework, such as ascribing his “lack of emotion” to “modern sensibility,” it seems he has looked uncritically at Mannerist sculpture with its loveless rapes and early 19th-century straightfaced neo-Classical art. One wishes for comment from Geist on the widespread turning away, with some exceptions, from men and vehement movement as subjects by other independent sculptors before 1914, notably in the art of Maillol, Matisse, Gaudier, Epstein, Archipenko and Nadelman, as well as Brancusi. There seems to have been a connection between the respective desires of these sculptors to achieve personal and modern styles, and the avoidance of action and the male form with its possibilities for energetic expression in favor of the passive beauty of women. The new portrait styles, with the exception of Matisse’s, called for a suppression of personality. Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Man still remains a puzzle as to its title, despite the author’s pointing out the removal of the genitals (conceptual castration?) which passed into the overall phallic form. Why did he not call it Torso of a Young Girl? This would not have inhibited the phallic connotations of the overall shape. Was this irrational labelling an influence of Dada?

Both Brancusi and Geist believe that “Rational form is essential form.” Geist says this was the aim of Brancusi’s imagery “after, say, Torso of a Young Man.” But is Brancusi’s form thereafter entirely rational? (In polishing his aphorism, has not the author erased some of the truth?) He himself points out the sculptor’s careful avoidance, for the most part, of adding purely geometrical forms to his repertory, which, if they had been included, would have given his statement sounder foundation. That so much of Brancusi’s calculation was by the eye rather than calipers, measuring tapes and formulae suggests that intuition still played a strong part.

There are occasions when the author’s own professional prejudices as a sculptor shine through. He is as adamant that sculpture must be without the enactment of movement as the most die-hard truth-to-the-Mediumist. (Doesn’t this depend upon the sculptor?) Rodin’s portraits after 1900 are capsulized as displaying “histrionics.” Referring to the carving of the Endless Column he writes, “From the carver’s standpoint it [the motif] is a delicious one. Once the proportions are established it is only necessary to lay them out on the beam of wood and proceed automatically; the work goes on like a litany, with no need for invention.” There are carvers who would look upon this last part as carpentry, or physical therapy.

One of the many strengths of this book is that the author helps us to see the sculpture the way Brancusi wanted us to. For example, and again reflecting his personal beliefs, Geist discourages the gesture of handling the bronzes, arguing that vision satisfies the tactile impulse and “. . . in most cases the palping of sculpture is only a voyeurism of the hands.” Elsewhere he writes, “The intuition of instantaneous knowledge, of complete and sudden cognition, is, in short, revelation, and this would seem to be the mode in which Brancusi saw the world when he saw it significantly, and in which he wanted his work to be seen.” Geist also has the faculty of empathizing with his subject and thereby understanding what otherwise seem like unexpected jumps or changes, problems (“crises of unity”) and periods of unproductivity. To his connections between Brancusi and other sculptors and movements (that with Surrealism is particularly fine), I would only add that there is a striking similarity between the arrow-shaped cement grave marker made by Henri Laurens for the family Tachard in the Montparnasse Cemetery and Brancusi’s Turtle.

When he has finished the book there is much that the reader will want to think about. (Including such spirited aphorisms as “Carving has a destiny, modeling has only a history.”) Even after his book’s publication we know that the author is still involved with Brancusi, and as he finds an important new biographical fact, like the proverbial expanding ripples on the mill pond, it changes the whole appearance of the art. One admires his ability to see Brancusi’s art as a whole, to have so fully understood the fibre of his mind (which Geist once refers to in terms of “the frictional quality of his imagination”). We look forward to the next edition of the book, both for its new facts and their implications as well as additional reflections. Perhaps author and publisher will restrain their modesty enough to print in larger size vital photographs of lost works, or old shots of Brancusi’s studio so that we can better appreciate the author’s considerable detective work. So right is this excellent book for its subject that to summarize Sidney Geist’s contribution is to steal from Brancusi when he said, “I give you joy!”

Albert Elsen