PRINT January 1970

Brancusi and the Myth of Idea Form

Thus filming is nothing other than apprehending the event as well as its sign, and apprehending it at the precise moment at which, gently in a scene from Lola, brutally in a scene by Fuller, cunningly in a Bunuel image, or logically in a sequence from Rossellini’s Voyage en Italie, the meaning is born freely from the sign which conditions and predestines it.
—Jean-Luc Godard

LOOKING AT BRANCUSI’S A MUSE is like looking at an object in fission, or an object split between two modes of being. It is like looking at water on two sides of the wall of a dam: on the one side the body of water seems stable and circumscribed; on the other it spills over in a constantly dissolving flow.

The dividing line which visually rends Brancusi’s figure into two unequal and unlike quantities is dependent on the vagaries of the body’s surface—on the ridge of the nose, the cleft of the upper lip, the fold between arm and torso—for those elements are what provide the cut between reflective dark and reflective light. Brancusi makes explicit this usurpation by surface over what was formerly only internal structure’s capacity to account for the organization of visual data. Since the central spine of the Muse’s real body and the median line of its real head are entirely eccentric to the plumbline which organizes the work for the viewer, the meaning of the body’s real structural axis is dissolved. What is normally structural about the body is transformed into a rhythmic cascade of undulant curving gesture, while what is explicitly gestural in the real body, namely the raised, supporting arm and hand and the side of the head which is extruded beyond the boundaries of a regular elliptical shape to identify it as that side of the head which is resting, all become the visual phenomena of structure. In this way a doubleness of aspect pervades A Muse. First one sees divisiveness in the separation of the image into two contrasting sides; then one feels it in the disjunction between surface and structure. And the first kind of disjunctiveness seems to stand as a metaphor spread out in breadth for the second which is an assertion about the visibility of depth.

If this is an accurate description of the way that one perceives A Muse, then the work becomes a hostile witness in the critical case normally presented as an explanation of what Brancusi’s sculpture means. That case identifies Brancusi’s enterprise as Platonist in kind. It characterizes his genius as one of having revealed a set of essential forms which lie behind, or beyond, the ordinary world of appearances. It sees his pursuit of a single object type, the human head for example, as a drive toward purifying matter of all of its merely contingent aspects in order to discover an ideal shape, thereby rationalizing perception. It documents its position with some of Brancusi’s own statements about arriving “at simplicity in spite of ourselves, as we approach the true sense of things,” or about having given the viewer “pure joy.” It produces as evidence the way in which Brancusi’s rendering of simple objects, like the three Cups from the early 1920s, seems to connect up with the kind of research into the notion of the objet-type that was going on at the same time in the work of Le Corbusier and at the Bauhaus.

But if to see A Muse is not to see the conflict-less unity of an ideal form, but the vision of an object gripped by disjunctiveness, then one’s eyes confront testimony against what one has always understood to be the nature of Brancusi’s art. Should A Muse therefore be regarded as aberrant, a kind of joker in the deck of Brancusi’s total career? Would it not be better to disregard those objects like Leda or Mlle. Pogany, where the opposition of parts tends to undermine the unitary character necessary to a perception of the sculpture as an ideal object, concentrating instead on things like Sleeping Muse or Bird In Space—works where a single contour uninterruptedly confronts the viewer?

The recumbent ovoid of Sleeping Muse rests directly on the plane surface of the base, table, or whatever else is used for its support. Severed from neck and torso, it is a head austerely regularized both in contour and topography. Only the diffident ridge of nose and brow disturb the careful elision of all the planes of the face as they fuse into a unitary convexity—a face from which differentiation has nearly been erased. Is it true, then, that one is brought by the severe reduction to look at the head as displaying the absolute, changeless shape which lies behind all the particular instances of heads and faces, guaranteeing a continuity of meaning throughout the array of specific instances? If that is the case, then Sleeping Muse stands at the culmination of a long series of muses and sleeping female heads which presuppose both that there is such a thing as the absolute or correct shape of a head and that the sculptor’s task is to gesture toward it. And since this shape is understood to be a conceptual rather than a real entity, the place toward which the sculptor traditionally directed the viewer to look for it was somehow behind or beneath the surface-fabric of the work.

An instance of what I mean can be found in Medardo Rosso’s The Flesh of Others, a relief of a recumbent female head to which Brancusi’s own early A Muse bears a close resemblance. At first it may seem strange to relate the notion of ideal form—conceived as it is in relation to a completely free-standing object—to a sculpture which is executed in relief. Yet the precedent in Brancusi’s recent past for construing the sculptural enterprise as one of pointing beyond perceptual experience is precisely in the area of 19th-century relief. For it is there that one first finds artists not only trying to provide the viewer with sensory information about the unseen sides of whole objects, but making this a major sculptural theme. Given the unassailable frontality of relief, such information about the concealed side of the figure had to come simultaneously with the perception of its front. Increasingly throughout 19th-century relief sculpture this information was supplied by the programmatic inclusion of actual shadows cast by the raised figurative elements onto the relief ground. Thus Rosso’s The Flesh of Others contains not two, but three, figurative elements. The first is the cap of hair which parenthetically falls in front and to the right of the figure’s head. The second is the voluptuous fabric of the side of the woman’s face in which the concave and convex forms of forehead, cheek and mouth are gathered into the simple contour of the profile. The third,which lies between them, is the field of shadow cast by the hair onto the recumbent side of the head. What is striking about this shadow is that it does not function, as one would expect, by injecting a quantity of open space into the clenched forms of the sculpture, or by serving the organizational purpose of, say, a fulcrum of darkness on which to balance two light-drenched volumes. Rather, the shadow produces insistent visual testimony about the other side of the woman’s head. To the exposed surfaces of face and hair which carry the continual reminder of the sculptor’s touch as he modeled them, the shadow adds the fact of the most intense and evocative area of touch—the contact between the buried cheek of the woman and the hidden fabric of the hair. It is as though Rosso felt that it was not enough simply to excavate figures from the ground of the relief; he needed as well to supply data about their forever invisible aspects—the realms of interaction so immersed within the material of the sculpture that neither the probe of his fingers nor of our gaze could reach them. And part of Rosso’s meaning surely rises from the sense that beyond the brilliance of his modeling and the coruscation of the light insistently opening and penetrating his surfaces lies an unseeable area of the form about which he is compelled to report.

Rosso’s impulse to carry the viewer emotionally around the head and into the crevices of the ground and to make him contract with the imaginary feel of the reverse sides of objects is simply brought to a logical climax in the notion of essential form. For at its base, this desire for an abstract and absolute shape is a desire for a way for the viewer to surmount his physical fixity before the objects of his perception. Against this fixity, the idea of essential form offers the free-fall of the beholder’s constructive intellect.

Now while all of this may be true of abstract, reductive sculpture by somebody else, it is not true of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (or for that matter any of his other heads). The coloristic quality of the surface, which is not only highly reflective, but also patinated in a variety of ways from one area of the face to another, asserts the continuous stretch of that surface, as though it were the taut skin of an inflated object. Then, the contour of the head is not only subtly irregular from one point of the head to another, but conspicuously differentiated between the two sides of the head, as the reclining side appears flattened or compressed and the exposed side larger or more full-blown. What one sees, then, is not an essential form but a ponderated head—a volume whose shape is responsive to the external pressures provoked by its own gesture. And the shadow which the head casts onto the surface on which it lies does not confront the viewer with the paucity of his visual information, which must begin and end in the surfaces available to his perception. Rather, it is at one with the sculpture in insisting that all the meaning possible to the sculpture is given fully in that part of the surface which is visible from a fixed point. For, the shadow is cast by an object which is potentially free-standing—he could pick it up if he chose—but in so doing he would not be seeing more of the sculpture; he would be seeing a different sculpture, one which when separated from that specific gesture would be deprived of its meaning.

Bird in Space is another instance of this attitude. Brancusi, having been instructed by Man Ray, photographed this work many times. Consistently the lighting in his photographs was such that either back-lighting or flare or both, would undermine any sense of certainty about the location of the work’s contours, simultaneously undercutting a notion that the work’s shape could be read as a formalization of an idea of, say, ascension. Further, in these photographs there would generally be a continuous spine of shadow which would stripe the work vertically from tip to foot. I have always read this band, dependent as it is for its location on the vagaries of lighting and insistent as it also is on its quality as a property of the surface, to be a gentle parody of the notion of a sculptural core. In either the figurative tradition or the kind of abstract sculpture which wants to essentialize form, the core or spine is seen as existing prior to the particular gesture of this body or this object. Indeed, it is the a priori condition which both supports and gives meaning to the gesture. If Brancusi’s work is radical, it is not in its reductiveness as an inert formal proposition. It is in its reversal of the priorities of meaning—by which I mean that gesture is shown to exist prior to shape or structure; that gesture or the intention of meaning is what gives them reason for being, and not the other way around.

All of what has just been said implies further that Brancusi’s sculpture exists in a constant ambience of illusion, that it courts illusion. For through Brancusi’s work, illusion, or the inability to resolve perceptual ambiguity by recourse to some kind of general law, is asserted as the condition of seeing. Faced with the imperviousness of this fact the viewer must find both meaning and pleasure in confronting a particular object from a limited point of view; and understand that it is the lived perspective rather than the ideal perspective that defines both the sculpture’s being and his own.

It is in giving the viewer the opportunity to realize the effect of the subtle transformations wrought by the variations on a given sculptural idea by the slight changes in proportion, or contour or patination to which Brancusi submitted it, that the genius of the Brancusi retrospective organized by Sidney Geist in part lies. By permitting one to see and compare five examples of Sleeping Muse, three of Prometheus, three Maiastras or five Mlle. Poganys, one can resolve for oneself the question of how to understand Brancusi’s attitude toward working in series. If there was a temptation before to consider the variations in different material on one theme to be like the transpositions of a melody from one key to another, an act which leaves intact the essence of the musical thought, it is dashed on the hard visual facts assembled by the exhibition. One’s gratitude to Mr. Geist for this is especially keen because the task that he faced before he could mount such a collection was one of making sense out of the monumental disarray of the Brancusi oeuvre. Before Mr. Geist’s own monograph on the sculptor appeared last year, there was no accurate catalogue raisonné to the work, and in the absence of this there was no way even to begin to make sense of the stages through which a single sculptural idea developed. The results of Mr. Geist’s research fill the catalog notes with solid information and provocative suggestions about how to relate one train of thought in Brancusi’s career to another.

The way in which the contours, surfaces and placement of details in the marbles and bronzes render the specific states of specific object, seems always to call for a response in the viewer’s own body. This is a reaction which in my experience Brancusi’s wood carvings never provoke. For there is an abstractness about many of the wooden pieces which has nothing to do with the likeness or unlikeness which these sculptures might bear to nature. Rather it seems to come from the way the isolable elements of sculpture itself come under scrutiny within many of these works.

In Caryatid II, for example, the parallel grooves routed out of the wood between the mass of the head and that of the torso strike one at first as a particularly decorative touch added as ornament to the otherwise unadorned expanses of plain wood surface. Like scrollwork or architectural moldings, it seems to be a linear filigree applied like drawing to the surface of the work’s volumes. And, like a drawn line, it is able to serve both a decorative and a descriptive function—for the grooves allude to the neck rings worn by the aboriginal woman who, at many stages of remove, served as the model for this work.

But in the context of the sculpture as a whole, this linear cluster goes beyond either decoration or description to function at a level which can only be called abstract. For, splitting the gesture of the Caryatid’s body into two entirely disparate and opposing movements, it is perceived as a rent in the fabric of the sculpture’s being. While the head of the figure, buckling under the weight of the lintel-like block it carries, sinks downward into the grooves of the neck, the entire lower portion of the Caryatid seems to be pushing upward, like someone in the act of rising. Realizing that a single body cannot possibly execute both these movements at the same time, one senses this figure as profoundly fragmented, as an aggregate of dissimilar states of being. In operating as the boundary between one state and the other, the grooves of the neck-band seem to return line to its most primitive function—that of differentiating between what is on one side from what is on the other, as when line, by bounding a figure, bestows on what is bounded a set of perceptual qualities which are at variance with what becomes the unbounded ground against which the figure appears.

One of the greatest examples of line wrought to this level of abstraction is the magnificent King of Kings. Mr. Geist notes that in 1948 Brancusi told an American visitor that he was unhappy with this work. The reasons for this dissatisfaction are apparently not known. But more and more Brancusi himself is beginning to seem either maddeningly laconic or misleading about his own sculpture. It was his own published remarks which gave aid and comfort to the Platonist interpretations of his work, and it was largely the kind of posture he assumed in his last years that dissuaded scholars from carrying out the kind of objective study of his art that Mr. Geist has recently completed. One can only conclude that Brancusi was among the worst of his critics.

Rosalind E. Krauss