PRINT November 1970

The Birds

WHAT A GREAT IDEA: a study of the Birds of Brancusi! I wish I’d had it. There they are, twenty-seven of them in marble and bronze, progressing from a relatively naturalistic image to a design of such poetry as to seem to go beyond sculpture; changing from a stable object of unimpressive dimensions to a breathtaking jet of dazzling material balanced on a slender footing; spread out in time from the end of La Belle Epoque to the beginning of the Cold War.

Well, André Chastel had the idea first, it seems, as early as 1961 when he gave it to Mrs. Spear who was studying in Paris. Brancusi’s Birds1 was thus undertaken at a time when the Brancusi literature was relatively small. It appeared eight months ago, its production touching ten years during which Brancusi studies expanded at a surprising rate, swelled by Mrs. Spear’s own periodical contributions.

She has carried out her present task with staggering industry and occasional brilliance; her forte is the digging out of data, impressively evident throughout the monograph. It comprises a number of different materials: an essay in four parts, a catalogue raisonné with an extended comment on its chronology, two appendixes, a list of exhibitions and sales a chronology of Brancusi’s life, a bibliography and, inserted into a pocket in the back cover, a “Comprehensive Chart of the Birds,” forty-eight inches long. Although there is much that is controversial, this discussion will be limited to the catalogue raisonné and such notations as refer to it.

The preface states that the text “appears basically as completed in 1965,” since when, however, the list of exhibitions and bibliography were “considerably expanded and brought up to date.” It is unfortunate that this study took so long in appearing; inevitably time and other publications have diminished the revelation it might have provided earlier. Time has even left a residue of anachronism in the preface where we read that “no scholar since Brancusi’s death [in 1957] had access to the first hand documents (correspondence, photographs, tools, etc.) bequeathed with his studio to the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.” But they have been available since more than two years prior to the publication of Brancusi’s Birds, and in an article in The Burlington Magazine, March 1969, Mrs. Spear makes detailed reference to this material.

It is also anachronistic to speak of the “discovery of twenty-eight Birds.” In view of the fact that all the Birds were published in one place2 almost two years before this monograph, the word “existence” would have been more correct. As for the number, Mrs. Spear’s twenty-eighth “Bird” is a shaft of marble on one side of which Brancusi, using a point, very roughly carved a long curving plane––the first and easiest step on the long hard road that would have lain ahead. This “Bird” is not included in the “Comparative Chart of the Birds.”

The catalog provides an illustration of each object and gives date, name, material, measurements (and usually of the bases as well), foundry mark, inscription, and occasionally other data. It then details provenance, the exhibitions in which each work appeared, and references to previous reproduction and discussion. A number of the exhibitions are new to the writer, and altogether the catalog is enviable in its fullness and clarity––unlike certain meager or unintelligible congeries of data that claim to be catalogues raisonnés; in short, it is a model of its kind. If I can imagine a general improvement, it would be to have put the justification of the dating of each object with each entry, rather than in a discursive preceding section to which constant reference is necessary. As it happens, the reason for the dating is occasionally absent or extremely difficult to work out, surely for the reader unacquainted with the problem.

The line of descent of each work from the sculptor to the present owner is demonstrated for most of the Birds in the catalog with the clarity of a Euclidean proof, and it is in this area that Mrs. Spear has done her best work. Her method has been to accumulate documents, usually in the form of letters to her from dealers and collectors. She must be a prodigious letter writer; the letters which elicited the responses here offered as evidence are surely only a fraction of an immense correspondence.

In spite of her labors it has not proved possible clearly to trace back to Brancusi four of the Birds, three of them in the Arensberg Collection. Three bases are not mentioned in any way; only one of these is among the four Birds that Mrs. Spear has not personally examined.

The Birds, like all works in the oeuvre, are extremely difficult to measure, height presenting the greatest problem. The tops of the tall Birds give a tape measure as much purchase as the tip of a spoon; they are, furthermore, from eight to twelve feet above the floor, and, when the Birds lean to the rear, hover well beyond their immediate bases. Ideally the taller Birds should be measured by three people armed with rod and tape measure, ladder and bubble-level. Needless to say, these conditions are seldom met in practice. With one helper each time, I have measured the bronze Bird in Space at the Musée d’Art Moderne on successive days and got height readings which differed by two inches. Mrs. Spear’s height for this Bird is an inch and a half more than my larger one; it may well be a correct one. Perhaps one day an international commission will find the matter worth investigating.

If I am not ready to contest heights, I take a firm stand on the matter of circumference, having found only too recently the ultimate tool for the job––a narrow flexible steel tape. Where my readings are significantly different from those of Mrs. Spear, I will note them.

A minor lapse in the catalog occurs in the recording of a few signatures, in one of which the Rumanian diacritical marks that Brancusi sometimes used are omitted. It is another matter entirely to omit these marks in the frequent Rumanian that appears in the rest of the book. The point is not discussed, but the result is that the recording of three signatures is not accurate. Mrs. Spear has twice declared herself unequivocally on this subject: in Art Bulletin, XLVIII (1966), page 49, she said, “Signature . . . [is] cited only when [its] precise form is known;” in Art Bulletin, XLVIII (1966), page 466, she said, “I insist on a minutely faithful citing of signatures.”

Before examining the catalog in detail it is necessary to consider a matter of first importance in our understanding of Brancusi and Brancusi’s Birds.

Early in her work on the monograph, Mrs. Spear had the good fortune to be shown, by Mr. and Mrs. Alexandre Istrati of Paris, an unusual document––Brancusi’s own list of his Birds. It is clearly a document of such rarity and importance that one can only regret that it is not reproduced in facsimile; Mrs. Spear publishes it now for the first time, with numerous additions and explanations. The list sped her on her task by helping to establish the number of Birds, by identifying their early owners, and by helping to work out their chronology.

Brancusi’s list shows an undated sequence of Birds, and in attaching a chronology to it, Mrs. Spear has had to look elsewhere for sure evidence of dates, and then work backward and forward from these dates to accommodate those Birds for which such sure chronological evidence was not available. This accommodation takes place more often than is necessary, for there is much evidence that has been neglected, and it is in Mrs. Spear’s own extensive bibliography––of which she has made scant use. I think that the bounty of Brancusi’s list affected her enterprise in this matter, and that it was a mistake to accept the sequence in the list all but absolutely.

The reliability of the list is put in question at once by the omission of the very first Bird, the white marble Maiastra, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and of two others in grey marble. Mrs. Spear supposes that one of the latter was omitted because it had not been carved when the list was made; she has no theories concerning the other omissions. She claims, too, that the bronze Maiastra, no. 3, is misplaced on Brancusi’s list after Maiastra, no. 4, since its dimensions are very close to those of no. 2, and clearly different from those of no. 4; her shift of the position of no. 3 is based, then, on stylistic rather than documentary reasons, and is the only change which her catalog makes in the order of the Birds as given on Brancusi’s list. Her adherence otherwise to the list has serious consequences for the treatment of this long series of sculptures.

There follows a list of the Birds, the numeration and the selected data coming from Mrs. Spear’s catalog, followed by my comments, additions or corrections when I have any.

No. 1, Maiastra, white marble, 22", 1910(?)

This Bird was no. 7 in the Sculptor’s Gallery exhibition, 1922.

In a footnote to her “Comments on the Chronology Established in the Catalogue Raisonné,” Mrs. Spear says: “[The present writer] in a letter to the Editor, Artforum (April 1969), mentions an old photograph showing an early version of the marble Maiastra with feet ending differently. I have not seen this photograph, but I assume it represents marble Maiastra, no. 1, before it was carved to its present state, rather than a different version later destroyed.”

To dispose of a lesser matter first: we could have been spared the assumption in the quotation. My letter does not employ the word “version” or imply an “early” or “different version.” It uses the word “state” three times; thus, “present state,” “early state.”

Mrs. Spear’s claim that she has not seen this photograph is one that I can only regard with a certain poignance, for it is reproduced in the catalog of Brancusi’s exhibition at the Brummer Gallery, 1926––a basic document; and she lists the photograph twice, in the second item under “Exhibitions” and in the sixth item under “References” in her catalog entry for Maiastra, no. 1. If she now says she has not seen it, that must be because she saw it early in her study of the subject, several years ago, when its unusual feature did not leap to her eye, and she has not seen it since. It is for the same reason that the photograph was omitted from my own study of Brancusi, where I would surely have wanted to include it. (This photograph evaded publication again only recently: it was omitted from the catalog of the Brancusi retrospective because of a last minute editorial error.)

The photograph shows a flat marble plate at the bottom of the “legs,” clearly the source of the plate in the same position on the Steichen Maiastra. The Brummer catalog dates the marble as 1912, and the photograph is also dated 1912. We may assume, however, that the latter date is not that of the state of the work in the photograph, but the date when the work was completed, that is, when the plate was removed by 1914 when the work was sold to John Quinn: a photograph of works in the Quinn collection taken in 1922 shows the Maiastra without the plate and standing on a stone block that is solid, not cracked as in Brancusi’s early photograph; and Brancusi could not have reworked the piece between 1914 and 1922 because he first came to the United States in 1926. Since Brancusi told the U.S. Customs Court in 1927 that he began working on the Birds in 1910, the marble Maiastra should be dated 1910–12. This dating would be consonant with all that is known, with the appearance of a bronze Maiastra in 1911 showing a similar plate, and with a bronze Maiastra of 1912 lacking the plate.

We note that though it is reasonably certain that the bronze Maiastra, no. 2, was completed before the marble, it would be merely pedantic to situate it before the marble as strict chronology would demand since the marble was conceived first and was all but finished before the bronze was made; the bronze in fact was made from a plaster cast taken from the marble.

No. 2, Maiastra, bronze, 21 7/8", 1911.

Edward Steichen states that he saw this piece in a Paris Salon before 1913. Mrs. Spear records: “(Salon des Indépendants of 1911?) where it had been exhibited hors catalogue . . .” This is cutting the Gordian knot, not a demonstration; still, it will have to do.

No. 3, Maiastra, gilded bronze, 22", 1911 (?)

The author notes that the bottom is “uneven”; this may be because it had a square plate (like that of no. 2) which was removed.

No. 4, Maiastra, bronze, 24", 1912.

The circumference is given as 25 1/8”; my own measurement is 24 5/8". The London exhibition listed as 1965 should be 1964.

No. 5, Maiastra, bronze, 22 3/4", 1912.

The circumference is given as 25"; my measure, taken with a steel tape, is a quarter inch less. The author’s question marks concerning the loan of this work to Cecilia Storck, Bucharest, and its subsequent exhibition in Rumania, Holland and Brussels may be removed because of note 6, page 46.

In her review in The Burlington Magazine, Mrs. Spear commented on a matter which is not mentioned in the monograph: “It is highly improbable that any Maiastra, or any other bronze by Brancusi, could have been painted blue.” The reference is to an article, quoted in Geist, 1968, by a Rumanian art critic in which he speaks of a Maiastrapeint en bleu éléctrique.” The critic was Léon Bachelin, whose article, “Le XIIme Exposition de la ‘Tinerimea Artistica’,” appeared in the April 14/27, 1913, issue of La Politique, Bucharest. The Maiastra referred to would be Spear 5, which was no. 283 in the above exhibition.

Bachelin’s remarks on the Maiastra cannot be disposed of easily:

M. Brancusi a causé l’etonnement de tout le monde, artistes et profanes, par son “Oiseau Magique” qui est sans doute quelque essai de cubisme et de sphérisme en sculpture. Voilà un oiseau qui se tient sur sa queue, ce qui n’est déjà pas ordinaire, et dont le corps est rond comme un oeuf, d’où sort un cou en forme de tuyau, le tout peint en bleu éléctrique. Ce n’est pas désagréable à voir, on pense à quelque dieu égyptien et, comme tout ce qui, est égyptien, cet oiseau mage a du moins l’attrait de l’étrangeté et du mystère.

This is not the account of a writer who makes offhand or irresponsible statements. It does not contain any mention of reflective polished bronze, which would have been inevitable if that had been the case, and we must accept this report that the sculpture was painted blue, unless it had, possibly, a blue light projected on it.

The possibility of the color blue turning up on a Maiastra is supported by the fact that Edward Steichen’s home at Voulangis was called “L’Oiseau Bleu,” something Brancusi would surely have learned when he installed the first bronze Maiastra there. It is further supported by the fact that these were the years when, after its opening in Moscow, in the fall of 1908, Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, L’Oiseau Bleu, swept to international fame, and was published in endless editions on both sides of the Atlantic, its Paris opening having taken place early in 1911. Indeed, another Rumanian article, recording impressions of the Tinerimea Artistica exhibition in Presa, April 10, 1913, said (in Rumanian): “His magic Bird is ‘L’Oiseau bleu’ which, with its throat held high, would call forth the accomplishment of the Ideal that can never be realized.”3 The prevalence of blue, as color and as idea, in the graphic art and the literature of the early years of this century would bear examination.

No. 6, Maiastra, white marble, 24", ca. 1914.

Page 46: “its form indicates that it was made between 1913 and 1915”—a fine reading indeed. More simply, this Maiastra seems to fall between the first Maiastra in white marble, completed in 1912, and the Maiastra in gray marble, no. 7, which is dated “1915(?)” by reference to the date on a photograph of a similar lost version in the posession of Carola Giedion-Welcker. The making of no. 6 could then fall between 1912 and 1915, and the same Mrs. Giedion-Welcker dates it 1912 in her monograph on the sculptor, also presumably on the basis of a dated photograph. Nothing else is known of this object’s history before its purchase in 1931 by Walter Arensberg.

No. 7, Maiastra, gray marble, 27 1/2", 1915 (?).

Circumference is given as 20 1/2“; my measure, taken with a steel tape, is 19 7/8”. The photographs for plates 10 and 11 were taken from a very low position, enlarging the lower region of the Bird; a more normal impression of it may be gained from plate 6. The dating of nos. 6 and 7 does not advance the matter beyond previous study. Mrs. Spear wonders if no. 7 was not in the one-man New York-Chicago exhibition of 1926–27, hors catalogue; it does not appear in photographs of the Chicago showing, nor in a hand-written price list made there.

No. 7, writes Mrs. Spear on page 13, “although much more slender, presents no major change;” and on page 18, “Moreover, the legs end in a ‘saw-toothed’ section . . . which serves as a connection with the similarly shaped base.” Such an analysis is formalistic and does not take into account the pressing question of content: the image of a bird. This “‘saw-toothed’ section” is surely a stylization of a bird’s feet, re-introduced here after having been removed from the marble Maiastra, no. 1, and possibly from no. 3, and after being absent from nos. 4 and 5 and the marble no. 6. The re-introduction of a motif for the feet in no. 7––absent again in nos. 8–11, re-introduced in another form from no. 12 onward––is testimony to the difficulty this part of the Bird presented to Brancusi, a difficulty he admitted, and whose later temporary solutions are visible in nos. 12 and 14 and a study preceding these.

No. 8, Golden Bird, bronze, 37 3/4", 1919.

Circumference is given as 21“; my measure, taken with a steel tape, is 20–11/16”. The signature should be recorded as C. Brâncusi. The work was no. 14 in the catalogue of the Sculptor’s Gallery exhibition, 1922. It was also shown at the City Art Museum, St. Louis, March 30–May 1, 1946, no. 81.

No reason is given for dating this Bird 1919 rather than 1918 or 1920. The only discussion on the matter is the following: “It is . . . possible that by 1918 Brancusi had carved a Golden Bird in marble which broke, from which he cast a plaster . . . and the two first bronzes of this type (nos. 8 and 9).”

Mrs. Spear states that Golden Bird, no. 8 could not have been cast from the marble, no. 10, which it resembles, because the latter is shorter than no. 8. This is hardly an argument, since her own plate 6 shows an “Elongated plaster cast (lost) for bronze casts no. 4 and 5;” that is, Brancusi added to a plaster cast to lengthen it. What is certain is that the bronze no. 8, is a version made after a marble. The fact is not indicated on the Comparative Chart of the Birds, where the marble-bronze sequence is one of the things that could and should have been charted.

No. 9, Golden Bird, bronze, 37 3/4", 1919 (?).

This Bird, of whose history little is known, was still in Brancusi’s studio in 1927. It was shown in the exhibition “Owned in New Jersey,” the Newark Museum, October 24–December 1, 1946, no. 65a.

No. 10, Golden Bird, yellow marble, 36 1/4", 1920.

If the question mark in the listing, “Paris, 1920, no. 554(?),” expresses a doubt concerning the presence of the work in this exhibition, it may be dropped; the work was not only in the Salon des Indépendants, but had “the place of honor of the whole exhibition” (letter of H. P. Roché to John Quinn, February 1, 1920, four days after the opening). The work was no. 13 in the Sculptor’s Gallery exhibition, 1922. Again, there is no discussion in this monograph of the dating of this work.

No. 11, Golden Bird, blue-gray marble, 35 1/2", 1920’s (?).

The signature should read: C BRANCUSI. This Bird is not on Brancusi’s list, yet Mrs. Spear places it, altogether reasonably, at this point in the sequence of Birds because of its resemblance to the three preceding examples: i.e. for stylistic reasons. At the same time she thinks it may be a “much later variation of this type.” The work was finished in 1952; it could well be dated 1920(?)–52. She notes that it is thinner than the other versions, but not that it has a ridge or spine down its back, unlike the other versions whose bodies are round in section. This ridge makes it transitional between the other versions of Golden Bird and Bird in Space, which always shows a ridge.

Mrs. Spear goes on to give it the title Golden Bird in spite of its blue-grey material, because it is of the type listed by Brancusi as “L’oiseau d’or.” The three Birds on his list––one in yellow marble, the others in bronze––all fit the designation Golden Bird though it should be borne in mind that the first was called Yellow Bird in the 1926 Brummer catalog, a catalog made under Brancusi’s constant attention. He carefully and wittily designated as White Negress and Blond Negress the marble and bronze versions respectively of a single subject. I can’t believe he would have been pleased with the title Golden Bird for no. 11.

No. 12, Bird in Space, marble, 50 5/8“, 1923.
No. 13, Bird in Space, yellow marble, 45 3/4”, 1923.

Plate 18 of Brancusi’s Birds shows Bird 13 in its present state, with the lower end of the body and the footing broken and repaired, the footing seeming to me to have been deformed in the process. I have wondered whether the damage occurred to the sculpture while it was being made, and whether the work was made in two parts or one. An early photograph of the work in its pristine state now gives us clear information about these matters.

On Sunday, February 7, 1926, the New York Herald Tribune, in its gravure picture section, published a photograph of Brancusi beside a Bird in Space. The ledgers of United Press International show that the photograph was taken on January 29 at the Wildenstein Galleries, New York, where the “ Tri-National Exhibition of Contemporary Art,” January 26–February 17, was in progress. Brancusi had four works in the exhibition, no. 146 in the catalog being designated as “Bird.” The latter was undoubtedly Spear 13, in yellow marble, confirmed both by the veining of the marble and the size.

Four days after the closing of the “Tri-National” the work was shown again in Brancusi’s one-man exhibition, also at Wildenstein’s, February 21–March 3, 1926. The fact is recorded in unmistakable terms by Dorothy Dudley in The Dial, January 1927:

The Bird in Space, polished bronze, feet, tail, full body and throat, head and beak annealed into a shaft of flight and song, was the peak, the powerful center of the room. A companion to this, dark yellow marble . . . repeated the shape . . . in the bronze reaching higher than the marble.

There is no other Bird in Space in yellow marble.

In the photograph taken at Wildenstein’s, no. 13 does not have the cylindrical base now present in most examples of Bird in Space; it stands directly on a stone base of cruciform section that Brancusi employed for several other sculptures and, with a cylinder, for several Birds; below that is a wooden pedestal of a type used for a number of Birds. We can see that no. 13 was made in two parts; the transition from one to the other was sharp, not gradual as in the repair; and the sculpture was not broken while it was being made but some time after the opening of the one-man exhibition at Wildenstein’s.

The work is reproduced in an article by H. P. Roché, L’Oeil, 29, 1957––listed in the monograph’s bibliography––where the illustration is dated “before 1925.” This photograph, taken by Brancusi in Paris, so distorts the sculpture that little can be learned from it except that it shows the Bird in yellow marble and on a cylindrical base.

The monograph does not discuss why 1923 is chosen over 1924 as the date for this work. Indeed Mrs. Spear quotes Roché from the above-mentioned article to the effect that, after making Bird in Space, no. 12, 1923, Brancusi “worked a year to conceive and execute” the footing that he considered definitive, and which appeared for the first time on no. 13.

Mrs. Spear adds, “ If I did not have the testimony of Brancusi’s own list of the birds, I would tend to think that the second Bird in Space is the Philadelphia bronze (no. 14),” rather than the marble, no. 13. (And I myself, working without Brancusi’s list, placed these works in the order corresponding to Mrs. Spear’s intuition.) But the stylistic disorder of Brancusi’s list is only a seeming one. The bronze, no. 14, clearly derives from the marble, no. 12; it does not matter greatly how close it is to no. 12 in time, it will in any case have many characteristics of no. 12 at the same time that another, more “advanced” work may have appeared. This is the situation of The Kiss, 1925, in the Musée d’Art Moderne: it appeared after the more “advanced” Sculpture for the Blind, Leda, Torso of a Young Man, etc., the motif having been established long before.

More interesting to me, though not discussed in Brancusi’s Birds, is the fact that although up to this point every obvious change in the design of the Bird was accompanied by an increase in height––consider nos. 1, 6, 7, 10 (or a marble predating 8) and 12––with the appearance of no. 13 there is a decrease in height of almost five inches.

Now, before carving no. 12, Brancusi made a study of a Bird by placing a plaster Golden Bird on a specially designed footing. Mrs. Spear does not reproduce or give the dimensions of this study––which Brancusi himself photographed and whose parts still exist. The diagram she publishes is misleading: this Bird did not end in a point at the top, but had an open beak since it was a cast of Golden Bird, probably the one visible in her plate 37. Describing a “plaster model of a bird with a triple-torus footing . . . , never transferred into a more permanent material,” she does not mention that the footing is of marble and in the reserves of the Musée d’Art Moderne; it is 7 7/8“ high and 5” in diameter, and the whole study must have been 45 5/8" high, or very close to that. Besides being a continuing evidence of the difficulty Brancusi encountered in dealing with the lower end of the Bird, it influenced the subsequent Birds in several ways.

In designing no. 12 it seems that Brancusi based himself on Golden Bird, slightly diminishing its great fullness, extending upward the line of the back, and, at the front, continuing the profile of the breast up past the head till it met the line of the back; he then designed a footing which rationalizes the mass of the triple-torus footing of the study.

In no. 13 he seems to have retained the new design of the body, though in a more slender, elegant form, and then fashioned a new, and definitive, footing. But the height of no. 13 is almost exactly that of the study in plaster and marble, the respective bodies and footings having all but identical lengths. With respect to previous designs, no. 12 shows a body and a footing which are new in both design and length, whereas no. 13 shows only a footing that is new, and only in design. The reversion here to the dimensions of the study is another sign of the conservatism and rigor that Brancusi exercised in developing the Birds. It should be noted that the definitive footing for the Bird takes up again the rhythmic content of the triple-torus. But the undulation of the new foot organicizes the geometrical quality of the triple-torus, becoming one of the very few instances of organic or natural form in the oeuvre.

No. 14, Bird in Space, bronze, 50 1/4 ", 1924.

The work was shown at Brancusi’s one-man exhibition at the Wildenstein Galleries, February 21–March 3, 1926. It is the bronze Bird in Space referred to in the quotation above, from the Dudley article in The Dial; at that time this was the only bronze Bird in Space in existence. It is reproduced in the previously mentioned article by H. P. Roché. It was not in the Knoedler Gallery exhibition of 1967, although reproduced in the catalog.

Unaccountable to me is the fact that Mrs. Spear nowhere relates this Bird to the marble, no. 12. On page 19 she says “Its heavy dimensions are much closer to [the Golden Bird] . . .” On page 47: “[it] seems to be a development of the plaster [Golden Bird] with the triple-torus footing.” Now in the first place the marble, no. 12, and the bronze, no. 14, differ in height by the merest fraction of an inch, whereas they are both 14 inches taller than Golden Bird, no. 10, and three inches taller than the “plaster with the triple-torus footing.” The bulging body of no. 14 is like that of no. 12, though a little smaller in girth, and this distinctive bulge is without counterpart in any other Bird in Space. The body of no. 14 is a mere fraction of an inch shorter than that of no. 12, an amount that could be accounted for by the shrinking of the bronze on cooling. The bronze differs from the marble in the shape of its footing. The footing, as we know, gave Brancusi much trouble, and nothing is more obvious than that Brancusi took a plaster cast of the marble, no. 12, reduced its bulging middle, and designed a new footing of a height comparable to the original, and of a design that seems a rationalization of that in no. 13.

No. 15, Bird in Space, bronze, 53 1/8", 1925–26.

The base of cruciform section is not the original, which was broken (Edward Steichen to the writer, 1967). We note that in spite of the fact that the work is inscribed “PARIS 1926,” Mrs. Spear has dated it “1925–26,” the first time that her dating acknowledges that a date inscribed on a work might tell in what year it was completed but not when it was begun, and that a date given by Brancusi might not be the whole story concerning the dating of a work. Yet she gives no reason at all for her “1925.” In a footnote (page 48) she states that Edward Steichen first saw the bronze cast of this Bird “in 1924, he thinks”; she has no comment on this date.

Plate 20 of the monograph shows an unusual photograph of a Bird in Space; it was taken by Edward Steichen and appeared in Vanity Fair, January 1927. By a truly unfortunate error the Bird in the photograph is published as the required and described Bird in Space, no. 15, coll. Mrs. Edward Steichen, when in fact it is the Philadelphia bronze, no. 14. The presence of the Philadelphia Bird in New York at this time confirms my contention that it was in Brancusi’s one-man show at the Wildenstein Galleries early in 1926. Indeed, since the stone base and wooden pedestal are of the same dimensions as those in the photograph of Brancusi with the yellow marble Bird in Space, the Steichen photograph too must have been taken at the Wildenstein Galleries.

It is surprising that the identity of the Bird in this photograph could have escaped the author of Brancusi’s Birds. The footing has the sudden flaring at the bottom that is unique among the Birds. If this seems to be an effect of the dramatic lighting, there is the separate fact that the footing of the Philadelphia Bird is, except for the footing of no. 12, proportionately the shortest of all the Birds, whereas that of the Steichen Bird in Space is the longest. The Steichen bronze (shown in my photograph taken from an angle similar to that from which the Philadelphia version was taken, and reproduced at the same size) has a footing which, by Mrs. Spear’s measurements, is 17.88% of the total height of the sculpture. The footing of the Bird in her photograph is only 13.25% of the total height, even with the enlargement of the footing due to the point of view of the camera. The net result of all this is that the Bird in Space of the famous Customs trial is not illustrated in this generally well-documented monograph.

The stone base of cruciform section and the wooden pedestal which appear in two photographs supporting first the yellow marble Bird, no. 13, and then the Philadelphia bronze, no. 14, are indeed now the base and pedestal of the Steichen bronze, no. 15. The fact that this base and pedestal were used in the exhibition of three different Birds––of heights 45 3/4“, 50 1/4” and 53 1/8"––and remained with the Bird that was on them at the time of sale, ought to have some significance for those who claim a necessary relation between Brancusi’s sculpture and his pedestals––but I doubt that it will.

No. 16, Bird in Space, bronze, 53 3/4", 1925–28.

In a statement to the U.S. Customs Court, made on November 21, 1927, and which Mrs. Spear quotes, Brancusi said, among other things, “La première réplique [of no. 15] n’est pas encore terminée.” This object would be the Rothschild bronze, no. 16, dated––see above––without discussion.

It is surprising to read in the monograph, “From Brancusi’s listing and from their dimensions it is obvious that the Rothschild (no. 16) and the Steichen [no. 15] bronzes are identical.” Mrs. Spear has not seen no. 16, and the height and circumference she gives for it differ significantly from those of no. 15. Furthermore, the paragraph which opens with the above pronouncement, ends with the following: “Brancusi’s letter to the Maharajah of Indore (Appendix 1), [emphasizes] the fact that each one of his Birds is based on a new inspiration and constitutes an independent study of the subject.”

It is even more surprising to read, on page 47, concerning Bird in Space, no. 18: “ . . . again a version made directly in bronze and not after a carved original.” “Again” must refer to the Steichen and Rothschild bronzes, nos. 15 and 16, discussed in her preceding paragraph and, like no. 18, not related to a carved original. Now, the bronze Maiastras were made after a carved original; the bronze Golden Birds are so supposed in this monograph; the bronze, no. 23, is after the marble, no. 22; and the bronzes, nos. 25 and 27, are placed after the marbles, nos. 24 and 26. What likelihood is there that nos. 15, 16 and 18 (and, later, nos. 19 and 20) would not be made after marbles? None, I claim, especially since every other radical change in size and design in this series of sculptures takes place in a marble––even to the triple-torus footing.

Mrs. Spear is not firm in her contention that these bronzes had no marble ancestors. On page 24 she says, “They must have been made after plaster models, either cast from previous marbles and then modified or directly built in plaster on a metal axis.” But she does not indicate a single Bird “built in plaster” among the many plasters found in Brancusi’s studio, and she makes no suggestion concerning which of the marbles were the sources of the plaster casts modified to produce the bronzes.

In the discussion on Bird in Space, gray marble, no. 22, coll. Kunsthaus, Zurich, there is the following footnote on page 48:

Dudley, 129, mentions that the small Brancusi exhibition at Wildenstein’s in February, 1926, included a Bird in Space in gray marble. However, since this information contradicts the sculptor’s list of Birds (Appendix 1), I assume that Dorothy Dudley was confused as she wrote about the show a year later.

(In spite of this judgment, Spear cites Dudley approvingly three times, twice using direct quotation of Brancusi’s words.) It should be said first that we know only that the Dudley article was published in The Dial a year after the exhibition. It was certainly written from notes; and it has the only full and correct list of works in the exhibition, whereas Mrs. Spear’s list of the sculptures in this show (page 124) contains one correct item and four incorrect ones, with four items missing. So Dorothy Dudley wasn’t confused. But most surprising of all, Dudley nowhere mentions a Bird in gray marble.

Whether or not we are faced with a simple misreading of a text (or two texts––did the gray Bird appear in another article?) I wish to insist here on the existence of a Bird of the order of 53" in height––and specifically the Zurich gray marble, no. 22, in an earlier state––prior to the making of the bronzes, nos. 15, 16 and 18. When we compare the first two with the Zurich Bird, we find that the body of the marble is a fraction of an inch taller than that of no. 15, and about the same height as that of no. 16. To the bronze bodies, whose shape and fullness are similar to those of no. 13––and, as I think, of the original state of no. 22––Brancusi added footings about an inch taller than the original.

In addition to supplying the missing original for three bronzes, the early appearance of a 53“ marble rectifies another situation in Brancusi’s Birds that is unacceptable. In the sequence of the Birds, both in the catalog and the Comparative Chart, the Zurich marble, 53” high, is placed after two marbles measuring about 71“ and 74” in height. From a technical point of view it is most unlikely that Brancusi would have taken on the problem of making the Bird in Space in two marble examples six feet tall––one of them in one piece––after a 46“ version (no. 13), and before carving an intermediate version (the 53” high no. 22). Technical considerations aside, the sequence given in the monograph does not show the altogether reasonable progression that is evident elsewhere in the oeuvre––and that indeed led Mrs. Spear to revise Brancusi’s list in the case of Maiastra, no. 3; nor is its real disorder ever discussed. For two reasons, as I have shown, a marble Bird of the order of 53" in height must be supposed before the bronze, no. 15; and a Bird of that size––with a profile in dotted lines, perhaps––should be placed at that point on the Comparative Chart.

No. 17, Bird in Space, white marble, ca. 71 1/2", 1925–26.

There is every reason to question the above dating. This Bird in Space, photographed in Brancusi’s studio, is reproduced in an article on Brancusi by William Zorach in the March 1926 issue of The Arts, an article listed in Mrs. Spear’s bibliography. The deadline for the article would have been some time in February, and the question arises of when and how Zorach got the photographs that illustrate his article. The article is related to Brancusi’s one-man exhibition at the Wildenstein Galleries, which opened on February 21 and there is no doubt that the photographs and some information were supplied by Brancusi, who arrived in New York about January 20, having embarked at Le Havre on January 13 (see Geist, 1968, page 205) with several crates of sculpture. The work looks finished in the photograph, where it is lighted with great care, and it is altogether reasonable to think that it was made in 1925.

Brancusi, furthermore, must have brought the sculpture with him in January 1926, unless (which is less likely) he sent it to New York earlier than January 13, a possibility which would only further confirm its date as 1925. Mrs. Meyer told the writer (1964) that Brancusi made its wooden base in the garden of her Mt. Kisco home in the winter of 1926, thus between about January 20 and about March 24 when Brancusi was in the United States; and it is reasonable to assume that the object for which the base was intended was in the United States too.

If the work was completed later in 1926, it was shown in an unfinished state in the photograph published by Zorach. Since Mrs. Spear uses the same photograph, she would be illustrating the work in an unfinished state––unwittingly, since she does not mention the fact. Clearly, neither of these possibilities is the case. Besides, the Meyer marble appears completely finished in a photograph of 1925, reproduced as the frontispiece of Geist, 1968.

The only discussion in Brancusi’s Birds of the dating of this Bird in Space is the following: “. . . the Meyer marble, which was also finished in 1926 . . .” We may confidently date the Meyer marble as of 1925.

No. 18, Bird in Space, bronze, 54", ca. 1927.

We note that the monograph dates nos. 15 and 16 respectively as 1925–26 and 1925–28. Nos. 15 and 16, then, are placed on Brancusi’s list in such sequence as only to justify 1925 as the date of their inception. It becomes clear that Brancusi varied the dating of his sculpture, sometimes using the date of inception and sometimes the date of completion. This is certainly the case with inscriptions on the sculpture, and I think it is the case too with the sequence on his list. Can we be confident that no. 18, placed so as to justify a date of 1927, was begun and finished in 1927? We cannot; and if “la première réplique,” no. 16, was not completed by November 21, 1927, it is difficult to believe that no. 18, which resembles it, was completed before 1928. H. S. Ede, Cambridge, who was involved in its sale to Stephen Clark, says this sale took place in 1930 or 1931 (letter to the writer).

The body of no. 18 is about an inch longer than that of the marble, no. 22, and has a footing approximately the same height as that of the marble. The gross differences I have indicated between the gray marble and the bronzes 15, 16 and 18, are accompanied by slight changes in circumference, in the angle of the body to the base, in the clarity of the meeting of body and footing, and possibly by less readily apparent variations.

No. 19, Bird in Space, bronze, 72 1/2", 1927.

The signature should be recorded as: C. BRANCUSI 1927.

The cylindrical base, now wood, does not seem to be wood in Claire Guilbert, “Propos de Brancusi,” Prisme des arts, 12, 1957, page 6. Nor does it seem to be wood in Mrs. Spear’s illustration, from a photograph taken in Paris before the work came to the United States.

The work was in the exhibition “Origines et Developpement de l’Art International Indépendant,” Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, July 30–October 31, 1937 no.82.

This Bird in Space, like several others, is designated by the unfortunate phrase, “direct bronze.” But its circumference is almost exactly the 18 1/2“ which is the circumference of the Meyer marble, no. 17, and not 17 3/4” as given. I think Brancusi cast the body of the Meyer marble, shortened the cast by perhaps a half-inch, and made a new footing 1 3/4" longer than the relatively short original footing. Since the plaster cast must have been made in 1925, Brancusi had time to finish it by the date, 1927, with which it is inscribed; 1927, moreover, was a year in which Brancusi must have spent much time on the Birds, since little else may be assigned to this year.

For these reasons I think no. 19 was in the Salon des Tuileries, June 1927. The catalog designates a bronze Bird; no. 14 was in the United States, probably already in the possession of Walter Arensberg; no. 15 was in New York; no. 16 was not completed by November 21, 1927; no. 18 (see above) was probably not completed before 1928; no. 20 (see below) was shown the following year.

No. 20, Bird in Space, bronze, 73", ca. 1928–29.

Mrs. Spear states that this Bird was sold to the Maharajah of Indore in 1937 “together with two other birds in white and in black marble.” But the marble versions were sold in 1936, according to a letter referred to by Mrs. Spear on page 96. The statement that the bronze, no. 20, was sold (or delivered?––the language is “Brancusi to . . . Maharajah of Indore”) in 1937 (or 1936) is not given a source, and seems odd in view of the fact that the Bird was finished when the Maharajah visited Brancusi in 1933.

Among my notes taken in the summer of 1968 when I examined the Brancusi papers left to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, is one which reads: “Oiseau de Tuileries 1928/185 avec base 335.” I did not record whether this was taken from the back of a photograph or some other document; but it was in Brancusi’s writing. By its size the Bird referred to would be the bronze, no. 20, which can be dated 1928 rather than as above; the work was no. 390 in the exhibition.

An article by Paul Fierens, “La Sculpture au Salon des Tuileries,” Art et décoration, July 1928, pp. 25-32, contains an interesting historical note:

Triomphe de l’abstraction, au seuil de la section dite “des cubistes,” l’Oiseau dans l’espace s’elance, poli par Brancusi, réduit à la suggestion d’une arabesque essentielle, émouvant d’absolue pureté.

Mrs. Spear calls this Bird, too, a "direct bronze.’’ Here, I claim, the heights of body and footing are close to those of the Schreiber version, but the circumferences of the bronzes become progressively smaller than that of the antecedent Meyer marble, a process that is repeated in all the bronze Birds with the exception of the third and fourth Maiastra bronzes, which increase in circumference.

No. 21, Bird in Space, marble, 74 3/8", ca. 1929.

The photograph of the work in its original state (before repair) shows that like several others, it was made in two parts: body and footing. The measurements given for the cylindrical base are: “h. 6 3/4 in., diam. 7 in .”; but this base is clearly higher than it is wide. (Apparently a small matter, but the sizes of these cylinders have a content; its elucidation would take us too far afield.)

The dating is based on “Marcel Duchamp’s recollection that Mrs. Rumsey bought [no. 21] ca. 1929–1930.” Plate 22 of Paul Fierens, Sculpteurs d’aujourd’hui, Paris, 1933, shows a Bird in Space, captioned “1930” and listed as marble, which I claim is the marble, no. 21 ; Mrs. Spear, page 52, says she has been unable to identify the Fierens Bird. Examination of the relation between the footing and the total height shows that it can only be no. 21, as there is no other Bird at this moment with a similar relation. Since Fierens could only have got the date from Brancusi, and not more than three years after the work was carved, the date of 1930 may be trusted, surely as much as a recollection––with which it does not conflict––thirty years or more after the event.

No. 22, Bird in Space, gray marble, 53", 1931.

A measurement of the greatest circumference of this Bird, which I took in Zurich this summer with my ultimate steel tape, showed 13–15/16“. The catalog records 12 1/4” at the same point; the consequence of this reading is further to alienate the Zurich Bird from the bronzes nos. 15 and 16 from which, in fact, its dimensions do not differ so greatly.

I have already explained my contention that this Bird is a reworked Bird of 1925; if it is, it should be dated 1925–31; it was surely completed in 1931, as Mrs. Spear shows. Comparison of it with the bronzes, nos. 15 and 16, shows that Brancusi has here reduced the girth and markedly flattened the curve of the lower part of the body. In contrast to the early appearance of having a low center of gravity, the upper part of the body now seems to expand, as if by an inhalation. This slight enlargement of the upper region and the thinning of the lower is visible in the marble, no. 21, the bronze, no. 23, and the four final Birds, though I can judge the two marble versions in India only from photographs. This subtle change in design may provide the reason for Brancusi’s grouping together of nos. 21, 22 and 23 on his list, a grouping of which Mrs. Spear observes, “The only explanation I can offer is that in all three of them Brancusi pursued a similar formal problem.”

No. 23, Bird in Space, bronze, 52 3/4", 1930’s.

Of this bronze we read that it is “of the same dimensions as the Zurich marble [no. 22].” The circumference of the marble is given as 12 1/4“, and that of the bronzes as 14 1/4”––hardly the same dimensions. But neither is correct: the circumference of the marble, as I stated above, is 13–15/16“ and that of the bronze is 13 7/8”. So the monograph is right in the end!––the marble and the bronze have similar dimensions.

No. 24, Bird in Space, white marble, 72 1/2“, 1931–36.
No. 25, Bird in Space, bronze, 72”, 1940’s(?).
No. 26, Bird in Space, black marble, 76 3/4", 1931–36.

Brancusi polished this Bird and no. 24 while in India at the end of 1937 (letter to the writer from the present owner’s secretary, H. S. Tiwary, who saw the sculptor at work).

No. 27, Bird in Space, bronze, 76 1/4", 1940’s(?).

My measurement for the circumference is almost an inch smaller than that given in the catalog.

This bronze and no. 25 are each placed after the marble from which it derives, rather than in the order that chronology would dictate. Mrs. Spear has done this to make a certain sense. I mention it, as I have before, to emphasize the point that since she does occasionally work on the basis of imperatives other than the chronological, it is the more surprising that, except for the case of Maiastra, no. 3, she has not found it necessary to question the serious problems raised by the list of Birds which Brancusi made.

The final word in the five-page-long “Comments on the Chronology . . .” is reserved for the long gray marble block in which Brancusi began to carve a Bird in Space: its existence “. . . proves that Brancusi envisaged still another version, and that his Bird was never really finished.” There is more that we can know about the Bird this block was intended for. The block is called “73 in. long,” which is more correct than the “h. 73 in.” of the catalog itself; its thickness is 7 1/4“, its depth is 7 7/8”. If we suppose that an inch of the length might have been pared off, and if we add a footing of a proportion midway between those of the last two marbles, 16.45%, we may estimate that Brancusi was contemplating a Bird a little more than 86“ high. On page 30 of the monograph we read: ”Why did Brancusi choose not to make any birds taller than 77 in.? In the case of the marbles, it might have been impossible, not only because of the difficulty of finding sufficiently long blocks, but mainly because of the disproportionately increased weight of the body“; there follows a footnote pointing out that if the dimensions of the Bird ”are doubled, the volume will be 23=8 times larger; if . . . tripled . . . 33= 27 times larger; and so on.“ But we see that Brancusi did start to make a Bird taller than 77”, that he found a block sufficiently long, and that, in terms of the largest existing marble Bird––the black marble of Indore, no. 26––the body of the projected Bird would have been only 1.4 times greater in volume and weight. It is true that this tall Bird was just begun, but it remained unachieved for reasons other than those proposed by Mrs. Spear.

The catalogue raisonné and some related materials of Brancusi’s Birds have been examined especially closely here; in some cases I have proposed what seem to be and indeed are small corrections of dimension or date. I hope it has been clear in these instances, as also in less subtle ones, that my purpose has not been merely to insist on one set of measurements, let us say, as against another. What is always at stake is the picture of Brancusi’s mind. This picture, when it emerges at all from the monograph, doesn’t make much sense. Some of this lack of sense is immediately apparent in the Comparative Chart of the Birds, nor is it mitigated by the text. In the body of the book itself we are presented with a series of Birds of which it is shown that, qua series, it comprises three types and twenty-seven objects; the relations between the types and between the objects are hardly explored.

When, however, we become aware that there is a close relation between the types of the Bird, that there is a necessary relation between the marbles and the bronzes, that there is order in the changes of height and in the changes of circumference, that the formal variations between the Birds may be specified and even be shown to move toward the exhaustion of all interesting possibilities––not to speak of the progressive changes in the significance of the Bird––it is clear that Brancusi developed the Birds in a relentlessly methodical fashion, one that lays bare a mind like a steel trap, as we say. His method was to move from Bird to Bird by small variation; and if by obvious change of design, by such change as was rational and inclusive of much in the last example. This procedure, in its insistence on continuity, is conservative; it gives the imagination a basis, a limited scope of play, and the promise of progress. Imagination, in this context, is not unbridled; its workings are quite different from those of invention in the commonly accepted sense.

It is astonishing to see that so demanding a method could be pursued to ever more exalted ends, though Brancusi himself, in 1910, could not have foreseen where it would lead. Now we can see, too, that the enterprise of the Birds was a great gamble––or an act of faith––as Brancusi cast his method into the time of his imagination.

Sidney Geist



1. Brancusi’s Birds by Athena T. Spear, New York, New York University Press for the College Art Association of America, 1969. Monograph XXI. Although dated as above, the monograph was published February 26, 1970.

2. Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture, New York, Grossman Publishers, 1968; hereafter, Geist 1968. Dated correctly on the title page, this monograph was not published in 1967 as the bibliography of Brancusi’s Birds has it.

3. For these passages from two Rumanian articles I am indebted to Barbu Brezianu, Bucharest, who has not yet published them.