PRINT November 1971

Brancusi and African Art

THE IMPACT OF AFRICAN ART on European artists at the beginning of the century is common knowledge.1 However, Brancusi’s debt to African sculpture has been insufficiently studied.2 Though it is not possible to state that Brancusi knew particular African sculptures, it is clear that he was indeed influenced, if not precisely by the works illustrated, then by related ones similar in style.

Brancusi arrived in Paris from Rumania in 1904.3 His “African-looking” works fall roughly within the period of 1910 to 1920. It is not clear when he first saw African art, but it is known that he introduced Modigliani to it.4 The friendship between the two artists developed from 1909 to 1911 when Modigliani lived near Brancusi on the Left Bank.5 Brancusi was also a friend of a great number of avant-garde artists and writers such as Matisse, Léger, Apollinaire, Picasso, Gonzáles, Lipchitz, and Cocteau, friendships which kept him well abreast of the latest developments, including the “discovery” of African art. It must have been during this period that Brancusi and Modigliani saw the collection of Baule sculpture owned by Dr. Paul Alexandre.6

The First Step (Fig. 1) is Brancusi’s first work in wood, the material which, according to him, only Africans and Rumanians could handle well.7 Sidney Geist, the author of the most recent and complete work on Brancusi, states that, although The First Step is completely “Brancusian,” the influence of African sculpture can be felt.8 Brancusi admittedly fought against this influence, telling his sculptor friend Jacob Epstein that whenever he felt a work betrayed African influence he destroyed it.9 Geist suggests this must be the reason why after The First Step was exhibited in New York in 1914 only the head was kept and later cast in bronze under the new title The First Cry (1914).

In the catalog of the 1969 Guggenheim Museum exhibition, Geist juxtaposes a photograph of the destroyed First Step with a wooden figure from the Upper Niger. This is a truly fortunate comparison, since not only is the similarity striking, but Brancusi may well have seen the African piece displayed in Paris in the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Paris. Unlike Brancusi’s earlier sculpture, The First Step looks decidedly primitive. This comes as a surprise, for Brancusi’s work until then conformed essentially to European ideas of naturalism.

The First Step has certain recognizably African features. It can thus be effectively compared with African sculptures of different regions. The examples illustrated, a wooden figure from the Ivory Coast (Fig. 2) and another from Dogon in the Mali Republic (Fig. 3) stand, like Brancusi’s figure, with legs apart and feet roughly parallel. The position of The First Step is very similar to the characteristic African bent-knee position which is seen in the Ivory Coast figure. The thighs are rounded, almost bulbous, forming a curve as they meet the torso. This last feature and the resulting sharp separation between the legs and the torso constitute the most striking similarity between these three sculptures. The torsos, echoing the shape of the thighs, are rounded and disproportionately long in relation to the legs. Another similarity is the long and tubular shape of the necks in both the Brancusi and the Dogon figures. The connections end here, for though all three faces are schematized, the treatment in each case is different. The African artists show eyes, nose, and mouth in a simplified manner, whereas Brancusi, taking the simplification a step further indicates the right eye and the nose by a single indented curve, leaving the left side of the face untouched. This second eye is not essential, nor is it missed, for it is automatically read in.

Little French Girl (Fig. 4) betrays more of an African influence than The First Step. Geist suggests a possible Sudanese influence. However, the work appears to bear a definite resemblance to Senufo “déguélé” helmet masks (Fig. 5).10 These masks, used in ritual ceremonies, always appear in pairs of male and female.“ The power of the ”déguélé,“ as it is commonly called, lies in the rings on the torso, each being equivalent to a precise amount of supernatural energy. The similarities are obvious: standing, wooden figures with long thin torsos, short legs, and large heads. The tubular torsos are patterned with rings. Whereas in the ”déguélé" the rings have supernatural power, in Little French Girl they serve formal and decorative purposes. Brancusi’s treatment is a little different, as the tubular area narrows upwards and is divided into sections tapered in steps. The area of the hips is similar, with round, projecting forms, which in the Brancusi resemble the shell of a turtle.12

More important, though not immediately noticeable, is that neither figure has arms. The reason for the absence of arms in the “déguélé” is unknown, but just as the feet are optional, the arms, too, are perhaps omitted because they have no importance for the ritual meaning and function of the mask. Brancusi also leaves out the arms because they do not seem necessary to him. The image of the “little French girl” is complete: she stands with her arms shyly hidden behind her back, in a pose appropriate to a gawkish schoolgirl.

The legs, made up of three sausagelike sections, are not related to the Senufo sculpture. The same treatment is seen in another sculpture by Brancusi which stands on a single, sectioned member like this one—Madame L. R. (Fig. 11). The head of Little French Girl can be compared to the African image only in that both are large, out of proportion with the rest of the figure, and project dangerously forward.13

There is, however, a problem with regard to the influence of the “déguélé” helmet mask on Brancusi’s Little French Girl. These particular masks are not very common and few were available in Europe. In addition, Goldwater, in Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, states that the first known examples of this type were taken to Europe in 1939. If this is true, Brancusi’s Little French Girl could not have been influenced by the “déguélé” masks. However, it is known that Derain, who started collecting African art around 1907, owned Senufo sculptures.14 Thus, considering the strength of the visual evidence, it would be unwise to discount this similarity, especially since Brancusi, feeling perhaps that the work was too African-looking, subsequently destroyed two other versions of it.15

Brancusi and the primitive artist share an important attitude in regard to their treatment of material since both frequently maintain its original form.16 By “original” is meant the shape in which the material is most commonly found. In this way, The Kiss (Fig. 9) refers to the traditional blocklike form of the stone, whether or not, as Geist points out, that was its original shape.17 Likewise, Caryatid (Fig. 6) betrays the round, columnar form of the wood beam it was carved from. In a similar manner, the African sculptor makes no effort to hide the cylindrical shape of the wood from which most of his sculpture is made. On the contrary, human figures are most often shown with arms close to the body because of the resultant monumentality of the uninterrupted columnar for

In this context, Brancusi’s Caryatid can be compared with a Baluba figure from the Congo (Figs. 6, 7) Judging from the illustrations the figures seem to be of approximately the same size. This, however, is far from true: the Baluba statue is little over one foot high, while Caryatid is almost eight feet tall.

Of Caryatid, Geist states that it “has an unabashed innocence of stance and presence, and a primitivism that is African.”18 In comparing it with the Baluba figure mentioned above, and the similar Baluba caryatid figures which serve as supports for the seat of a stool (Fig. 8), numerous relationships appear. First, there is the columnar shape without projecting arms. The small projections at the sides of the head of Caryatid are ambiguous; they can be interpreted either as parts of the headdress or as arms raised above the head.19 If seen as arms, they resemble the atrophied stumps in the Baluba caryatid figures. The necks are heavyset and solid. The torsos are cylindrical wth protruding bellies. The legs are short, characteristically bent at the knees, as if ready to leap. Geist criticizes the “sharp separation between body and legs” in Caryatid,20 but neglects to point to the African source where this is a recurring feature. Finally, the feet (see Fig. 7) are large and awkward, rounded-off rectangular blocks.

A prototype for the blocklike shape of The Kiss (Fig. 9) is also found in a Baluba sculpture (Fig. 10). The same motif, an embracing couple, serves as the support for the headrest. These sculptures are common and the embracing couple is the most frequent motif. Also, at least one contemporary collection in Paris, that of Paul Guillaume, contained Baluba objects.21 This first version of The Kiss is dated 1907 and Geist suggests that it was influenced by Derain’s Crouching Figure of the same year, which is also a sculpture confined to the square format of a stone block.22 However, the Derain work itself is likely to have been influenced by African sculpture, for Derain already knew and collected African art. Thus, though Brancusi may well have seen Derain’s figure, he may likewise have been aware of the African prototype.

The difference in this comparison is that the bodies in the African piece do not touch. This gives the work a lighter, airier appearance than that of the solid mass of The Kiss. However, the basic compositional idea is the same: two verticals crossed by two horizontals within the contours of a square block. Both artists chose to de-emphasize the sexual difference showing two almost identical heads. There are only slight variations in the coiffures and minor physical suggestions of sex. Both the Baluba and the Brancusi figures are united by long, tubular members which flatten out at the ends to suggest hands and fingers. In both, the arm of the woman is above that of the man’s. The embrace of the African couple is somewhat lower, grasping the shoulders. In The Kiss the arms are higher, hiding the necks. This particular headrest shows the figures crouching; there are others with seated figures, legs intertwined as in the 1910 full-figure version of The Kiss.

Portrait of Madame L. R. (Fig. 11) is a wood sculpture of which Geist remarks that it has “an African overtone,”23 and indeed, it is reminiscent of Bakota reliquary figures from Gabon (Fig. 12).24 These Bakota figures are common, all have the characteristic elliptical shape with the vertical band down the middle and the horizontal striations on either side, crowned by a knot of hair. These features are found in Portrait of Madame L. R. The overall shape of the head is almost identical. The horizontal grooves were formed by gouging the wood, whereas in the African piece the effect is achieved by the application of metal wire. Instead of leaving a plain, flat center strip, Brancusi’s horizontal lines of decoration meet at one point to form a vertical line. Despite the absence of facial features, there is a similarly shaped chignon on top of the head. In both instances the body is formed by a single tubelike member, which in the Brancusi is divided into sections as in Little French Girl. Departing from the African model, Brancusi added a cylindrical form to indicate the volume of the torso and a flat semicircular base.

Prodigal Son (1915) and the Simo secret society headdress are remarkably similar in their general silhouettes (Figs. 13, 14). Both works are top-heavy constructions of wood supported by arch-shaped members. In addition, the upper portion of Brancusi’s sculpture and the head of the African figure are also alike. Both are clearly divided into segments: the projecting form of the snout in the African figure and the corresponding cylindrical shape in Prodigal Son; the cheek, separated from the nose by a deep crease in the one, and a similar strong, angular separation in the other; the perpendicular, crestlike shape on top of the African piece and the similar right-angled form in the Brancusi.

Top-heaviness, which is a characteristic feature of African sculpture, appears often in Brancusi’s work during the period in which he was experimenting with the problem of balance.25 Study for the Portrait of Mrs. Meyer, begun in 1916, The Sorceress (1916), and Eve (Fig. 15, upper portion) are typical examples. The latter, according to Geist, would not have been possible without an awareness of African art, and he suggests Bambara marionettes as a source of influence.26 In addition, Eve resembles the Senufo “déguélé” figures (Fig. 5). This connection is even more convincing if comparison is made with the original state of Eve, in which the vertical member continued below the bulging breasts.27 As Geist rightly points out, the placing of one figure over another, as in Adam and Eve, is in itself a compositional device typical not only of African art but of primitive art in general.28

THE INFLUENCE OF AFRICAN ART on Brancusi falls into various categories. The most numerous examples noted occur in the area of formal elements. For instance, Brancusi omitted the arms in Little French Girl; he used the characteristic bent-knee stance in The First Step and in Caryatid; and he employed the elliptical-shaped head in Portrait of Madame L. R. These formal elements were, most often, devised by the African sculptor to simplify the image for religious reasons. By the exclusion of all but the essential he emphasizes the specific ritual function of the work. Brancusi likewise simplifies his image, but he does so in order to reach the essence of things. “Simplicity,” he affirmed, “is not a goal, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself as one approaches the real meaning of things.”29 The results are surprisingly similar.

Brancusi’s style of surface decoration is similar to the African’s. Both rely strongly on the animation of planes through striations which in African sculpture derive from the custom of scarification. With Brancusi, this type of decoration is found mostly on the necks of his figures; examples are Adam and Eve (Fig. 15, lower portion), Little French Girl (Fig. 4), Caryatid (Fig. 6), and King of Kings (Fig. 16), a work hitherto not mentioned, which has a primitive quality.

On another level, Goldwater draws a very subtle parallel between African sculpture and the work of Brancusi.30 He notes that contrary to our culture, which has a tendency to separate things (ideas, meanings, and functions), African culture gathers them together. Thus, for instance, a single piece of African sculpture can stand for a human and divine ancestor and a god at one and the same time. Brancusi intuitively grasped this quality of overlapping meanings in African art. In his art, some meanings exist prior to the creation of the sculpture and others are born as a result of it. Goldwater does not cite examples of such overlapping meanings in the work of Brancusi, but Princess X (1916) and Torso of a Young Man ( 1916 ?) are surely cases in point. The first work shows the head, neck, breast, and hand of a female figure in a form that can easily be read as phallic. In fact, the work caused a scandal when shown at the 1920 Salon des Indépendants, and had to be removed from the exhibition.31 The other work is a torso made out of the fork of a maple tree. The title states that it is a young man’s torso, yet the genitals are absent. As Geist remarks, this is not disturbing because the work itself is a phallus and a torso at the same time.32

Furthermore, it is important to note that with the exception of The Kiss, all of Brancusi’s African-related works are made of wood, the material most often used by the African sculptors, and one which, in Brancusi’s opinion, only they and the Rumanians knew how to carve.

Finally, it is apparent that the Brancusi sculptures discussed all have an immediately perceptible primitive quality. However, Brancusi’s brand of primitivism is his own and quite different from the African. For though Brancusi may use a primitive formal vocabulary which is fundamentally African, his works are in no way a reflection of African culture. They reflect his own polished European background. Despite the striking similarities, it is impossible to mistake a sculpture by Brancusi for an African one.

One element which helps to distinguish Brancusi’s primitivism is humor, an element not often present in African sculpture. Because of its role as a sacred ritual object, African figure sculpture is intentionally solemn. This is true in spite of what to our eyes may seem like a certain humorousness which results from the apparent naiveté and straightforwardness of the image. It was, most likely, precisely this unintended humor that appealed to Brancusi. In his work, however, the naiveté and straightforwardness are intentional and consciously used. Surely, Brancusi intended us to smile at his portrayal of the “little French girl.” It is then this humorous aspect as well as the unmistakably European look of the works which make it difficult to find precise African sources. Brancusi assimilated the outside influence and integrated it into his own style.

Primitive art seems singularly adapted to this kind of assimilation by nonprimitive artists. This is no doubt because the primitive vision of the world is totally compatible with 20th-century ideals of modernity. It would be difficult to imagine what modern art would be like had not the artists of the early years of the century “discovered” primitive art. Yet it is equally difficult to isolate specific elements, because the primitive image is an important and inextricable part of the art of our century.

Katherine Jánsky Michaelsen is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.



1. I wish to thank the following persons: George Corbin (Lehman College, C.U.N.Y.) for his help in the early stages of my work with sources and references for African material; Sidney Geist for reading the paper and suggesting corrections; Professor Theodore Reff for his guidance throughout.

2. The following has been written about the subject: Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, New York: 1967, pp. 231–235; Robert Goldwater, “Judgments of Primitive Art–1905–1965” in Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art, ed. Daniel P. Biebuyck, Berkeley, California: 1969 , p. 37; Sidney Geist, Brancusi, New York: 1968 , pp. 45, 52, 53; and Sidney Geist, Constantin Brancusi—1876–1957—A Retrospective Exhibition, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York: 1969, pp. 64, 67, 68, 72, 104, 124.

3. Geist, p. 2.

4. Jean Laude, La Peinture Francaise (1905–1914) et “L’art Negre,” Paris: 1968, p. 22, note 15.

5. Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, p. 235.

6. Laude, p. 22, note 15.

7. Geist, p. 149; Ionel Jianou, Brancusi, New York: 1963, p. 68.

8. Geist, p. 45.

9. Sir Jacob Epstein, An Autobiography, London, 1955, pp. 190–191.

10. The male companion figure (not illustrated) without the protruding breasts, makes an even more striking comparison. This example was first suggested to me by George Corbin.

11. All information about the Senufo “déguélé” masks taken from Robert Goldwater, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, Greenwich, Conn.: 1964, text by Fig. 15.

12. A similar round treatment of the hips is seen in The First Step as well as in the two African sculptures it was compared with (Figs. 1, 2, 3).

13. The small, roughly rectangular grooved projection at the right side of the head of Little French Girl closely resembles the treatment of the ear in the Simo secret society headdress (Fig. 14).

14. Sale Catalog—Collection André Derain, Hotel Drouot, Paris, March 1955; Laude, text for Fig. 20.

15. Geist, Fig. 114: Mr. Geist informed me Brancusi destroyed this and another version of this work.

16. Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, p. 234.

17. Geist, pp. 158–159.

18. Geist (Catalog), p. 72.

19. Geist, p. 51.

20. Ibid. In addition to the works mentioned in note 12, this sharp separation between legs and hips also appears in the “déguélé” mask and Little French Girl (Figs. 4, 51.

21. Sale Catalog—Ancienne Collection Paul Guillaume—Art Negre, Hotel Drouot, Paris, November 1965.

22. Geist (Catalog), p. 72.

23. Geist, p. 53.

24. Judging from the chignon, the illustration of Portrait of Madame L.R. in Geist’s book (Fig. 84) must be a rear view. The front view is shown in the Catalog (p. 84) and Fig. 11. The same type of hairdo appears in Portrait (1915), another African-looking work. The similarity between Madame L.R. and the Gabon reliquary figure was suggested by George Corbin.

25. Geist (Catalog), p. 124.

26. Ibid., p. 104.

27. Ibid., p. 80.

28. Ibid., p. 104.

29. Jianou, p. 68.

30. Goldwater, “Judgments of Primitive Art,” p. 37.

31. Geist, p. 56.

32. Geist (Catalog), p. 68.