PRINT February 1983


IN SIDNEY JANIS’ INTRODUCTION to the catalogue “Brancusi + Mondrian” we learn that in the early 1950s John Senior, Jr., had the idea to show his Mondrian paintings surrounding a Bird in Space by Brancusi. In my 1968 study of the sculptor1 I began a meditation on his oeuvre with the idea that it was comparable to Mondrian’s. Ideas, ideas . . . In the event, it took the initiative and imagination of, not a museum of modern art, but a marchand de tableaux to bring these artists together in representations of such scope as to be significant—17 Brancusi sculptures, 17 Mondrian paintings, and a brace of watercolors and drawings by each.

The effect on the senses upon entering the Sidney Janis Gallery last December was dazzling, electric, well beyond what might have been anticipated—except of course by the exhibition’s organizer. In a corner of the main room was a massed display of seven gleaming bronzes flanked by stately paintings, whose bright staccato rhythms contrasted with the fluid curvature of the sculpture. At the room’s center stood the contained jet of a bronze Bird in Space; against a wall, a more slender version of this motif in cool marble; near another wall, the rich perfections of a bronze Leda on a monel-metal disk; elsewhere, The Kiss, in light-absorbing limestone that concentrates the attention; in a corner, other works whose very titles reverberate in the history of Modern art: Mlle Pogany, Maiastra, The Newborn, Prometheus. The paintings held the wall with their ambiguous flatness and frank abstraction. These compositions are at once reasonable and self-renewing, sprightly and stable, unflinching in their clarity. Mondrian is orthogonal on principle, the exemplar of a mode which has touched every aspect of design in this century. Yet the careful observer could sense, below the rotundities of the Brancusian image, a stiff axis or a vertical spine. This formal rigor of both artists was signalized in the exhibition’s title, by the “+” instead of “and” between the artists’ names—a nice touch.

Mondrian and Brancusi are always stimulating, always touching, and seem always to have been with us. Were we then seeing them again in this pairing, or seeing that they “go well” together? The exhibition had a special character. In considering Brancusi and Mondrian together we have a vision of Modernism as a common enterprise, seen here at its height and not seen in one-person exhibitions, however important, or in shows of 20th-Century Art, however comprehensive. Here a splendor of Modernism was suddenly manifest, achieved by more than one. If the century’s Modernist struggle seems to have been called in question by recent developments, “Brancusi + Mondrian” banished all doubt—reminding us of an art of optimism and vigor, one that radiates calm and confidence. These are matters that go beyond art, beyond the search for the new frisson that has often seemed to define the Modernist venture. But the imagination of these two artists always went “beyond.” Brancusi believed in a therapeutic mission for art: the work of art could do good by example, by being good. He developed a realm of essence, a distillation and purification of experience. Mondrian, for his part, worked out of a no less exemplary vision of order and equilibrium. These are arts of light and clarity, of revealed form and primary color, which clear the air, go above the personal, take us out of ourselves. The special quality of their effort becomes clearer when we imagine adding a third to their noble company. Beside them, Picasso suddenly looks like a troubled artist, while Matisse seems playful.

We have here to do with two saintly figures—for whom art was a devotion. There is a price for everything, and they paid it with a certain abnegation in their lives. But they both left a sweet memory in those who knew them, and this counts for a great deal. Their biographies are not a burden—and have remarkably similar features. Born four years apart, at the beginning of the last quarter of the 19th century, both had careful academic grounding in their disciplines, from which—slowly, rationally, inexorably—they moved into a new artistic space. We may say that as they made their art, it in turn made them—a reciprocal development from which there could be no veering. Their lives and art evolved under the sign of inevitability.

From one perspective their works often point beyond the work-of-art. Looking in the other direction, back to their origins, these works are not a collection of disparate, privileged objects, but parts of the universe that was the studio. It is a mark of the large vision of both artists that they expended much effort and imagination on the creation of a poetic space, an ideal world contiguous with the “real” world on the other side of its walls and windows. These studios have a didactic effect: they show us how to live. These works are not simply ornaments to life, they are signs of a way of life.

The immediate impression of dazzlement—both intellectual and sensuous—was sustained throughout the exhibition by the individual works. At the front of an ensemble of seven sculptures, culminating in the gleaming Maiastra, 1912, was the earliest and smallest of the Brancusis in the exhibit. Entitled Prometheus, 1911, it presents a roundish head only slightly inflected by the facial features and ears; it is a tender portrait of the young son of a friend, and it always resembled the man that boy became. I can’t help thinking the work got its title from the fact that Brancusi had seen the boy do something associated with fire or flame—perhaps light a candle. It was Brancusi’s custom to poeticize the circumstances of his life. To the editors of The Little Review he sent a note in 1929 to say he had just returned from “the end of the earth”: he had been to Gibraltar.

Maiastra is the magic bird, the “master” bird. Since the title is in Rumanian and Brancusi referred to a Rumanian fairytale in discussing the work, the claim is often made that it shows the influence of Rumanian folklore and art. But it actually reflects in a general way Brancusi’s love of his national background. For no one has ever shown a Rumanian source for the design, and a Rumanian scholar admitted several years ago that he wasn’t able to find Brancusi’s tale in any collection of native fairytales. Only the title, then, is Rumanian, and some element in the half-remembered, reinvented fable with which Brancusi “explained” the work. There was probably an episode with an actual bird that got him started; we know that he made some realistic studies of birds, and I think the sculpture is indebted. at the formal level, to a work by the French sculptor François Pompon—although a writer in 1969 implied that Maiastra had no iconographic source.

The Kiss in limestone, 1912, is Brancusi’s fourth carving of this touching theme—touching, that is, in his view of it: and I think it touched a number of sculptors who later fashioned a Kiss. The Kiss has a curious status as an object: it is uncomfortable when placed on a base. and Brancusi wrote explicitly to Walter Pach, the artist and critic, that it was to be put in a space that was not confining.

The first version of Mlle Pogany is one of the icons of 20th-century sculpture. It shared with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase the succès de scandale of the 1913 Armory Show and has never lost its fascination. How far Brancusi went in every feature of this piece!—the muscular, curving neck, the wafer of a nose, the slit of a mouth, and the largest eyes (only one is polished in the version at Janis) in modern portraiture. For this is very much a portrait, and as such secretes a mystery: why is the sitter—a modest woman, an artist—shown with her cheek resting against her hands, in a pose assumed, in the period, by worldly women and social beauties? These polished, light-filled objects are replete with such mysteries. Facing her in the exhibition, a few feet away, was the second Mlle Pogany, 1925, the work that seems to initiate art moderne. Brancusi sent a bronze of the first version to Margit Pogany. He was enamored of her, and it was surely a deep fund of feeling for the woman (who never changed her name) that kept him working on the design, carving still another variation in 1933, making in all 13 versions in marble and bronze. This is not to mention the more concentrated head Danaide, ca. 1918, also in the exhibition, which was certainly based on the same model.

At first glance a viewer is likely to see The Newborn, 1915, as an exercise in abstract construction—an ovoidal shape deftly cut by two flat planes. It is that and the head of a bawling child with a wide-open mouth. When this image becomes clear we realize that Brancusi is here concerned with an extreme situation: the moment of birth; at the same time the piece turns wonderfully humorous.

In view of the continuing rigor of the works just mentioned, Sleeping Muse II, from the early ’20s, seems like a return to an early realism. It is actually a return to a theme of 1910. Brancusi’s new themes become ever more strict; at the same time he keeps in touch with a more representational past in fresh and, as here, more subtle variations of earlier themes. One follows the modulations of this head as with the eye of love: the exquisite movement from the tip of the nose, over the brow and skull; the pull of the nose on the lip below; rather than the lips, the cleft between them; the eye marked by the edge of the lid; and rising from these reticences, the extraordinary flight of an eyebrow and the immense swell of the cheek, which falls to the flattened formalized ear, barely relieved against the chignon at the back.

Brancusi’s titles are part of the poetry of Modern art, and as such they are usually taken to be ornaments to the works they designate. But they are a significant part of the sculptor’s verbal expression, of his attention to language, and they deserve our attention. In the present case, for example, I have never seen it remarked that the title Sleeping Muse reflects a certain wit: when we muse we are not asleep; musing is done with eyes open, if unseeing, and these eyes are closed. Of course there is a hint that this is an image of an actual young woman, the sculptor’s Muse, asleep. But I think the title holds another, more complex message. There is no doubt that the eyes were first carved open: vestiges of this state, particularly the deep corners of the eyes, are still visible on the marble at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. What was the Sleeping Muse when her eyes were open? I think she was a Muse, a Mallarméan fragment inspired by the reclining head of a seated figure, La Muse of Victor Péter (1840–1918) at the Musée du Luxembourg. Brancusi had done other such fragments and other works inspired by sculptors in the Luxembourg, the repository of the new art of the period. But in doing a reclining, “severed” head with open eyes he had made, I think, a head that appeared decapitated since it was not surrounded by all the elements of Peter’s large realistic marble. So he effaced the rims of the eyelids, a change that effectively closed the eyes. Sleeping Muse is a reference, among other things, to Péter’s Muse, now—in Brancusi’s version—sleeping. Brancusi is far more complex and historically oriented than he is usually considered to be.

Adam and Eve, 1916–21, a magnificently barbaric structure, was wisely exhibited apart from the marbles and bronzes. It too raises a fascinating question. We know from old photographs of Brancusi’s studio that the lower section of this work. Adam, was originally quite abstract, continuing upward from the top of its present state in a series of superposed cylindrical sections; this upper region was sawed off, leaving only a part of the lowest cylinder. Eve was a finished sculpture in 1916; her breasts were rounded on their lower sides, and between them dropped a single rod which served as a leg and terminated in a flangelike footing. This figure was truncated in the lower region of the breasts in order to make it rest in a stable manner on the block between it and Adam. But who was she before she was Eve?

Leda, 1925, is an overwhelmingly beautiful physical presence, and, technically, a work of wonder. Its material opulence is tempered by the logic—or is it morality?—of the design, evident especially in the inner edge created by the meeting of its two large elements. One says “created by,” because impersonal forces seem to be at work here. Leda is a composition whose axes spread out; as a result, it does not reveal itself as immediately as do the vertical pieces, being completely available when seen from the side, but at other moments appearing to be close by or at a distance. Brancusi unified these aspects—or took advantage of them—by having the work turn slowly on its circular motorized base. (The motor has since been removed.) In this entrancing movement it seemed to approach and then go away, always to return, with the light sliding along the perfect modulations of its skin. The “story” of Leda is a far from settled matter; I think it relates to a Leda by Gustave Moreau.

To this company add The Fish, 1926, Little Bird, 1928, Portrait of Nancy Cunard, 1928–32, Blond Negress II, 1933, The Cock, 1935—and rising above all, Bird in Space, the marble of 1930, and a bronze variation of 1940–1. Defiant of gravity, escaping even while expressing its evident materiality the Bird rises from its base, an image of the soul in transcendence. The marble is a sheer presence against a white wall: the bronze, the last and tallest of the creations, is an upward gush of spirit in the middle of the exhibition. This is matter become pure poetry. And while the Bird creates a poetry of elevation, it actually stands on its base. What is the meaning of this stance? In any case, the many Birds of Brancusi develop in time—in a lifetime.

The questions that beset the understanding—if not the enjoyment—of Brancusi do not occur in the case of the late work of Mondrian. Lacking a recognizable imagery, which he said would be “too particular,” his is a universe of the relations of form and color, form that is orthogonal and color restricted to black, white, red, yellow, and blue. These elements probably had a symbolic burden initially which was shed in the course of time. The right-angled grid and the primary colors in a white field result in an art that is rational, not systematic. Given his spare means, Mondrian’s use of them was based on sheer intuition. The development of his universe is one of the marvels of the Modern movement: it goes from expressionist-symbolical beginnings—only suggested in the exhibition by the presence of the early watercolors of flowers—to a tough-minded pursuit of the implications of Cubism.

Reproductions of the paintings look like designs—smart, crisp, cool—but the paintings themselves look like paintings, creations executed by the hand with the help of a brush. The blacks are pulled along and built up till they acquire authority. A red is painted and repainted till it rings as red, a reality adjusted to vision rather than a color-token. The actuality of the pigment in a Mondrian (as against the summary touch of the artists he influenced) reminds me of the same quality in Rembrandt and Van Gogh. He is a very Dutch painter.

The news about Mondrian in this exhibition has to do with two panels rescued from his last studio by Harry Holtzman, to whom we are already indebted for so much of what we have and know of Mondrian. On October 1, 1943, having been in New York for three years, Mondrian moved into a new studio at 15 East 59th Street; he would live only until February 1 of the following year. In the intervening four months he worked on Victory Boogie-Woogie and happily arranged his studio, building a few pieces of furniture from orange crates and covering his walls with free-flowing arrangements of colored rectangles. The shapes were cut from colored cardboard found in an art-supply store, with only a white being painted by Mondrian. Photographs from that time show the rectangles sometimes in clearly distinguishable clusters and at other times in more extensive arrangements which vacillate between continuity and dispersion. All relations are orthogonal, as in the easel paintings, but without their grid. As a result the rectangles are situated with greater freedom than previously, and black disappears, leaving the white, red, yellow, and blue shapes free on an off-white field. In a sense these arrangements hark back to a gridless painting like Composition in Color Planes V, 1917 (number 21 in the exhibition) and similar works of the same year, but liberated now and suffused by the predominating white of the wall. The design moves variously, then, around the room, coming forward here and there on the vertical face of a counter or table—a decoration of continuous unbounded space which brings to mind the endless painting of the main chamber at Lascaux. An ancient impulse to total spiritual occupation turned a New York apartment into a most Modern cave. In a similar way. Brancusi’s studio in Paris monumentalized the interiors of Rumanian peasant dwellings. Both artists sidestepped the appurtenances of contemporary design.

Before the studio of Mondrian was dismantled, Holtzman, with the help of Fritz Glarner, made tracings of the walls and numbered the rectangles so that they could be reassembled. Holtzman reconstructed sections of the wall on eight panels, studying them from the top of a ladder to determine the surrounding space that would be most suitable. He found that paint applied to plywood with a roller gave the impression of the original walls. Preliminary plans are to show the panels, together with photographs of the apartment and a short film made by Holtzman, in 1983 at four museums in Europe and two here, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is completely in character that Mondrian’s last concern should have taken him beyond easel painting.

There are two geniuses in our exhibition, but the genius of the show is Sidney Janis. Over the years we have come to expect of him displays of Modern art on the level of the best museum exhibition. With “Brancusi + Mondrian” he has surpassed himself and, indeed, the official art world. Assembling the show took a personal authority that no one else in the field can claim: to have gotten the Leda from the Musée National d’Art Moderne is something like borrowing the Venus de Milo from the Louvre. Beyond the entrepreneurial skills. Janis has breadth of knowledge, a fervent and unflagging love of art, and an intuition of grandeur. In “Brancusi + Mondrian” these attributes have helped to create an exhibition that is a peak in his career, a revelation on 57th Street.

Sidney Geist, a sculptor, has written extensively on Brancusi and is currently engaged in Cézanne studies.



1. Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1968.