PRINT November 1995


Last month CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI 1876–1957 opened in the United States at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Writing from Paris, where he viewed the show’s inaugural installation at the Centre Georges Pompidou, JOHN BERGER discovers in The Kiss another, more worldly side to the master of ideal form.

THANK YOU FOR THE PAINTING, Marisa, I’ve put glass over it. The painted man with the leap given him by the earth! (I’ve come to prefer drawing men to women, for their bodies somehow have more need to be drawn since an ideal crumbled.) Your painted man, and around him the horizons, and beside him the real, not painted, lichen which has resisted drought and every extreme of temperature for millions of years. Primeval lichen, petals, feathers—you keep them between pages and you take one out, like a ticket from a purse, whenever you paint a journey.

Me? I’m standing in the biggest ever Brancusi exhibition in Paris. No lichen, no feathers, no itches here. Almost everything is polished and pure.

I have the impression, Marisa, that just after his death in 1957 I visited his studio in the Impasse Ronsiu. I was with a friend—perhaps with Zadkine, who was also a friend of his. I remember the name BRANCUSI scrawled on the door with a horseshoe hung beside it, the high skylights, the vise on his bench and the sculptures and the famous carved pedestals and the segments of his “Columns” without end, all crowded together but never jostling one another—each work platonically arm in arm with its neighbor.

Particularly I remember the benevolent presence of the man who had just been buried in the cemetery in Montparnasse. The studio seemed to me to be like a bakery, the ovens still warm, from which the baker had just walked out to go down to the river.

Yet is this true? Was I really there or have I made it up, my imagination influenced by all the flaring, mysterious photos he took of his studio, or by a visit I made to the reconstructed one which was later opened as a museum? (Many of the photos are in the marvelous Pompidou show.)

There’s nobody I can check with today. Yet the doubt is appropriate, for Brancusi had the perplexing gift of being entirely himself and, at the same time, always slipping away. (He was seven years old when he ran away from his home in the Carpathian Mountains the first time.) It’s not birds that I sculpt, he once said, it’s the act of flying.

He dressed like a Russian peasant yet his friend Marcel Duchamp sold Brancusi’s sculptures in the 1920s to avant-garde collectors in the United States, where they were viewed as shining emblems of the modern era.

His first sculpted birds were inspired by the mythical bird of the Romanian forests called the Maiastra. When he came to Paris from Bucharest in 1904 he made most of the journey on foot. Yet his last birds, made in the ’30s, already prophesy the form of the Concorde jet.

When you look at his drawings, they have the air of maps, which is odd for a sculptor. The contours don’t mold forms, they simply mark frontiers which can be crossed. All his work is about leaving. Above all, about leaving the earth for the sky, as his “Columns” without end are supposed to do.

And standing here, Marisa, I suddenly want to resist. I think of one of your feathers falling down onto the earth. Maybe I love the imperfect and the flawed too much. I want to find out how to judge the rascal. He’ll remain great, of course, but we might know a bit more about his pain.

There’s a work in the show called Sculpture for the Blind. It’s an oval, lying on its side, made of marble, about the size of an ostrich’s egg but not so symmetrical.

Say somebody blind picks it up and starts feeling it, fascinated, with their fingertips. Is this slight ridge the place of a nose? Is this gentle hollow becoming an eye socket? Can the ripple here be a hairline? After a while they’ll turn the egg over and start touching it to discover whether there is a crack, as with a plastic Easter egg. And finally they’ll ask themselves a question: is this thing I’m holding in my hands a container or a core? Is there a head within it, or is it a head coming into being?

Now, this work is one of a long series of horizontal oval heads made between 1910 and 1928. Some he called The Sleeping Muse, others The New Born, The Beginning of the World, First Cry, Prometheus. Obviously Brancusi imagined them as cores, not containers.

And he strove for the same thing in all his polished carvings—the birds, the fishes, the princesses. Each time when carving he wanted to go back, eliminating all imperfections, all wear and tear, to the growing point of the first Creation, to the pure idea as it takes on form. Platonic once more. That he spent months polishing his sculptures was an integral part of that return journey to the pure, to that which existed before gravity and before the Fall.

The preposterous challenge the rascal set himself was to do this using heavy, earthy materials such as marble, bronze, and oak. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he failed. When he fails the polished form does remain a case, a container, and doesn’t become the core. When he succeeds, the material is utterly transformed by the movement he miraculously gives it. In the case of the big, flat Fish, the marble becomes water.

Nearly all the birds and fishes succeed, as also the oval heads. The penguins, the tortoises, the torsos, Leda, the smart women, fail. They remain containers. At the best like seashells, and at the worst, like custom-built motorbike gas tanks. (I wouldn’t, of course, say no to one on my bike.)

The notorious story of how in 1927 U.S. Customs agents taxed one of Brancusi’s sculptures because they considered it, not a work of art, but an “industrial utensil,” is often retold as an example of bureaucratic philistinism. It seems to me that their colossal error was a little understandable, and not quite as stupid as is made out.

I think the old man in his solitude sensed the problem of the containers. And if during his last 20 years he made almost nothing new, it was probably because he realized that he had found all he was likely to find. After all, there are not that many cores, and the infinite multiplicity of feathers, leaves, barks, skins is not what interested him.

With one exception. The exception that is his most astonishing invention. The Kiss. He made the first one in 1907 and he went on making others until 1940. This is the most recurring theme in his oeuvre, a counterpart to the bird. All the Kisses are in rough stone. Not one is polished and not one is platonic.

All the versions show an embracing couple carved out of a single block of stone which remains very rectangular, like a pillar. Their two eyes in profile form a single eye, their four lips a single mouth. A shallow line marks the frontier of their two skins pressed together. The outermost surface of the block stands in for their four encircling arms, which end in their poor open hands, pressing the other inward, breast to breast.

The stone now does not have to transcend its material nature. It remains earthbound, Marisa, part of the same world as lichen and moss and feathers. And although these couples are all recognizably “Brancusis,” they aspire to something very different from the rest of his work.

In the face of them one encounters what came, not before the Fall, but afterward. The stocky lovers are on this side, on our side, in all our usual mess. They are not seeking perfection; they are simply longing to be a bit more complete. Time and again with the Kisses the old rascal instilled an ache into stone: the ache of a desire for a lost unity. Which is why we kiss, no?

Thank you again, Marisa, for your man and the lichen stuck on the coarse paper . . . .