New York

Constantin Brancusi

In the early 1920s, CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI also came to this conclusion after he had seen some reproductions of photographs of his work done by others. It was Brancusi’s habit to do everything for himself. Indeed, total self-sufficiency was part of the legend he was carefully building around himself. He cut down trees for his wood sculptures and had his own forge in which to cast his bronzes. So when he decided he needed better photographs, he naturally built his own darkroom and, after some instruction from Man Ray, set about making the pictures himself. Nearly 600 glass negatives survived at the time of his death along with about twice as many prints, of which the current exhibition contains 70.

Perhaps the few photographs which Brancusi made outside the studio are the ones which seem most immediately striking. A photograph titled Endless Column in the Garden of Steichen at Voulangis, for instance, is a view looking up at the sculpture fixed against the sky. The view makes the piece seem like Mayan temple stairs leading into the clouds. We can see plainly Brancusi’s desire to romanticize, or at least dramatize, his work. By comparison, the views of the sculpture stacked here and there in his atelier or photographed against a wall may seem far more casual. The difference is deceptive, however. The studio photographs aren’t more casual at all, only subtler. They are, if anything, even more mythopoeic in intention.

Brancusi took the vast majority of his photographs in the atelier because he wanted us to see where his creations were born. Birth is the correct metaphor for his work, the one which it itself proposes. The character of his sculpture is embryonic. We can see this in the ovoid shape that many of the pieces have, and in the many versions of Mlle. Pogany whose wide, unseeing eyes and vestigial features are those of a fetus. Mary Frank’s work suggests immortal statues marred and battered by time. Brancusi’s suggests human life before any of that abrasion and deterioration have set in. His statues envision life sealed up in some ideal, a priori state much as he sealed himself up, mythically, in his atelier. One of the purposes photography served for him was to establish the connection he wanted us to see between the way the sculpture looks and the way he lived. In a couple of the photograph—Mlle. Pogany II, ca. 1920, and Leda, 1926—we can see Brancusi’s entire studio reflected in the sculpture’s polished surface. It is as if the world in which he lived were contained by that surface.

In a sense Brancusi’s vision as a sculptor seems at odds with the whole medium of photography. Photography is about detail. The description of detail is its capability. Brancusi’s sculpture is about essences, about a perfection which lies beyond incidental details. The pristine existence it envisions is free from the wants that photography loves. Yet this contrariness was precisely what made the camera useful to Brancusi. He needed it to complete the myth. The problem was that the sleek, textureless surfaces of his forms were so perfect, so flawlessly machined, that he needed to remind the viewer of their human origins. He had to prevent their perfect order from obliterating our awareness that they were created out of the chaos of imagination and rough labor.

In the sculptures themselves we can sometimes see the concerns which determined the photographic esthetic. I am thinking particularly of the early piece Le Sommeil, 1908, in which the face of the sleeper, a typically smooth, finished Brancusi surface, only half emerges from the inchoate chunk of stone. The pedestals Brancusi constructed for his sculptures make a similar contrast, as we can see in the photograph of Timidity on its base. Atop the enormous, symmetrical base roughhewn out of oak sits the plain, white, asymmetrical marble sculpture. The seemingly casual photographs Brancusi made of the whole atelier have the same effect. The sculptures are just as carefully placed in these pictures as they are on their bases. The entire studio is now being made to serve as a pedestal on which to present the work. Out of the divine clutter and rubble of the atelier, the peerless, finished sculptures appear. We feel as if we are watching evolution at work, the emergence of a new form. That is what we are watching, in fact, which is exactly why Brancusi made the photographs look as they do.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.