Published  07/03/2013

Constantin Brancusi: the essence of things

Constantin Brancusi: the essence of things

Tate Modern, London
29 January-23 May 2004

Two outstanding exhibitions of modern sculpture are on show together at Tate Modern in London, 'Constantin Brancusi: the essence of things' and Donald Judd. Both are superbly presented and accompanied by scholarly catalogues that reappraise the respective talents and contributions made by two of the most significant 20th century sculptors.

Each of the two exhibitions has had to surmount considerable difficulties; Brancusi's work especially is extremely fragile making it difficult to transport and display, while the sheer scale of Judd's large pieces has made a retrospective on this scale impossible until now. In terms of the logistics alone, both the Brancusi and Judd exhibitions are ambitious projects and splendid achievements for Tate Modern. Most significant perhaps is the opportunity to see Brancusi as a great mentor for Donald Judd's generation. The impact of his purity and mysticism was profound. Although the work of Judd and Carl Andre came to fruition after Brancusi’s death in 1957, the ideas that gave birth to the minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s were first developed in Brancusi’s original and brilliant sculptural forms.

In 1970, the sculptor William Tucker offered a fresh and incisive analysis of modern sculpture when he gave a series of lectures at the University of Leeds on Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and David Smith. The lectures were subsequently adapted and published by Studio International, under the general title Four Sculptors (April 1970). Studio International published further essays by Tucker on modern sculpture from October 1972, including Brancusi at Tîrgu Jiu, The Object and Gravity. In 1974 the essays were published as a book.1 Tucker gave an artist's view of what had evolved in sculpture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A transition was made from bland, smooth craftsmanship in the hands of academics to forms that resonated with the nature of their materials - art that could exude physicality, gravity and intense emotion. Tucker abandoned the traditional painting-centred approach to art history and, in doing so, infused the field with a new richness and cultural validity. In the context of Tate Modern's exhibitions of Brancusi and Judd, Tucker's writings are particularly poignant.

In his Introduction Tucker quotes the German poet RM Rilke whose writing on Auguste Rodin anticipated much later writing on modern sculpture. The work of Rodin in turn played an important part in the development of his own poetry. Rilke's definition of sculpture in 1903 provides a backdrop for Brancusi's search for a meaningful language:

[Sculpture] had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch. It had to become unimpeachable, sacrosanct, separated from chance and time through which it rose isolated and miraculous, like the face of a seer. It had to be given its own certain place, in which no arbitrariness had placed it, and must be intercalated in the silent continuance of space and its great laws. It had to be fitted into the space that surrounded it, as into a niche; its certainty, steadiness and loftiness did not spring from its significance but from its harmonious adjustment to the environment.2

In 1903, as Rodin enjoyed public acclaim at the height of his career, Brancusi made the physically arduous journey (much of it on foot) across Europe, from Romania to Paris. In cultural terms it signified a profound journey from an impoverished backwater to the world's artistic centre. Constantin Brancusi was born in 1876 in the small, isolated village of Hobitza in Romania. His home life was such that he left home aged 11, having twice before attempted to run away. He was illiterate when he entered the School of Arts and Crafts at Craiova in 1895. Brancusi had grown up with some knowledge of wood as a material for building, for churches, decoration, furniture, farm equipment. At the Bucharest Academy (1898-1902) he absorbed the tradition of realistic French sculpture.

Brancusi arrived in Paris in 1904, and stayed for 50 years. The first three years there were seminal and of exceptional value to his career. Rodin, who admired Brancusi's talent, occupied centre stage in Paris with large public commissions and general acclaim. Brancusi probably worked as an assistant to Rodin in 1907. A more general move away from traditional academic sculpture, however, was gaining momentum. Brancusi had the great advantage over fellow artists such as Maillol or Matisse, in that he came from quite an alien environment. The detachment he possessed and the frugality and hardship he had experienced enabled him to see more clearly than any of his contemporaries.

In the 19th century, sculpture, as an independent form of art, reached a low ebb. At the mercy of an uninspired system of patronage, it plunged to new depths of mediocrity. Practical factors played a major part in this phenomenon: labour intensive methods, the high cost of materials such as marble and bronze, the logistics of moving, displaying, handling and storing. Against such negative constraints Rodin practically reinvented sculpture and achieved a mythic status in the process, 'when Brancusi first arrived in Paris in 1904, sculpture was Rodin: he was the only standard against which a forward-looking young sculptor could measure himself'.3

If Rodin and Degas can be said to have sculpted figures, Matisse and Brancusi created sculptures. Matisse referred to his sculptures as 'things in themselves' and described them as 'thematically, but not expressively, figures'. Tucker describes the transition inherent in Matisse's sculpture 'The Serf', 1900-1903 where he purposely sacrificed traditional qualities in order to achieve 'the naïve immediacy of perception'.

The proportions, the balance, the distribution of weight in the figure, are as deliberately unconvincing as its discontinuous structure. It is the very antithesis of Rodin, with his sculptor's tricks and his artfulness: it is clearly the child of Cézanne rather than of Rodin, the first fruit of a lifelong and heroic struggle to make sculpture structured not by anatomy or some imposed expressive purpose, but by the willed coherence of perception alone.4

In 1907 Brancusi made both 'The Prayer', which Tucker describes as 'a sculptor's sculpture' and 'The Kiss', which he describes as:

The first fully achieved sculpture-object, fulfilling all the terms which Rilke had set out for the art which correctly credited Rodin with rescuing, forty years before, from the degradation of "the superficial, cheap and comfortable metier" of 19th century Salon sculpture.5

Brancusi saw that the key to opening up or revitalizing Rodin's approach was through both material and method. Where Rodin modelled, Brancusi chose to carve. But carving belonged almost exclusively to craftsmen and was primarily the domain of funerary sculpture, the private as opposed to the public sculpture of artists such as Rodin.

Rodin had neglected or misused carving as outrageously as had his academic predecessors. Brancusi saw in carving the means to the definitive and unique form for each sculpture … Whereas modelling in Rodin's hands, however intimate the subject matter, had become public, aggressive, extravert and generalized, Brancusi realized carving as the opposite mode: private, individual, separate, concentrated and quiet. Carving is reductive from a given limit, but seeks to affirm the given qualities of that limit.6

The Tate Modern exhibition of some 35 of his sculptures is the first major exhibition of Brancusi's work in Britain. His work was both innovative and original and the role he played in the modern movement was pivotal although, as curator Matthew Gale describes in his catalogue essay, Brancusi's name was not even mentioned when the modernist critic and poet, André Salmon published a survey of French sculpture in 1919. By 1937, however, Carola Giedion-Welcker described him as the 'greatest modern sculptor living'.7 Even when Brancusi created public sculptures, he made works of great intimacy and calm. The great memorial at Tîrgu Jiu in Romania created in 1937-1938 is one of the finest public sculptures of the last hundred years. In a manner comparable to Picasso's introduction of primitive forms into painting, Brancusi transformed sculpture by using innovative carving inspired by primitive art. Isamu Noguchi, who worked with him in Paris in 1927, believed that Brancusi's strength lay in sculpturally 'going back to the beginnings'. Barbara Hepworth who visited his studio (with Ben Nicholson) in 1933 found there, a 'humanism which seemed intrinsic in all the forms'. He chose marble and limestone, bronze and wood. Matthew Gale explains:

The practice of 'direct carving', cutting into the block and responding to its qualities in resolving the work, has long been central to discussions of Brancusi's work. It became an important issue because it was connected with modernist notions of honesty, with a rejection of modelling for casting and with the status of bronze as the medium of monuments. Brancusi's craft-based sensibility and insistence on self-reliance seem to have made it natural for him to carve the block himself: only he could find the image, through co-operation with the material.8

Brancusi chose limestone for his first carvings in Paris in 1907. The following year he began to use marble. Wood was first used in 1913. In each, Brancusi connected in a primal way with the material itself. The work celebrates his pure vision and the essence of the material. Wood offered perhaps the greatest possibilities: different types (oak, walnut), textures, grains, colours and the natural forking and patterning. The impact of Cubism on Brancusi added stimulus to a personal predilection for wood engendered by his Romanian background and his love of peasant carvings.

In stone, 'The Kiss' (1907-1908) is without question an object of great integrity capturing an essential humanity, a subtlety and beauty. In marble, 'The Sleeping Muse' (1913) is a head with neck and shoulders removed and the features almost absorbed by the continuous surface of the object. In 1911 Brancusi cast from marble into bronze. Marble and bronze produced refined and beautiful pieces, but it was wood that enabled Brancusi to make dramatic shapes swiftly and decisively with the saw and the axe. The interest in African art manifested itself in the painting of Picasso and Braque with a remarkable fluidity. It was more challenging for Brancusi to absorb the forms and the cultural ramifications of primitivism using the same material. In 1915 'The Prodigal Son' saw a brilliant development: an almost abstract work was created using a saw to cut through a rectangular block of wood. The following year, he took this a stage further by choosing a block of wood with a naturally occurring fork; the fork is used as part of the sculpture emphasising the organic development of the work and the intense relationship Brancusi had with his material. 'The Sorceress' (1916-1924) represents Brancusi's ability to work with the form inherent in nature and in the material. Using a highly polished walnut wood, the rich red of the timber is mounted on a polished limestone base which is mounted on another wooden sculpture, the more roughly hewn 'Guard Dog' (1916) in oak. The range of subtle colour and textures makes this a consummate piece.

It has been said that Brancusi's bases have the same function as the painted frames of Seurat, which form a gradation between the privileged reality of the painting and the habitual reality of the wall … The role of the base is at once physical, in terms of support; visual, in terms of presenting the object at proper level; and symbolic, in terms of the object's relation with the world. The bases are not works of art, but are as worth consideration as many works of art in view of the way they perform an exact ancillary function.9

Brancusi spent his life making art that, in most respects, was the antithesis to that of Rodin and his academic predecessors. If Rodin sought to make morally engaged, public art, Brancusi sought to create an art that was essentially private, silent and neutral.10 When he accepted the commission for a war memorial in south-west Romania at Tîrgu Jiu (to celebrate the town's resistance of the Germans in 1917) the privacy and withdrawn nature of his work was profoundly challenged. He in fact created a group of sculptures there: the 'Endless Column', the 'Gate of the Kiss' and the 'Table of Silence'. They are monumental in scale and wholly original, aligned along a mile-long axis across the town. The most famous of these, the 'Endless Column' is 96 feet high, constructed of 15 sections, each being the height of a person. Brancusi reputedly stated that the viewer should feel like an atom in the presence of a work of art.

It comes as a shock to see a man standing at the base, registering the real size of the sculpture, which otherwise reads as having no size, neither large nor small, simply as though a specific size was not one of its physical attributes. This is a major aspect of the sculpture's opticality: it is too large to be grasped, or measured against human scale, yet it can be seen from a distance which considerably diminishes it - indeed, in order to be taken in totally, without moving the field of vision, it has to be seen from a distance.11

The three aspects of the Tîrgu Jiu project represent the evolution of Brancusi's process and of modern sculpture itself: 'Table' represents an object of common use, 'Gate' represents an architectural element, and the 'Endless Column', 'a structure of pure and sublime decoration, without function or justification'.12 'Constantin Brancusi: the essence of things' in the large galleries of Tate Modern is a wonderful experience which precipitates a journey through some of the most vital artistic developments of the early 20th century.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Tucker W. Brancusi: the Elements of Sculpture. In: Tucker W. Early Modern Sculpture - Rodin, Degas, Matisse, Brancusi, Picasso, Gonzalez. New York: OUP, 1974. Also published as: Tucker, W. The Language of Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974. [NB: The essay Brancusi in Studio International is quite different to Brancusi: the Elements of Sculpture]
2. Tucker W. Introduction. In: Early Modern Sculpture, op cit, p9.
3. Tucker W. Four Sculptors, Part 1 (Brancusi). Studio International 1970; 179(921): 156.
4. Tucker W. Introduction. In: Early Modern Sculpture, op cit, p.12.
5. Ibid, p.13.
6. Tucker W. Brancusi: the Elements of Sculpture. In: Early Modern Sculpture, ibid, p.43.
7. Gale M. Brancusi: An equal among rocks, trees, people, beasts and plants. In: Constantin Brancusi: the essence of things. London: Tate Publishing, 2004: 21.
8. Ibid, p.23.
9. Tucker W. Brancusi: the Elements of Sculpture. In: Early Modern Sculpture, ibid, pp.56-57.
10. Tucker W. Brancusi at Tîrgu Jiu. Studio International 1972; p.131.
11. Ibid, p.138.
12. Ibid, p.142.

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