Constantin Brancusi: Patriarch of Modern Sculpture

“I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic nature.”

― Constantin Brancusi

It takes fifteen seconds for the rosaries to get used to the dark and make sense of the elusive shapes they make of it; it takes a lifetime to understand Brancusi’s sculpture in all its magnificence without accidentally – and out of sheer naïve curiosity typical of art enthusiasts and sculpture lovers – interpreting or perceiving it as something that it isn’t.

Shown together for the first time, Brancusi’s 11 sculptures will take the spotlight at Brancusi-focused MoMA exhibition, alongside with his collection of films, photographs, and drawings. This Constantin Brancusi Sculpture presentation is on view from July 22, 2018, through February 18, 2019.

Private by an artistic default (although this innovative, risk-taking artist was anything but a default-creator), Brancusi rarely ever let his personal world interfere with his work. Thus, the fact we’ll finally get to take a glimpse at his relationships with sitters, patrons, his friends as well as the staff of MoMA makes reviewing this selection of never-before-seen archival materials so much more exhilarating.

A true revolutionary in the art world, Brancusi’s approach to form transformed and set course for the art that followed.

Brancusi’s self-portrait in his studio, circa 1933-1934 | Image source: interior.ru

The Background, The Base

Romanian by birth, Parisian by choice, Brancusi was a natural craftsman from an early age. His first documented work of art was a working violin he made as a teenager.

Born in the rural part of Romania, Brancusi never seemed to have forgotten his heritage. From the way he wore his hair, beard and slippers to his behavioral manner, he was very different from his colleagues-artists of the time.

At an early age, Brancusi moved to Paris where he studied at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Studying there not only gave him an opportunity to develop his artistic trajectory but also socialize among intellectual and avant-garde art circles and therefore build a reputation for being a progressive and hard-working, free-spirited young artist. Upon establishing his own studio, Brancusi developed his signature style as a sculptor that immediately separated him from the then-popular clay and bronze modeling. His choice of materials was reduced to marble, sandstone, wood, and travertine and he focused on abstract shapes he remained true to till the end of his creation. His works contained elements of traditional and exotic arts, folklore, and mythology, with the themes primarily centered around people and animals, particularly children, women, and birds.

The Visionary, The Sculptor, The Game-Changer

They say you know godliness when you feel it – and that’s exactly the type of epiphany we get each time we get to see a sculpture done by the patriarch of modern sculpture himself – Constantin Brancusi.

Rejecting realism as a concept, Brancusi was an advocate of art that challenged the norm and evoked something greater – a positively overwhelming emotion, a strong reaction, disgust even – rather than having it stay in the domain of sameness and simplicity of its titles. In the works of Brancusi, a bird is not a bird as you see it in nature nor is a princess a crown-wearing fair lady. Still, as Brancusi explained, that was precisely the point of his art, “When you see a fish you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water. Well, I’ve tried to express just that. If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirits.”

The recreation of the physical form other artists of the time enjoyed was incomprehensible to the mind of this sculptor, photographer, and film-maker. To him, all sculptures were the essence and meaning in itself. “A thing which would pretend to reproduce nature would only be a copy,” said Brancusi on occasion, and continued “I am trying to get a spiritual effect.”

The patriarch of modern sculpture didn’t believe in the singularity of expression: to Brancusi, the truth was bigger than form, and this attitude may have been one of the main triggers of his transformative, and what will later become – transient art. He carved his sculptures by hand and directly from stone, bronze, and wood; they were carved individually, even works exploring the same motif or bearing the same name, making each and every one of the unique pieces.

Brancusi’s studio, a renovated replica exhibition near the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His studio became an exhibition space and remained the sculptor’s home and refuge throughout two world wars he lived through. | Image source: jeremiahbrentblog.com

The King of Multiple Arts

In addition to sculpture, Brancusi made drawings, photographs, and films.

DRAWINGS

A multi-talented creator, Brancusi loved drawing almost as much as he loved his other art forms. Although unlike the majestic sculpting opus he left behind, he didn’t produce too many drawings in his lifetime. Furthermore, none of his drawings were done in a careful and deliberate manner in comparison. In fact, the feeling is that they were done very casually, using whatever materials the artist had on hand. Despite his nonchalant approach to drawing, Brancusi did, however, use the same subject matters in both drawings and sculptures that provide valuable insights of his art-making process

PHOTOS

Brancusi’s relationship with photography was, well, special. For the most part, he would take photographs of his sculptures, usually in the process of their making. Apart from these straightforward representations of his work, there are plenty of obscure photographs as well, as in Self Portrait in Studio (first image of this article). For the most part, these vague images mimic the abstracted nature of his sculptural work: the play of light and shadow, the occasionally out-of-focus images and often barely noticeable shapes of Brancusi’s sculptures take up the majority of his photographs.

FILM

After being introduced to film through his friend Man Ray, Brancusi dedicated some of his creativity to filming his least-known experiments. His films captured activating his artworks through movement, him working with his materials, and ultimately revealing his sources of inspiration, such as light in nature, animals, and dance. Unfortunately, not too many of the artist’s films survive but those that do clearly reveal Brancusi’s intention (and interest) to showcase the movement of objects through space. Critics believe this filmmaking of his work is the artist’s desire for his work to be understood as a whole.

Installation view of Constantin Brancusi Sculpture exhibition through in MoMA | Image source: Pinterest

Today, Brancusi is a canonical sculptor, one of the most influential names that marked the 20th century’s art scene. His decision to go against the norm of his time and create non-representational sculptures was not only a bold and daring artistic choice but one that made him pivotal to the evolution of sculpture. It is safe to say that Brancusi changed the way sculptors and art enthusiasts alike observe sculpture and art as a whole. As Brancusi explains, “What is real is not the external form… but the essence of things.”

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