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Constantin Brâncuşi
Constantin Brâncuşi; Photograph taken by Edward Steichen in 1922.
Born February 19, 1876(1876-02-19)
Hobiţa, Romania
Died March 16, 1957 (aged 81)
Paris, France
Nationality Romanian
Field sculpture
Training École des Beaux-Arts
Movement Modernism
Works Bird in Space, The Endless Column
Patrons John Quinn
Awards Romanian Academy

Constantin Brâncuşi (Romanian pronunciation: [konstanˈtin brɨnˈkuʃʲ]; February 19, 1876 – March 16, 1957) was an internationally renowned Romanian sculptor whose works, which blend simplicity and sophistication, led the way for numerous modernist sculptors.

Contents

Early years

Brâncuşi grew up in the village of Hobiţa Romania, Gorj, near Târgu Jiu, near Romania's Carpathian Mountains, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly ornate woodcarving. The simple geometric patterns of the craftsmen is seen in his mature works.

His parents, Nicolae and Maria Brâncuşi, were poor peasants who earned a meagre living through back-breaking labor, and from the age of seven he herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed remarkable talent for carving objects out of wood. Strong-willed and determined, he often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers.

At the age nine Brâncuşi left the village to work at menial jobs in the nearest large town. At 13 he went to Craiova, where he worked at a grocery store for several years. When he was 18, impressed by Brâncuşi's talent for carving, his employer financed his education at the Craiova Şcoala de Meserii (School of Crafts). There he indulged his love for woodworking, taught himself to read and write, and graduated with honors in 1898.[1]

He then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received academic training in sculpture. He worked hard, and quickly distinguished himself as talented. One of his earliest surviving works, under the guidance of his anatomy teacher, Dimitrie Gerota, is a masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) which was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903.[2] Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.

Working in Paris

'Sleeping Muse', bronze sculpture by Constantin Brâncuși, 1910, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1903 Brâncuşi traveled to Munich, and from there to Paris. In Paris, he was welcomed by the community of artists and intellectuals brimming with new ideas.[3] He worked for two years in the workshop of Antonin Mercié of the École des Beaux-Arts, and was invited to enter the workshop of Auguste Rodin. Even though he admired the eminent Rodin he left the Rodin studio after only two months, saying, "Nothing can grow under big trees."[1]

After leaving Rodin's workshop, Brâncuşi began developing the revolutionary style for which he is known. His first commissioned work, "The Prayer", was part of a gravestone memorial. It depicts a young woman crossing herself as she kneels, and marks the first step toward abstracted, non-literal representation, and shows his drive to depict "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." He also began doing more carving, rather than the method popular with his contemporaries, that of modeling in clay or plaster which would be cast in metal, and by 1908 he worked almost exclusively by carving.

"The Endless Column" in Târgu Jiu, Romania, as restored after 2000

In the following few years he made many versions of "Sleeping Muse" and "The Kiss", further simplifying forms to geometrical and sparse objects.

His works became popular in France, Romania and the United States. Collectors, notably John Quinn, bought his pieces, and reviewers praised his works. In 1913 Brâncuşi's work was displayed at both the Salon des Indépendants and the first exhibition in the U.S. of modern art, the Armory Show.

In 1920 he developed a notorious reputation with the entry of "Princess X" [1] in the Salon. The phallic shape of the piece scandalized the Salon, and despite Brâncuşi's explanation that it was an anonymous portrait, removed it from the exhibition. "Princess X" was revealed to be Princess Marie Bonaparte, direct descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte. Brâncuşi represented or caricatured her life as a large gleaming bronze phallus. This phallus symbolizes the model's obsession with the penis and her lifelong quest to achieve vaginal orgasm, with the help of Sigmund Freud. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, condemned orgasm by clitoral stimulation and praised vaginal orgasm with a penis as the superior and only legitimate type. His condemnation echoed the social mores of his era which condemned masturbation as both morally harmful and as a cause of mental disorders. Her search for the elusive vaginal orgasm led her to have two unsuccessful surgeries and numerous affairs throughout her life with wealthy and famous men.

Around this time he began crafting the bases for his sculptures with much care and originality because he considered them important to the works themselves.

He began working on the group of sculptures that are known as "Bird in Space" — simple shapes representing a bird in flight. The works are based on his earlier "Maiastra" [2] series. In Romanian folklore the Maiastra is a beautiful golden bird who foretells the future and cures the blind. Over the following 20 years, Brâncuşi would make 20-some versions of "Bird in Space" out of marble or bronze. Edward Steichen, a prominent photographer, purchased one of the "birds" in 1926 and shipped it to the United States. However, the customs officers did not accept the "bird" as a work of art and placed a duty upon its import as an industrial item. They charged the high tax placed upon raw metals instead of the no tax on art. A trial the next year overturned the assessment.[4][5] Athena Tacha Spear's book, Brâncuși's Birds, (CAA monographs XXI, NYU Press, New York, 1969), first sorted out the 36 versions and their development, from the early Maiastra, to the Golden Bird of the late teens, to the Bird in Space, which emerged in the early '20s and which Brâncuși perfected all his life.

His work became popular in the U.S., however, and he visited several times during his life. Worldwide fame in 1933 brought him the commission of building a meditation temple in India for Maharajah of Indore, but when Brâncuşi went to India in 1937 to complete the plans and begin construction, the Mahrajah was away and lost interest in the project when he returned.

In 1938, he finished the World War I monument in Tîrgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. "Table of Silence", "Gate of the Kiss", and "Endless Column" commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanian civilians who in 1916 fought off a German invasion. The restoration of this ensemble was spearheaded by the World Monuments Fund and was completed in 2004.

The Târgu Jiu ensemble marks the apex of his artistic career. In his remaining 19 years he created less than 15 pieces, mostly reworking earlier themes, and while his fame grew he withdrew. In 1956 Life magazine reported, "Wearing white pajamas and a yellow gnomelike cap, Brâncuşi today hobbles about his studio tenderly caring for and communing with the silent host of fish birds, heads, and endless columns which he created."

Brâncuşi was cared for in his later years by a Romanian refugee couple. He became a French citizen in 1952 in order to make the caregivers his heirs, and to bequeath his studio and its contents to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

Personal life

Brâncuşi always dressed in the simple ways the Romanian peasants did. His studio was reminiscent of the houses of the peasants from his native region: there was a big slab of rock as a table and a primitive fireplace, similar to those found in traditional houses in his native Oltenia, while the rest of the furniture was made by him out of wood. Brâncuşi would cook his own food, traditional Romanian dishes, with which he would treat his guests.[6]

Brâncuşi held a large spectrum of interests, from science to music. He was a good violinist and he would sing old Romanian folk songs, often expressing by them his feelings of homesickness. Nevertheless, he never considered moving back to his native Romania, but he did visit it eight times.[6]

His circle of friends included artists and intellectuals in Paris such as Ezra Pound, Henri Pierre Roché, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso,Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, and Fernand Léger. He was an old friend of Romany Marie,[7] who was also Romanian, and referred Isamu Noguchi to her café in Greenwich Village.[8] Although surrounded by the Parisian avant-garde, Brâncuşi never lost the contact with Romania and had friends from the community of Romanian artists and intellectuals living in Paris, including Benjamin Fondane, George Enescu, Theodor Pallady, Camil Ressu, Nicolae Dărăscu, Panait Istrati, Traian Vuia, Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran and Paul Celan.[9]

Brâncuşi held a particular interest in mythology, especially Romanian mythology, folk tales, and traditional art (which also had a strong influence to his works), but he became interested in African and Mediterranean art as well.[10]

A talented handyman, he built his own phonograph, and made most of his furniture, utensils, and doorways. His worldview valued "differentiating the essential from the ephemeral," with Plato, Lao-Tzu, and Milarepa as influences. He was a saint-like idealist and near ascetic, turning his workshop into a place where visitors noted the deep spiritual atmosphere. However, particularly through the 10s and 20s, he was known as a pleasure seeker and merrymaker in his bohemian circle. He enjoyed cigarettes, good wine, and the company of women. He had one child whom he never acknowledged.[1]

Death and legacy

He died on March 16, 1957 at the age of 81 leaving 1200 photographs and 215 sculptures. He was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Also located in that cemetery are statues carved by Brâncuşi for several fellow artists who died; the best-known of these is "Le Baiser" ("The Kiss").

His works are housed in the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and in the National Museum of Art of Romania (Bucharest), as well as in other major museums around the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has the largest collection of Brâncuşi sculptures in the United States.

A reconstruction of Brâncuşi's onetime studio in Paris is open to the public. It is close to the Pompidou Centre, in the rue Rambuteau. After being refused by the Romanian Communist government, he bequeathed part of his collection to the French state on condition that his workshop be rebuilt as it was on the day he died.

Brâncuşi was elected post-mortem to the Romanian Academy in 1990.

In 2002, a sculpture by Brâncuşi named "Danaide" was sold for $18.1 million, the highest that a sculpture piece had ever sold for at auction. In May 2005, a piece from the "Bird in Space" series broke that record, selling for $27.5 million in a Christie's auction. In the latest Christie's auction, the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé sale on February 23, 2009, another sculpture of Brâncusi, "Madame L.R", was sold for € 29.185 million ($ 37.2 million), setting a new historical record.

Brâncuşi on his own work

(French) "Il y a des imbéciles qui définissent mon œuvre comme abstraite, pourtant ce qu'ils qualifient d'abstrait est ce qu'il y a de plus réaliste, ce qui est réel n'est pas l'apparence mais l'idée, l'essence des choses." [11] "There are those idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things."
(French) "Ne cherchez pas de mystères; je vous apporte la joie pure." "Don’t look for mysteries; I bring you pure joy."
(Romanian) "Am şlefuit materia pentru a afla linia continuă. Şi când am constatat că n-o pot afla, m-am oprit; parcă cineva nevăzut mi-a dat peste mâini." [12] "I have grinded the matter to find the continuous line. And when I realized I could not find it, I stopped, as if an unseen someone had seen me and slapped my hands."
(Romanian) "Munceste ca un sclav, porunceste ca un rege, creeaza ca un zeu."

"Work like a slave; command like a king; create like a god."

Selected works

Both Bird in Space and Sleeping Muse I are sculptures of animate objects; however, unlike ones from Ancient Greece or Rome, or ones from the High Renaissance period, these works of art are more abstract in style.

Bird in Space is a series from the 1920s. One was constructed in 1925 using wood, stone, and marble (Richler 178). This one measures around seventy-two inches in height and consists of a narrow feather standing erect on a wooden base. Similar models, but made from different materials such as bronze, were also produced by Brancusi and placed in exhibitions.

Sleeping Muse I has different versions as well; one, from 1909-10 is made of marble and measures 6 ¾ in. in height (Adams 549). This is a model of a head, without a body, with markings to show features such as hair, nose, lips, and closed eyes. In A History of Western Art, Adams says that the sculpture has “an abstract, curvilinear quality and a smooth contour that create an impression of elegance” (549). These qualities which produce the effect can particularly be seen in the shape of the eyes and in the set of the mouth.

"The Endless Column", "The Table of Silence", and "The Gate of Kiss" form the Sculptural Ensemble in Târgu Jiu, 1938.

Other works

  • Bust of a boy (1906)
  • The Prayer (1907)
  • La Sagesse de la Terre (1908)
  • Miss Pogany (1913)
  • Madame L.R. (1914-1918)
  • A Muse (1917)
  • Chimera (1918)
  • Portrait of Nancy Cunard (also called Sophisticated Young Lady) (1925-1927)
  • Le Coq (1935)

Gallery

In fiction

In the 1988 movie Short Circuit 2, a man walking through an outdoor exhibition speculates that the stationary Johnny 5 robot, who is also admiring the exhibit, is "an early Brâncuşi."

References

  1. ^ a b c "Constantin Brancusi" at brainjuice.com. (Accessed March 27, 2007.)
  2. ^ Barbu Brezianu, "The Beginnings of Brâncuşi" (translated by Sidney Geist), The Art Journal, vol. 25, no. 1 (1965), 15-25. doi:10.2307/774863
  3. ^ Metropolitan Museum of Art website
  4. ^ Force Metal ezine
  5. ^ Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, pages 272, 275, 318. Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996.
  6. ^ a b Sandqvist, p. 249
  7. ^ Robert Shulman. Romany Marie: The Queen of Greenwich Village (pp. 85-86, 109). Louisville: Butler Books, 2006. ISBN 1-88453-274-8.
  8. ^ John Haber. "Before Buckyballs". Review of Noguchi Museum's Best of Friends exhibition (2006). http://www.haberarts.com/fuller.htm.  
  9. ^ Sandqvist, p. 249-250
  10. ^ Sandqvist, p. 250
  11. ^ (Romanian) "Sculptura pe Internet". Caiete Silvane magazine. http://www.caietesilvane.ro/indexcs.php?cmd=articol&idart=232. Retrieved 2008-11-01.  
  12. ^ (Romanian) Vavila Popovici. "Jurnal American - 21 Septembrie, altă zi la New York". Centrul Cultural Pitești. http://www.centrul-cultural-pitesti.ro/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=406. Retrieved 2008-11-01.  
  • Tom Sandqvist, Dada East - The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, MIT Press, 2006, ISBN 0-262-19507-0
  • Adams, Laura S. A History of Western Art. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
  • Richler, Martha. National Gallery of Art, Washington: A World of Art. London: Scala Books, 1998.

External links

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