Brâncuși in New York

Guggenheim Museum - Muse, 1912 (Marble on oak base)
Guggenheim Museum – Muse, 1912 (Marble on oak base)

The story of The Muse is a convoluted one. The sculpture, a highly stylized bust of a pensive woman made by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși in 1912, was purchased at auction in 1955 for $7,000 by Ileana Bulova, wife of Arde Bulova, the watch manufacturer. The sculpture was bequeathed to the Guggenheim Museum three years later under the terms of his will. But Mrs. Bulova claimed the work as her own, and in 1969 won an 11-year court battle for its return. The museum fought the Court of Appeals order, but lost, and in 1971 two deputy sheriffs removed the work after having signed a statement that they were doing so “over the stated objections” of the museum’s administration.

Guggenheim Museum - Muse, 1912 (Marble on oak base)
Guggenheim Museum – Muse, 1912 (Marble on oak base)

In 1981, Mrs. Ileana Bulova Lindt sold The Muse for $800,000 to the art dealer Andrew Crispo. Two years later, Mr Crispo ended up in jail over different matters, and in 1985 the sculpture returned to the Guggenheim, this time for good, after the museum paid more than $2 million to reacquire it. Still, a lot cheaper than the $37.1 million that the wooden sculpture Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.) fetched in 2009 when the collection of Saint Laurent and Berge was sold off at Christie’s in Paris.

Born in Romania in 1876, Constantin Brâncuși first studied sculpture at the School of Arts and Crafts in Craiova (1894–98) and then at the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest (1898–1902). It was a measure of his ambition that in 1904, at 27, he walked most of the way from Romania to Paris to complete his art studies here, at the École des Beaux-Arts (1905–07). In Paris he was welcomed by a community of artists and intellectuals including Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Marcel Duchamp. Three years later, at the age of 30, the sculptor’s career seemed to look up when he joined the studio of the French master Auguste Rodin, who was then at the height of his career. But after just one month, he walked out.

Years later his explanation became famous: “Nothing grows beneath great trees.” Yet Brâncuși was clearly escaping more than Rodin’s immense shadow. Brâncuși rejected Rodin’s 19th century emphasis on theatricality and accumulation of detail in favour of radical simplification and abbreviation. He was in search of new forms, and he concluded, “I had to find my own path.” The wisdom of this break was soon apparent. He suppressed all decoration and explicit narrative referents in an effort to create pure and resonant forms. His goal was to capture the essence of his subjects and render them visible with minimal formal means. Within a year his stone sculpture “The Kiss”, two cubic heads kissing, marked a change of direction. In 1909, with his first Sleeping Muse, a marble ovoid head with delicate stylized features lying peacefully on its side, Brâncuși began to earn his place as a central figure of modern sculpture.

The Kiss
The Kiss
The Met - Sleeping Muse, 1910 (Bronze)
The Met – Sleeping Muse, 1910 (Bronze)

Although Brâncuși lived the last 53 years of his life in Paris, his importance was first recognized in the United States. “Without the Americans, I could never have produced all that, nor even perhaps have existed,” he said to the New York Times in 1955 when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum celebrated his work with the first museum retrospective of his work. Brâncuși’s second Guggenheim retrospective occurred in 1969, and was held in the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda. He also felt at home in the United States. “When I approached New York on the boat,” he noted after his first visit in 1926, “I had the impression of seeing my studio on a large scale.”

It was this first visit to New York in 1926 and the city’s ascending architecture that gave him the initial idea for the Endless Column series, originally conceiving the work as a piece of architecture. It was important to him to have an Endless Column placed outside and in 1935 he was asked to submit a design for a memorial to Romanian soldiers fallen in WWI at the site in Târgu-Jiu. Endless Column became the major element in this memorial, 30 meters high and built of fifteen cast iron rhomboids, stacked one above the other. Its difference from all other sculpture before it lies in its particular suggestion of infinity, which is achieved by the repetition of identical units, and it is worth drawing a comparison with Le Corbusier’s Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau, designed for the 1925 Arts Décoratifs exhibition, which like Endless Column was also conceived of a series of stacked units. Le Corbusier was a frequent visitor to Brâncuși’s studio in the 1920s and this would certainly have had an impact on Brâncuși’s knowledge of forward thinking architectural developments of the time.

Endless Column, Târgu Jiu
Endless Column, Târgu Jiu

He made his debut in New York in 1913 at the Armory Show, where the sculptor exhibited five works that directed modern sculpture on a radical new path. His sculptures ignited a crucial shift in the tradition of American and European sculpture by distilling representational forms down to their most essential elements. His influence also extended well beyond sculpture, as explained by museum director and Brâncuși expert Pontus Hulten is his 1983 essay, Brâncuși and the Concept of Sculpture. “Among the painters of that generation, Frank Stella was drawn most to Brâncuși’s simplicity of form. The origins in Stella’s early work are only comprehensive by his study of the asymmetry and superposition of elementary forms as seen in Brâncuși’s sculpture.”

His popularity in New York and the United States grew over the following years. MoMA included works by Brâncuși in more than ten group exhibitions between 1934 and his death in 1957.

MoMA (from left to right) Blond Negress, II, 1933 (Bronze on four-part pedestal of marble, limestone, and two oak sections carved by Brâncuși) The Cock, 1924 (Cherry) Bird in Space, 1928 (Bronze) Mlle Pogany version I, 1913 (Bronze with black patina on limestone base) Maiastra, 1910-12 (White marble on three-part limestone of which the middle section is double caryatid c. 1908) Socrates, 1922 (Oak on oak footing with limestone cylinder)
MoMA (from left to right)
Blond Negress, II, 1933 (Bronze on four-part pedestal of marble, limestone, and two oak sections carved by Brâncuși)
The Cock, 1924 (Cherry)
Bird in Space, 1928 (Bronze)
Mlle Pogany version I, 1913 (Bronze with black patina on limestone base)
Maiastra, 1910-12 (White marble on three-part limestone of which the middle section is double caryatid c. 1908)
Socrates, 1922 (Oak on oak footing with limestone cylinder)

In 1926, Brâncuși created a sculpture of Bird in Space (now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum) and sent it from Paris to New York City for an exhibition of his work at the Brummer Gallery (curated by his great friend and advocate Marcel Duchamp). Although the law permitted artworks, including sculpture, to enter the US free from import taxes, when Bird in Space arrived, officials refused to let it enter as art. To qualify as “sculpture”, works had to be “reproductions by carving or casting, imitations of natural objects, chiefly the human form”. Because Bird in Space did not look much like a bird at all, officials classified it as a utilitarian object (under “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies”!!) and levied against it 40% of the work’s value. Bewildered and exasperated by this assessment, Brâncuși launched a complaint in court in defence of Bird in Space.

The Met - Bird in Space, 1923 (Marble)
The Met – Bird in Space, 1923 (Marble)

The initial question before the court was whether Brâncuși’s work adequately resembled that which it was supposed to “imitate”, as indicated by its title. Passing that test would make it a sculpture (and therefore art) and exempt it from customs duties. The task of the trial became, however, how to define “sculpture” and, for that matter, “art”. Testimony was provided by a number of experts, including the sculpture’s owner, Edward Steichen, an artist and future director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, as well as British sculptor Jacob Epstein and Brooklyn Museum Director William Henry Fox. During his testimony, the art critic Frank Crowninshield was asked by the court what it was about the object which would lead him to believe it was a bird. He responded: “It has the suggestion of flight, it suggests grace, aspiration, vigour, coupled with speed in the spirit of strength, potency, beauty, just as a bird does. But just the name, the title, of this work, why, really, it does not mean much”.

Ultimately, the court was persuaded that its definition of what constituted art was out of date. The decision of Judge J. Waite read, “In the meanwhile there has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas and the schools which represent them, we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art worlds as recognized by the courts must be considered”.

The judge dropped the fee, which was a triumphant victory for Brâncuși and his contemporaries in Paris and America. In the second exhibition of Brâncuși’s work at Brummer Gallery, curated by Duchamp in 1933, Art News wrote that Brâncuși “tries to open for us portals into an ageless world of deep and simple satisfactions. He seeks to re-awaken that childlike sense of wonder, which the standardised efficiencies of modern living have almost killed”. The mood of this particular response reflects the fact that this exhibition took place during the Great Depression and a correspondingly dormant art market. It is amazing that such an undertaking was accomplished in those times and speaks volumes of Brâncuși’s popularity and the loyalty of his American admirers despite the damaged economy. In fact, without his American enthusiasts Brâncuși probably would not have been able to produce or even exist during this period, as the Paris avant-garde did not benefit from any state or institutional aid and depended on the continuous support of enlightened sponsors.

On 15 July MoMA will re-enact the 1926 trial with the original documents at hand in a public gallery session that reflects on the constant process of defining and redefining art. Before then, on 2 July another public gallery session at MoMA will explore the extraordinary life and work of Constantin Brâncuși, focusing on how the unique combination of his Romanian heritage and his involvement with members of the School of Paris had a major influence on his work.

In the 90 years since Constantin Brâncuși first conceived Bird in Space, our understanding of what constitutes an artwork, and for that matter, who can occupy the role of artist, has become broader and more inclusive.

MoMA - Bird in Space, 1928 (Bronze)
MoMA – Bird in Space, 1928 (Bronze)

The development of the bird theme in Constantin Brâncuși’s oeuvre can be traced from its appearance in the Maiastra sculptures (1910–18) through the Golden Bird (L’Oiseau d’or, 1919) group and, finally, to the Bird in Space series. Sixteen examples of the Bird in Space (L’Oiseau dans l’espace, 1923–40) sequence, dating from 1923 to 1940, have been identified. The streamlined form of the Bird in Space, stripped of individualizing features, communicates the notion of flight itself rather than describing the appearance of a particular bird.

MoMA - Maiastra, 1910-12 (White marble on three-part limestone of which the middle section is double caryatid c. 1908)
MoMA – Maiastra, 1910-12 (White marble on three-part limestone of which the middle section is double caryatid c. 1908)

Brâncuși found the secret of being an eternally popular avant-gardist: make it simple. He was largely unscathed by Cubism and its challenging difficulty. Instead of fracturing reality like Picasso, Braque and company, Brâncuși (and later Modigliani) streamlined it, jettisoning all but the bare necessities of representation. He made it simple but kept it legible.

He grounded the new in the old, in an accessible, comforting way. In his hands the modern became welcoming, not aloof; human, not alien; round and vulnerable, not angular and defensive. As with van Gogh, his visual style is implicitly lovable, and loved for itself, not because the artist’s life story is sensational or stereotypically bohemian.

The modernity of Brâncuși’s art lies in the fact that he created artistic equivalents for, rather than imitating the forms of nature. As child he had contact with simple geometric forms, as the Byzantine tradition was still alive in Romania and this, linked with his interest in Eastern philosophy was important in his approach to his work. Once he had discovered his principle themes he perfected them tirelessly until his death in 1957. Brâncuși was certainly a master in utilising the specific qualities of the material to his advantage; he was the first Modernist sculptor to polish bronze to the point of obtaining a reflective surface; when working in marble he drew inspiration from its veined surface and when using wood, the grain of the material was of utmost importance. Brâncuși felt that the form should come from within the material itself and it was only by gazing at it for a long time that a complete fusion of mind and matter could be achieved. As he best summed up, “In art, one does not aim for simplicity; one achieves it unintentionally as one gets closer to the real meaning of things”.

Brâncuși’s work not only reveals the link between the archaic and the modern, but also capitalizes on that link. Picasso learned from African, prehistoric and Romanesque sculpture; Brancusi brilliantly updated their powerful forms with his refined surfaces and Art Deco suaveness. Sitting on their limestone and marble pedestals, his compact forms operate in the gap between Stone Age and space age. Even though he was a man of his time, he did not want his work to form part of the history of his time, he wanted to create eternal and universal works.

Brâncuși’s importance as a sculptor also lies in the emphasis he gave to his hand carved bases, which as abstract forms exist in their own right. Cubes, cylinders, hemicylinders, truncated pyramids, serrated forms and Greek cross shapes were combined at will and regularly took apart and reassembled. The status of his bases as works of art is an important issue in the development of 20th century sculpture. Central to Renaissance tradition had been the concept that sculpture should be isolated from its surroundings and that the base should serve to enhance this isolation. Brâncuși was now beginning to redraw the boundaries of art; it was important to him for the base to be part of rather than separate from the sculpture, yet there had to be some distinction between the two parts. This differentiation was often achieved by combining different materials and the vertical, soaring movement was arrived at by positioning forms in a rhythm that rises in a crescendo, lifting the sculpture to an indefinable summit, to the degree that the rooster’s crowing is almost audible in the serrated shape of The Cock . The bases, with their varying degrees of vertical emphasis can be compared to Endless Column; the conception of a pillar that holds earth and sky apart is central to a cosmological system in which the infinite can be attained by departing from this world. Brâncuși’s combination and recombination of bases in terms of sculptural mobility corresponds to the variability and experimental openness of modernism, but it was also significant from a philosophical point of view, as he eloquently expressed, “We are on a sphere; we play with other spheres; we combine them, we make them sparkle”.

MoMA - The Cock, 1924 (Cherry)
MoMA – The Cock, 1924 (Cherry)

As important to him as the form of his sculptures were the materials he worked with: stone, marble, bronze, metal and wood. Even cherry wood! He worked slowly, meticulously, usually with a small hammer, allowing the material, he would say, to speak for itself. “Matter must continue its natural life when modified by the hand of the sculptor,” he once explained. And on another occasion: “The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter.” Polishing, which he did by hand until his marble and bronze pieces achieved a shimmering and fragile translucency, was crucial to his vision of his work. “I think a true form should suggest infinity,” he said, “the surfaces cut to look as if they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”

Brâncuși often depicted the human head, another favourite subject, as a unitary ovoid shape separate from the body. When placed on its side, it evokes images of repose. Some of Brâncuși’s streamlined oval heads, whose forms recall Indian fertility sculptures in their fusion of egglike and phallic shapes, suggest the miracle of creation.

Brâncuși’s Muse is a subtle monument to the aesthetic act and to the myth that woman is its inspiration. The finely chiselled and smoothly honed head is poised atop a sinuous neck, the curve of which is counterbalanced by a fragmentary arm pressed against the ear. The facial features, although barely articulated, embody the proportions of classical beauty. As in the sculptor’s Mlle Pogany, the subject’s hair is coiffed in a bun at the base of the neck. But while Mlle Pogany is the image of a particular woman, The Muse is the embodiment of an ideal.

Guggenheim Museum - Muse, 1912 (Marble on oak base)
Guggenheim Museum – Muse, 1912 (Marble on oak base)
MoMA - Mlle Pogany version I, 1913 (Bronze with black patina on limestone base)
MoMA – Mlle Pogany version I, 1913 (Bronze with black patina on limestone base)

The beautiful, elegant, intelligent, sexually liberated and charismatic Nancy Cunard was sculpted numerous times by Brâncuși (Nancy was unaware of two until photographs arrived from the Guggenheim Museum) and we’ll have to decide for ourselves if Brâncuși saw her as the embodiment of an ideal or simply a beautiful woman.

The Met - Nancy Cunard, 1932 (Polished bronze)
The Met – Nancy Cunard, 1932 (Polished bronze)
The Met - Nancy Cunard, 1925 Gelatin silver print; 27.5 x 21.2 cm (10 13/16 x 8 3/8 in. ) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Winthrop Edey, 1999 (1999.367.4)
The Met – Nancy Cunard, 1925 (Gelatin silver print)
The Met - Nancy Cunard, 1932 (Polished bronze)
The Met – Nancy Cunard, 1932 (Polished bronze)

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