Given the endless columns written on Brâncuși to date, it might seem impossible to say anything novel about the shepherd boy turned international modernist sculptor superstar but maybe I can point out some of the more intriguing aspects of his apparently unlikely rise and indicate just how extraordinary his life was. It’s a pertinent time to do this as a film about his trek to France during 1903/04 is to be released later this year. Entitled “Walking to Paris” Peter Greenaway’s new film depicts the adventurous and single minded 27 year old as he travelled across Europe from tiny Romanian village to the, then, International Art world HQ in Paris.
By Giles Eldridge
Constantin Brâncuși (1876, Hobița – 1957, Paris)
“To see far is one thing, going there is another”
The film speculates the happenings and experiences along the way but the fact that he walked is actually true – almost. Five actors play the various ages of the artist including Scottish born Emun Elliot and the Italian Jacopo Uccella. Yes, it may appear a little disappointing that there are no Romanian actors or even locations in this film but this is cinema as artifice not documentary and it’s hard to imagine a better filmmaker than Greenaway for this task for although best known for his films he is in fact also a painter and installation artist. This is why he makes films that look the way they do – cinematic paintings. His narratives allow for theatricality while the film as a whole concentrates on the visual. Most films about artists do the opposite and attempt an authentic portrayal of the working life of the artist and, to my mind, nearly alway fail to present images or even atmospheric mise en scène. I think that we can expect “Walking to Paris” to be an intriguing and idiosyncratic visual slice of life.
A recent Christies’ auction saw the price for a Brâncuși bronze settle at 71 million US dollars. This incredibly high price indicates not necessarily redeemable value but rather the status now commanded by the artist as mythological figure. His sculptures are not simply seen as art objects but talisman. He is now up there with the likes of Picasso, with just 5 years between them they both went on to become huge names during the same era; now somehow beyond themselves to that elevated position of “genius”. However with Brâncuși the backdrop is rather different. Picasso was nurtured artistically from an early age by his art professor father. Brâncuși on the other hand could not have had a less auspicious start, literally growing up looking after sheep. Brâncuși achieved what he did by positioning himself within international circles in Paris; he exported himself and his skills and culture as quiet exoticism. What is so notable about Brâncuși is the way that he drew from motifs found in the wood carvings employed in Romanian vernacular architecture such as the circles, semi-circles and repeated zig-zag forms that can be seen carved within the wooden gates in Romanian villages. Actually you don’t have to travel far to see these patterns as the same circular designs turn up in places such as the Eroilor Metrou station here in Bucharest – the circle halved and repeated. Simple forms repeated is a central trait of the work of Brâncuși and the forms he took from Romanian folk culture were unfamiliar enough to be presented as exotic and new in the art world of early 20th century Paris.
I am going to assume that we all know something about this particular Romanian artist, if only for his Coloana Infinitului – Endless Column sculpture. The image of this repeated modular form will be familiar to many, yet there is so much more to the story and here I have put together some of the more memorable events.
“Simplicity is complexity resolved”
In the wider context of art he resonated with a Modernist approach as it was being played out in other disciplines, such as painting. For example the Russian artist Malevich had upset the history of painting when he exhibited a simple black square in 1915. Derived from religious icon paintings and likewise hung in the corner of the gallery this painting seemed revolutionary, even though it had traditional origins. By doing something slight with existing materials or shifting perspectives, concentrating more on context than object there was a change of view on what art could be. In other words not grandiose gestures but more simple actions coming from thinking as much as making and reflecting on and drawing from personal backgrounds.
Maybe my favourite strand in the Brâncuși story is the one relating to the legal battle for the definition of art itself! Produced in 1926 a sculpture entitled, Bird in Space, an elongated and elegant twist of bronze, challenged import law in the USA when it arrived in the same year bound for an exhibition in New York. Initially Custom’s authorities wanted to impose a 40% import tax having designated it as a “Utilitarian object” (under kitchen and hospital equipment!). Looking at it now it is hard to imagine just what sort of cuisine or surgical procedure it might have be used for. A court case ensued: Brâncuși vs United States of America and various expert witnesses were assembled for both sides of the argument. These included the British sculptor Jacob Epstein as a witness for the plaintiff, who produced, as an exhibit, a 3000 year old Egyptian sculpture of a bird. With its stylised and reduced exotic form it assisted his evidence by showing that the move towards abstraction had started some time ago. Eventually the court agreed and ruled in favour of the avant-garde Romanian sculptor and thus altered the legal definition of art in the US! It was a victory for European intellectual sensibility against dull US commercial concerns. Bird in space had thus been presented as suggesting flight rather than depicting it; understanding the object as initiating an idea rather than investing all in the artisan properties of the thing itself. Apparently this is still a difficult idea for many people to grasp, yet surely Brâncuși shows us just how simple the notion is.
“What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things”
Actually the response to his works was often controversial. In New York a historically very important exhibition of American and European art took place at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue and 25th Street. Thus famously known as the Armoury Show (1913) this was a landmark exhibition that made a considerable impression on the conservative American audience as it was the first time they had seen works by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Duchamp and Picabia all in the same room. The works by American artists in the show looked rather straightforward and tame by comparison. Included in the exhibition were a number of sculptures by one Constantin Brâncuși. One piece in particular seemed to disturb and it was described by one critic as looking like an ‘egg on a sugar cube’ In fact it was a portrait of a young Hungarian art student, Margit Pogany. Again it was an example of a reduction of form to something semi abstract. Later in 1920, back in Paris a much more controversial sculpture was exhibited at the Salon Des Indépendants. Based on an earlier piece depicting a woman looking into a mirror, five years later the sculptor had reduced the head and shoulders to a frankly suggestive form of shiny bronze protruberance supported by two spheres. In fact it became impossible to see this piece as anything other than an enormous phallus. Allusively entitled Princess X the sculpture had been based on a portrait of the Great grand niece of Napoleon, Marie Bonaparte, who co-incidentally, during an exceptionally interesting life, did herself undertake academic research into female sexuality. Regardless of Brâncuși’s insistence that the piece depicted the famous French woman the exhibit was removed by the gallery.
So, European intellect through art had impinged on reactionary American attitudes in the world of commerce and his reduced forms still had the capacity to upset the artistic milieu of Paris. Brâncuși had, through simple sculptures started to challenge the way people looked at sculpture on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I knew that what needed to happen would happen.”
When he was 18, Brâncuși had created a violin by hand with materials he found around his workplace. Impressed by Brâncuși’s talent for carving, a local industrialist funded his passage through the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts. After this he attended art school in Bucharest and then famously ‘walked’ the 2000 km to Paris. In fact, he had planned to take the train, of course! He was at the time making academic portraits undertaken in a traditional manner but a commission for the Military Hospital was not well received and somehow he did not get funded in full. Thus the youthful, artist decided to take control of the situation and made a bit of a road trip out of it, albeit without a car. He didn’t, as is sometimes implied, do the whole thing in one go. In fact the route was Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Rohrschach, Zurich, Basel and Langres. He stayed in Munich for six months and, quite reasonably, travelled by rail for part of the journey in France, having contracted pneumonia. Initially in Paris he worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant (I wonder how he stacked the dishes) and as a sexton at a Romanian chapel. Inevitably he started to meet and befriend artists on the scene, most notably Modigliani and Soutine. Famously he was, for a few days at least, a studio assistant to Rodin but, as the story goes, he decided that he would not flourish in the shadow of such a giant.
He stayed in Paris for the rest of his life. In later years he was looked after by two Romanian painters who had become his neighbours. They inherited his estate and were buried at the same site as Brâncuși at Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris, their names appear below his on the tomb stone.
In his personal life and up to the present day there is also some intrigue and mystery; Brâncuși had a son from a relationship with New Zealand pianist Vera Moore, who was introduced to the artist by the English art collector, Jim Ede. Now living near Paris, John Constantin Brâncuși Moore, a former photographer for the famous French cabaret, Crazy Horse, is still trying to be recognised as the only offspring of the lead figure of Modernist sculpture. However the father’s name remains blank on his birth certificate. In 2016 a Paris based Romanian film maker, Ionuț Teianu produced a film entitled Searching for the lost father, which tells of this 82 year old, yet, ongoing story. Does this character have a role in the Greenaway film? We’ll have to wait and see.
The Endless Column has international renown. If the powers that control these things cared, it could or perhaps should be the visual identity for Romania, its Effiel tower. It is a synthesis of the traditional and modern in one succinct visual form.
“Architecture is inhabited sculpture”
Now, to be perfectly honest, for me, Brâncuși’s The Kiss, 1907, is not a great piece of sculpture. Can I say that? To my eye the first manifestation of this subject is awkward and lacks grace, yet it becomes utterly sublime when he continued, in subsequent pieces, to work through the design to abstract it for the The Gate of The Kiss, Târgu Jiu – in 1938. This idea of development through repetition or reworking an idea over a number of years was a method that the artist employed to the end. The Gate of the Kiss was part an ensemble sculptural site specific installation made up of two further elements: the Table of Silence and the Endless Column (1938) where a dialogue between the works exists, even though there is 1.5km between them! The work is in fact a war memorial commissioned by the Women’s League of Gorj to commemorate the battle to protect Târgu Jiu from German forces in 1916; Romanian soldiers, alongside the townspeople themselves, successfully defended a strategic bridge. Brâncuși relished the opportunity to undertake a large scale sculpture in his home country and undertook the work without payment. Rather ironically Romania was fighting with the Germans just 3 years later so the installation’s original function soon seemed a little lacking in relevance and to the post war Communists it merely represented decadent abstract art undertaken by an out of favour émigré. They attempted to pull it down but gave up when the tractor used was only able to tilt it to one side. Today it has been fully restored and must be one of the least visited famous sculptures in the world.