Constantin Brâncuşi: complexity becomes elegant simplicity

“Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave” 

Thanks to his poetics based on formal simplicity, and aimed at capturing the true essence of the subjects going beyond their appearance, Constantin Brâncuşi is considered one of the founders of modern sculpture. Born in 1876 in Hobita, Romania, he studied at the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest, but soon he felt that the classicist approach of the academy was clashing with his free and innovative inspiration.

From Bucharest to Paris

Therefore, when he was 28 years old and broke, Brâncuşi travelled on foot through Europe, from Bucharest to Paris, which was a necessary destination for every artist. This memorable enterprise has recently inspired the movie director Peter Greenaway for “Walking to Paris”, which will come out on the big screens in 2018: the director tells the story of this amazing journey, at the end of which young Constantin, destined to become one of the most important sculptors of the twentieth century, hits the Eiffel Tower with a hammer.

The new originating from the past

Despite living in close contact with some of the protagonists of the Parisian art scene, such as Duchamp and Modigliani, Brâncuşi did not adhere to any of the avant-gardes founded in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. However, what tied him to his contemporary artists was his desire to break with traditions and to renew Western art. The Romanian sculptor succeeded in his intent by proposing new aesthetic standards inspired by the primitivism of African, Egyptian, Indian and Romanian sculpture, reinterpreted according to a modern aesthetic, based on an extreme stylization of forms.

The beginning: “The Kiss”

The stylistic evolution of Brâncuşi was strongly influenced by the work of the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso and the French Auguste Rodin, of whom he was an apprentice. Their way of working with matter, according to an anti-naturalistic selection of details to be represented, was exasperated by Brâncuşi, who in 1907 made the first of the numerous versions of The Kiss, which is the manifesto of his poetics. The theme of the lovers locked in a passionate embrace while kissing each other, drawn from Rodin’s work, was proposed with an extreme, primordial and archaic syntheticism: a limestone block from which two barely outlined figures emerge.

Constantin Brâncuşi, The Kiss, 1916, Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Simplify the shapes to unleash the energy of matter

In addition to stone, Brâncuşi worked with bronze, marble, brass and wood, with which he created rougher sculptures similar to Romanian handicrafts. By means of direct cutting, the artist obtained mostly oval shapes, which he accurately shaped to deal with the recurring themes of his production: the “Heads”, the “Măiastra series” and the “Bird in Space”, which the artist reproduced in an irrepressible search for what is essential, through a progressive elimination of what is unnecessary.

Constantin Brâncuşi, Sleeping Muse, 1910, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

The “Măiastra series”

Brâncuşi was fond of the theme of flight, which in 1910 he started treating with the Măiastra, inspired to the homonymous legendary bird that, in the fairy tales taken from the Romanian folklore, led the prince to the castle where a girl in distress was locked. Looking stiff with a high head and long neck, the sculpture was the first of a series of about thirty works. Progressively loosing every figurative connotation, the “Măiastra series” took on neat, curving and always more tapering shapes, to emphasize the idea of an upward momentum, up to the creation of the famous Bird in Space. For this work, exhibited at the New York Brummer Gallery, in 1926 Brâncuşi sued the United States customs, as it had classified the sculpture as a taxable industrial artifact, and not as an artwork exempt from customs duty by law.

Constantin Brâncuşi, Maiastra, 1912, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Romanian artist naturalized French

When Brâncuşi permanently settled in Paris in 1904, he continued keeping close contacts with Romania, where in 1937 he sculpted The Gate of the Kiss, The Table of Silence and the famous 30-meter tall sculpture entitled The Endless Column, all of them made for a park in Târgu Jiu, in loving memory of the Romanian dead soldiers of the First World War. After obtaining French citizenship in 1952, Brâncuși died in 1957. Before dying, the sculptor wrote in his testament that his studio, which today is recreated in the square facing the Centre Pompidou, was to be donated to the State, which had been so friendly to him and had made him famous.