Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a Romanian sculptor who settled in France, revolutionized the art of sculpture in the 20th century. His work revealed the beauty of pure form in sculpture, but he endowed it with an organic mystery.
Constantin Brancusi was born into a family of poor peasants in the hamlet of Hobita in the province of Oltenia on Feb. 21, 1876. He taught himself to read and write and at the age of 18 entered the School of Arts and Crafts in Craiova and graduated in 1898. He then studied sculpture at the Bucharest Art School until 1902. His Ecorché, or flayed nude, executed in 1902, is such an accurate study of the male anatomy that it is still used at the medical school in Bucharest.
Brancusi enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1904, where he studied with Antonin Mercié. But Brancusi was drawn to the innovative art of Auguste Rodin, from whom he learned that the purpose of sculpture is not merely the representation of the surface of forms but the evocation of the inner force that produces the surface. He exhibited for the first time in 1906 in Paris, showing a portrait at the Salon organized by the Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts and three other works at the Salon d'Automne in the same year. In Brancusi's works of 1905-1907, particularly the series Children's Heads, he used Rodin's impressionistic system of modeling, in which the planes bounding the volume are fragmented to suggest the transitory expressions of the physiognomy. Brancusi declined Rodin's invitation to become his studio assistant because he felt it necessary to find his own way without being subjected to the master's over-whelming influence.
The nature of Brancusi's future work, in which he eliminated all that was not essential in order to suggest the primordial sentiment, was foreshadowed in Prayer (1907), a statue of a kneeling woman which concentrates attention on the generalized contour of the body and not analytically on its volume. Step by step he reached a greater degree of simplification, of abstraction of the real element, which was still figurative. The decorative value was obtained by geometrical stringency and skillfully polished surfaces, as in the Wisdom of the Earth (1909) and The Kiss (1910). These works embody his new esthetics, inspired by folklore, which permitted a return to the suggestiveness and naive simplicity of primitive art. He dissected the scheme of folk art, which he took as his model, and retraced the slope back to the path of its formation, to the sentiment that gave it birth.
Maturity of His Art
By 1910 Brancusi's art took on the characteristics which were to revitalize sculpture. He worked in stone, wood, and bronze, perfecting his rendition of earlier themes, such as the portrait (Mademoiselle Pogany series, 1912-1933), the bird (Magic Bird cycle, 1912-1915; Bird in Space cycle, 1919-1940), the fish (Fish cycle, 1922-1930), and the column (Endless Column series, 1918-1937). In these works he projected his own rich inner life, at times haunted by fantasies of Romanian mythology, bypassing the intermediate representation of the human figure. Sculptures such as The Witch (1916) and The Chimera (1918) are sensitive incarnations of that sentiment which had given rise to Brancusi's native folklore. Brancusi's aim in his mature work was to reveal the crystalline structure of organic forms and to bring out the autonomous life of inorganic matter inherent in the very consistency of stone, metal, and wood.
Brancusi's Parisian studio was crowded with Romanian folk art. He led a simple life, similar to that of the peasants in his native province, which he never forgot, no matter how integrated he was in the French artistic movement. He was very successful and received numerous commissions. To honor the Romanian soldiers of World War I, Brancusi erected a monumental ensemble at Târgu-Jiu near his birthplace, which consists of the Endless Column in steel and the Gate of the Heroes and the Table of Silence with 12 chairs in stone (1937-1938). The structural and decorative elements of the monument were derived from the simple architecture and furniture of the Romanian peasants.
Brancusi died in Paris on March 16, 1957.
Contemplation and Liberation
Brancusi demonstrated that modern art, while preserving the harmony, balance, and humanism of its western European artistic legacy, could originate from the primordial ages of mankind which preceded the culture of classical antiquity. He invented forms that begin from reality but are not subject to it. His simple, calm forms, of organic perfection (although they have sometimes been considered abstract), reflect the creative attitude that is fundamental to modern plastic arts: renunciation of the method of interpreting sentiment by means of the poses and gestures of the human body (for example, the Beginning of the World, 1924; Socrates, 1923). Brancusi was interested in the stylization of forms in accordance with a logic governed by the requirements of expression (for example, The Cock, 1924). He reduced the image to the essential, pure form, as in his famed versions of Bird in Space.
The highly personal art of Brancusi cannot be labeled by the terms applied to modern movements, such as surrealism, cubism, abstraction, or futurism. It expresses his profound grasp of the intuitive spirit of creation, which is ingeniously integrated with the major stylistic aspects of modern art.
Further Reading on Constantin Brancusi
The most important work on Brancusi in English is Sidney Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture (1968). Geist also wrote the catalog for the retrospective exhibition held in 1969-1970, Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957 (1969). See also David Lewis, Constantin Brancusi (1957); Sir Herbert Read, Constantin Brancusi (1957); Carola Giedion-Welcker, Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957 (1958; trans. 1959); and Christian Zervos, ed., Constantin Brancusi: Sculptures, peintures, fresques, dessins, in French (1957). An important documentation of the bird sculptures is Athena T. Spear, Brancusi's Birds (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Lewis, David Neville, Constantin Brancusi, London: Academy Editions; New York: St. Martins Press, 1974.