Saturday, 19 February 2011

Why I like Brancusi...

Today would have been Constantin Brancusi’s 135th birthday so I thought I'd post up a few quick thoughts on why he's so great.

Brancusi (1876-1957) was one of the founding figures of modern sculpture and one of the most original artists of the twentieth-century and one of my favourite artists. His groundbreaking carvings introduced abstraction and primitivism into sculpture for the first time, and were as important as Picasso’s paintings to the development of modern art.

Brancusi’s serenely simplified sculptures are widely acknowledged as icons of modernism. His choice of materials including marble and limestone, bronze and wood, and his individual expression through carving, established him as a leading avant-garde artist. He was a close friend of both Amedeo Modigliani and Marcel Duchamp, and his work has inspired sculptors from Barbara Hepworth to Carl Andre and Donald Judd.
Brancusi was born in Romania in 1876.
His parents were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labour, and from the age of seven he herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers. At the age of nine, Brancusi left small village and went to work in bigger and larger town.
At 18 his grocery store employer was so impressed by Brancusi's talent for carving, he financed his education in Craiova. Brancusi went on to study in Bucharest. His masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.
In 1904 Brancusi moved to Paris (legend has it, on foot). He washed dishes, enrolled at art school, and got himself a job - briefly - as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. Shortly after that Brancusi made a stone carving he called The Kiss.

Of course, there was a precedent. A decade before, Rodin had made a stone sculpture, now very well known and loved, called
 The Kiss. Its pair of over-lifesized figures grapple mightily on a Promethean rock, bodies surging with Michelangelo muscle. And what is Brancusi's reply? An object about a foot high, in which two little cuboid figures are pressed together in a childlike hug, face flat to face, arms wrapped round each other's backs.

It is a critique of Rodin, certainly. It eliminates all trace of Rodin's muscliness. It stands opposed to Rodin's production methods. Rodin had done the modelling of his sculpture in plaster, then had assistants copy it in marble. Brancusi's sculpture is ostentatiously a piece of true carving. The square block of stone it was made from is still visible, hardly transformed at all, in the shapes of its compacted huggers.
More than a critique, Brancusi's simple, sweet  lovers are a joking riposte to Rodin's inflated and theatrical clinch. Beside the Rodin, the Brancusi looks absurd and crude. And beside the Brancusi, the Rodin looks absurd,  grandiose and explicit. Which is sublime, and which ridiculous, is a matter of taste. The two embody quite irreconcilable ideas of sculptural seriousness.
And Brancusi's is a very serious, beautiful, transfixing and uplifting art - and at the same time it is a comic art. It works with all the tricks of comedy: bathos, caricature, the pun, the anticlimax.
Bathos - the comic comedown - is a favourite Brancusi effect. He insisted, crossly, that his work was never abstract. "They are imbeciles who call my work abstract." The subject is vital - a human head, a torso, a bird, a fish, a turtle. But there is always a gap between Brancusi's subjects and the objects that depict them.
These objects are so emphatically objects: pieces of raw stone, wood and metal, shaped into basic geometrical solids, cubes, ovoids, hemispheres, cylinders and half-cylinders. Brancusi's sculpture holds a tension between the handmade and the unhandmade. His figures involve a sense of distance, a jump, a jolt, between the animate organic subject, human or animal, and the inanimate geometric or mechanical entity to which it is reduced. 
Brancusi's art is a kind of impressionism: in the mimic, not the Monet, sense of the word. It knows its creatures from the inside. It empathises. The rising yearning appetite of Young Bird - you feel it straining greedily out of the nest - is captured perfectly in a shape that might be mistaken for a fingertip and fingernail.
The barely awakened consciousness of The Newborn is created from a minimally transformed white marble egg. What he represents is not the look of things, as much as a bodily sensation, a state of mind, a gesture, a movement, a sound. 
The Cock
 is nothing much like a cock to look at. Its zigzag edge rising to a pointed tip suggests, but can't really be read as, the cock's comb. What it summons up is the cocky stance of a cock, and the jagged piercing cry of a cockcrow. Which way is it pointing? The sharp point at its apex; do we take that as the creature's raised head, or the tip of its stuck-up tail feathers? Or both? 

Bird in Space
 is the supreme example of an ambiguous object. What does this swelling vertical boomerang evoke? The flying wing of a bird? The upright stance of a bird? The trajectory of a bird's flight? Soaring, or touching down? Windswept motion? All of these things at once. And it's a piece like Bird in Space, so breathtaking, so piercing in its sudden shimmering presence. Bird in Space. The whole point of this sculpture is that it almost isn't. It teeters on the brink of being just a shaft of upright stone. It soars.
Brancusi's art offers an answer to Bergson's theory. Bergson saw matter as "dulling the outward life of the soul, petrifying its movements, and thwarting its gracefulness". But in Brancusi the inanimate achieves a transcending gracefulness. His works propose that highly purified material forms are nearer to pure spirit than a living body is. But to Brancusi's credit, that is not the whole of the story. He doesn't just seek to transcend.
The sculptor's great monument is his Endless Column, in Tirgu Jiu, Romania. Nearly 100 feet high, it rises like a vertical string of beads, a tower of identical lozenges, of alternating hips and waists, in a shallow zigzag, in and out, upwards, indefinitely. It just goes up and up - and at some height it must simply end. As it does after 15 whole lozenges, and at a hip, not a waist, opening out, not closing...
You can take this end as a mere material limit to a form that continues spiritually, invisibly, all the way to heaven. But stick to the visible facts, and it's an abrupt and arbitrary halt. The whole point of Endless Column is that it's an anticlimax. Comedy has the last word. We rise. And we just stop.
Happy 135th Birthday, Constantin Brancusi! 

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