Constantin Brancusi (1867-1957)
Constantin Brancusi (1867-1957)

Oiseau dans l'espace

Constantin Brancusi (1867-1957)
Oiseau dans l'espace
signed with monogram 'CB' (on the underside of the cylinder base)
marble and stone
Height of Marble: 33 5/8 in. (85.5 cm.)
Stone socle: 5 1/8 in. (13 cm.)
Stone base: 9¼ in. (23.4 cm.)

Overall: 48 in. (121.9 cm.)
Executed 1922-1923
Léonie Ricou, Paris (acquired from the artist, by 1928).
Alexandre Stoppelaere, Brussels (by descent from the above).
Private collection, Europe (acquired from the above, 7 September 1937).
By descent from the above to the present owner.

Lot Essay

Sold with a certificate of authenticity from Dr. Friedrich Teja Bach dated April 2005.

Beneath the passage of time and generations, objects once treasured become all too easily forgotten. Intimate keepsakes of a family's life are transformed into rows of storage trunks, time capsules destined to gather dust in an attic. So when the layers of dirt and memories are shed to reveal a Oiseau dans l'espace, one could be tempted to rub his eyes in disbelief. However sometimes life does unfold as in a novel, which is precisely what happened a few months ago when a seminal Brancusi sculpture, an unknown Oiseau dans l'espace, was discovered in the attic of a venerable Northern European mansion. As far as Brancusi's oeuvre goes, the adventure of this discovery is only comparable to the history of the Muse endormie III from the Rumsey collection which was detected in a Philadelphia warehouse in 1982.

This recently discovered Oiseau dans l'espace, carved from a gray-blue slab of marble, is a keystone in the history of 20th century sculpture. The sculpture originates from the Ricou-Stoppelaere collection of Paris. Madame Léonie Ricou (fig. 1), a cultivated lady of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie, with a deep passion for contemporary art and literature, received in her salon at 270 boulevard Raspail the most famous artists of her time: Paul Fort and Guillaume Apollinaire, Marinetti and Soffici, Modigliani, Villon, Gleizes, Léger, Derain and Picasso. Brancusi attended these receptions as early as 1908, and it was here that he met the art critic Alexandre Mercereau, who would later include five of his sculptures in his seminal 1914 Prague exhibition of Modern Art. Ricou's close relation to artists, her continued and loyal support for their work, often translated into portraits of her--the most well known of which were painted by Picasso and Modigliani, and the famous wooden sculpture by Brancusi, Mrs. L. R. (dated 1914-1917), which has also generally been accepted as a portrait of Léonie Ricou.

Until now it was believed that Madame Ricou owned three works by Brancusi: a Maïastra in polished bronze, a Baiser, and most probably a Muse endormie (fig. 2). Today we know that her collection included a fourth Brancusi. With her second husband, the Belgian Alexandre Stoppelaere, Léonie Ricou acquired the present sculpture, Oiseau dans l'espace. In 1928, in anticipation of moving to her husband's residence in Brussels (fig. 3), she shipped the present work to the vaults of the Banque de Bruxelles with the assistance of Alexandre Mercereau (fig. 4). There the sculpture remained until 7 September 1937, when it was sold by Stoppelaere to an ancestor of the present owner. The original crate, constructed for the sculpture's transport to Brussels, preserved the marble until its recent discovery.

The Oiseau dans l'espace from the Ricou-Stoppelaere collection was sculpted in 1922-1923 and measures 85.5 cm. in height. In terms of artistic achievement it cannot, of course, be directly compared to the much larger Birds in Space (up to 193 cm. in height) from the 1930s and early 1940s. The transitional movement which in the later pieces leads from the organic footing to the swell of the main body has not yet been achieved in the present sculpture. In its short sturdiness the piece is, as it were, not yet "in space," but rather still rests on the ground, or, to put it differently: in its corpulence it is still more like a fish in the air.

It is precisely these traits that also mark the quality of the work. Its outstanding artistic importance becomes evident when the piece is placed within the evolution of Brancusi's Birds. More than any other of his series the group of Birds reflects Brancusi's quest for capturing the essence of form. It consists of twenty-seven individual sculptures (not counting the plasters and the unfinished marbles), which can be divided into three distinct types: the early Maïastras, which carry strong symbolic connotations and clearly resemble the form of a seated or standing bird; the more slender and elongated Birds and Golden Birds; and finally the group of Birds in Space.

L'Oiseau dans l'espace from the Ricou-Stoppelaere collection represents a crucial point in this evolution. It stands between the Bird of the Beyeler Fondation and the Bird in Space in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thus represents the transition between what is generally referred to as the Birds/Golden Birds and the Birds in Space. Together with the Study for a Bird in Space (1922) and the Bird in Space in the Metropolitan Museum (1923) it thus marks the very beginning of Brancusi's Birds in Space. Indeed, judging by its size (85.5 cm.; Study circa 137 cm.; Metropolitan Museum of Art 128.8 cm.), it is very likely the earliest example of the new form. For the first time the neck and chest are united in one overall movement. And above all the zigzag element which in the Birds and the Golden Birds prepared for the elevation of the body of the bird, has now become a footing which is integrated in the sculpture itself.

The truly striking element in the present work, Oiseau dans l'espace, however, is not its historical position in Brancusi's Bird series, but the sensitivity and delicacy of its execution. The subject of the bird is so closely captured within the carved marble that even the stone's white veins link the two parts of the body into a unified whole. The different angles of the footing are carefully tuned to the difference between the front and backside of the bird's body; particularly in the upper third of the sculpture the polish of the surface shows traces of the hand of the artist.

The sculptural ensemble of cubic pedestal, smaller cylinder and two-part sculpture is beautifully proportioned. Not only are the two original bases carefully related to the footing, but all three are perfectly balanced with the main body of the bird. The specific quality of this Oiseau dans l'espace derives precisely from the tension between the proportioned stacking of elements and the upward movement of the ensemble as a whole. In contrast to the later Birds in Space, the pedestal elements are integrated and, sublimated in this upward movement. The precision of artistic decision which characterizes this work also becomes manifest in the choice of materials for the two pedestal elements, in the relation between their identity and difference. The pedestal elements are actually made of two types of limestone, and while they share a very similar color, are different in density and porosity. The original cubic base is more porous and crude while the cylindric one, where the artist chose to place his monogram "CB" (fig 5), is of greater density and finer quality.

This long forgotten crate in Northern Europe, which has now resurfaced on the "shores of time," has returned to us a seminal work of Modern sculpture.

Dr. Friedrich Teja Bach, March 2005

(fig. 1) Photograph of Léonie Ricou.BARCODE 23668126

(fig. 2) Léonie Ricou (seated) in her Paris apartment with Constantin Brancusi's Muse endormie, circa 1915-1918. BARCODE 23668379
(fig. 3) The present lot inside the reception hall of Alexandre Stoppelaere's home.BARCODE 23668119

(fig. 4) The original shipping invoice for the present lot to Banque de Bruxelles in 1928. BARCODE 23668409

(fig. 5) The artist's monogram on the underside of the cylinder base.BARCODE 23668133

Please note that Dr. Friedrich Teja Bach has requested the loan of the present sculpture for the forthcoming exhibition Shaping the Beginning. Modern Artists and the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean, to be held at the N.P. Goulandris Foundation, Athens, in Spring 2006.

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