Brancusi — the high priest of modernism
With his works breaking world records for sculpture at auction, a primer on the Romanian-born sculptor who pushed his medium to the brink of abstraction
‘Any collector with ambitions of building a great modern art collection needs to have a Brancusi,’ says Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s New York. ‘He was the high priest of modernism.’
Born in the Romanian village of Hobița, but based for most of his life in Paris, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) is widely considered the godfather of modern sculpture. He is renowned for having pushed his medium to the brink of abstraction, developing a new, simplified vocabulary that evoked — rather than resembled — real-world people and things.
Brancusi’s father was an estate manager, looking after lands belonging to the local monastery. Constantin studied at the Bucharest School of Fine Arts before setting out for Paris in 1904. (He got there on foot, hiking through Austria and Germany — or so the story goes.) The following year, he began studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Brancusi was one of a host of artists now regarded as modern masters who migrated to the French capital at the turn of the 20th century: others included Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera. Modigliani would eventually become a friend; other artists with whom he became close included Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp.
In 1907, three years after arriving in the French capital, Brancusi was granted a position in the workshop of the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. After only two months, however, he left, reasoning that ‘nothing grows under big trees’. Rodin also preferred a naturalistic style that, after initial dabbling, Brancusi wholeheartedly came to reject.
Brancusi never adopted the standard sculptors’ practice of making a clay model of each of his pieces, leaving the final product to be cast or completed by skilled labourers. Instead, he preferred a practice of ’direct carving’, working directly on a piece of stone or wood.
At around this time, Cubism was ascendant. Never one to follow others, however, Brancusi chose an artistic path that, in many ways, couldn’t have been more different. Instead of fracturing and fragmenting forms, as Picasso, Georges Braque and the Cubists were doing, he started to streamline them, emphasising clean lines.
Over time he increasingly jettisoned representational aspects from his sculpture, to the point where the best description for his mature work might well be ‘elemental’. Among the motifs he consistently returned to were birds, fish, and the human torso.
Brancusi made some 15 variations of his sculpture Bird in Space. One version, executed in 1926, became the subject of a famous trial in the United States. When the work was sent from Paris to New York for an exhibition curated by Duchamp, American officials refused to let the piece through tax-free (as was the custom for works of art), arguing that it was not, in fact, art. Positing that the work did not actually resemble a bird, they claimed that it did not, therefore, qualify as sculpture. Instead, they classified it as a ‘utilitarian object’. (The same thing had happened that very year to photographer Edward Steichen, who had purchased a version of Bird in Space and sought to bring it to the United States.)
In response, Brancusi took the officials to court. In 1928, Judge J. Waite ruled in his favour. In his decision, Judge Waite wrote, ‘There has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas and the schools which represent them, we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art worlds as recognised by the courts must be considered.’
Brancusi was never a portraitist in the strict sense of the term. Instead, he produced what could be referred to as ‘sublimated likenesses’, often created not from live models, but from a photograph or his own imagination. Early examples retain some distinguishing features of his subject, but over the years these features tended to be smoothed away as Brancusi progressed toward abstraction.
His portraits duly engage the viewer in a visual game: can we spot a clue to the subject’s identity? Take La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), from 1932, offered on 15 May in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s New York. In no way is the form instantly recognisable as the Jazz Age writer-heiress Nancy Cunard. But one can still make out, in two flourishes of brilliant bronze, her standout physical feature: the prodigious kiss-curls on her upper cheeks.
‘Brancusi’s subject matter is actually relatively conventional,’ says Conor Jordan. ‘In the case of La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), for example, he has chosen to represent a woman from his social circle in bohemian Paris — a relatively traditional choice. But that was just a jumping-off point for a comprehensive investigation of form. In this way, just as Picasso reinvented painting at the start of the 20th century, it’s safe to say that Brancusi reinvented sculpture,’ Jordan says.
Among the visitors to Brancusi’s controversial 1926 show at the Brummer Gallery in New York was a Japanese-American art student named Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). The young man was so inspired by what he saw that he applied for, and secured, a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Paris to work as Brancusi’s studio assistant.
Despite the language barrier between them, Noguchi worked happily under Brancusi for seven months and gained an invaluable grounding in stone sculpture. Brancusi’s pared-down forms persuaded his assistant to turn to modernism and a kind of abstraction, while his studio, which had the feel of a quarry, made such an impact on the young sculptor that he created his own version south of Paris in 1927. Isamu Noguchi would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors, and the two men would remain friends and influences upon each other.
On his death, Brancusi left behind more than 1,000 photographs and over 200 sculptures. He had become a French citizen in 1952, partly so that he could bequeath his entire studio and its contents to the French state (the Communist government of his native Romania had refused to accept any of his works). In 1997, a reconstruction of his studio was mounted opposite the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
In recent years, works by Brancusi offered at Christie’s have twice broken the world record price for any sculpture at auction: Danaide in 2002. and Bird in Space in 2005. ‘And then, of course, we achieved an artist record in 2017 with La muse endormie,’ Jordan notes. What might be behind this heightened interest? ‘Brancusi’s career was relatively short, and he wasn’t the most prolific artist. So when a significant piece of his does come up, the market really takes notice.’