Please note that this sculpture has been requested for the exhibition Brancusi: A Romanian Artist in Europe at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels from October 2019 to January 2020.
Brancusi’s inspiration for this exquisitely refined, unconventional portrait, La jeune fille sophistiquée, was Nancy Cunard, a legendary personality of the Parisian années folles. British-born and heir to the Cunard shipping fortune, she settled in France in 1920, eschewing the aristocracy for the avant-garde; she soon became muse and lover to some of the era’s most brilliant writers, including Louis Aragon and Ezra Pound. An archetypal beauty in the Jazz Age mold, Cunard was tall and pencil-thin, with wavy, chestnut hair worn modishly short and a proclivity for outré, trend-setting fashions. In this unique bronze sculpture, Brancusi interpreted her salient features in terms of his own formal priorities and transcendent purity of vision, capturing her elegant persona without recourse to traditional figurative language. “A nose doesn’t make you, nor are your ears a part of the essence of you,” he insisted. “It may look like elimination to you. But I look at what is real to me. I am trying to get a spiritual effect” (quoted in A.C. Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 41).
Brancusi rendered Nancy Cunard as a study in contrasts—in straight and curving, smooth and twisted forms—with a distilled, featureless bulb of a head supported on a sliver of a neck and surmounted by a cruller-shaped chignon of hair. In profile, the head displays Cunard’s prominent forehead and small, receding chin, while the corkscrew topknot can be read as a transposition into three dimensions of the stylish spit-curls that the sitter wore on either side of her face. Seen frontally, the neck, head, and chignon create an ascending sequence of swelling ovoid forms, radiant in their formal purity. From the back, by contrast, the sculpture appears nearly straight and exceptionally slender, an upright plumb line joining the stem of the neck to the crown of the head—“straight as a stick,” as William Carlos Williams described the real-life Nancy Cunard, “holding her head erect, her blue eyes completely untroubled” (quoted in ibid., p. 189).
With superbly distilled volumes and a touch of poetic whimsy, Brancusi succeeded in capturing Cunard’s unflappable elegance and stylized presentation, creating a remarkably precise, individualized characterization that simultaneously transcends the particular personality to arrive at a universal, essential form. “Brancusi rationalizes the image the world presents to him,” Sidney Geist has explained. “The process is not merely stylistic in its effects, resulting in smoothing of surfaces, erasure of detail, and simplification of shape; it is, rather, a way of thinking the forms of nature into new structures—sculptural structures, which are at once a version of the external world and the shape of the sculptor’s thought. When we consider the elimination of features which results from the rationalization of form, it is a kind of miracle that an image—and a memorable one—remains. That it does is the sure sign of a vision of the world that looked beyond appearances” (op. cit., 1975, pp. 20 and 23).
Brancusi met Nancy Cunard in 1923 through the Dada poet Tristan Tzara, one of her many paramours. The profoundly iconoclastic heiress, who openly flouted sexual, racial, class, and national boundaries, struck Brancusi as the very embodiment of the liberated Twenties—a figure of and for the moment. “Everything about the way she behaved,” he recalled, “showed how truly sophisticated she was for her day” (quoted in A.C. Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 189). Cunard invited Brancusi to a Christmas Eve soirée that she hosted at the café La Rotonde in Paris in 1923, where the novelist George Moore was the guest of honor and remaining attendees almost all beautiful young women. Although little is known of their relationship otherwise, they had numerous mutual friends among the Parisian avant-garde and no doubt crossed paths on many occasions. “A fine bearded-old-shepherd of a face,” Cunard would later describe Brancusi, “and to my mind one of the greatest sculptors of all time” (quoted in L. Gordon, op. cit., 2007, p. 119).
Cunard never posed for Brancusi and in fact was unaware until many years later that he had sculpted a figure that bore her name. “There was one in wood, the other in bronze,” she eventually discovered, “both utterly unlike what I take to be my ‘line,’ but exquisite things” (quoted in ibid., p. 126). Although she initially mistook the sculpture for a torso rather than a head, such ambiguity only enhanced her appreciation of the unexpected likeness. “The head resembles, at first sight, somewhat, a torso, a graceful curve, and then one sees the intention of that dear Brancusi,” she recounted. “It is really the profile of a head extended in a lengthwise curve, with a tuft of hair, if you please, at the crown!” (quoted in A.C Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 36).
The present sculpture, as Cunard noted, is one of two versions of her portrait that Brancusi created. A wooden version of the sculpture, carved in 1925-1927 from a single piece of walnut and polished to a smooth, matte surface, represents Brancusi’s initial idea for the project (Bach, no. 227; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City). Brancusi rarely used wood for his female heads and may have chosen it in this instance to reflect Cunard’s much-vaunted fascination with African art and culture. Or, Margit Rowell has suggested, “perhaps he felt that the purity of white marble, which he used for the majority of his female portraits, was inappropriate for this notorious personality” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 240).
Rarely content with a single, autonomous expression of a particular form, Brancusi returned to the Cunard portrait in 1928-1932, producing a working model in plaster (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris) followed by the present work, his definitive statement of the theme. Testament to the intensity of the sculptor’s ongoing formal research, the bronze introduces a number of subtle changes that heighten the impact of the work. The neck is slightly longer and advances more sharply, while the head is not as deep, creating a tauter profile to match the demands of the high polish. The chignon, in turn, is positioned much closer to the vertical, echoing the newly elongated proportions of the head. In lieu of the small, black cylinder—an essentially neutral mass—that supports the wooden sculpture, Brancusi raised the bronze version on a marble base with a cruciform shape that offers an explicit counterpoint to the refined, swelling curves above. “The polished bronze marked a significant evolution in Brancusi’s stripping down of form and symbolic elevation of subject,” Radu Varia has written. “The 1925 version on a cylindrical base was slightly unwieldy, but this sense entirely disappears in the later version. The refining process began with the neck, which became lighter, more slender and shapely, less earthbound. In the bronze, the back is straighter, the extended vertical axis symbolizing ascension. In Brancusian language, this symbolism is repeated in the strange crested chignon, which becomes increasingly aggressive in the second version, more aware of its inherent powers of attraction: an altogether more vigorous statement” (op. cit., 1986, p. 162).
Rather than entrusting the surface of his sculptures to a foundry or studio assistants, Brancusi finished them entirely on his own, working in long, meditative sessions over weeks and even months to perfect his desired effects. The present sculpture, with its highly reflective surface polish, fully embodies the legendary glamour of the portrait subject, translating the organic idiom of the initial wooden version into a sleek, golden ornament. “Each material has a particular language that I do not set out to eliminate and replace with my own,” Brancusi explained, “but simply to make it express what I am thinking, what I am seeing, in its own language, that is its alone” (quoted in A.C. Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 206).
Since the earliest years of his career, Brancusi had sought inspiration in quite specific, personal, and worldly sources. Muse endormie, a work that embodies the essence of a mysterious human state, had its inception in Brancusi’s study of Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon, his friend for fifty years. Mademoiselle Pogany, which Jean Arp memorably called “the fairy godmother of abstract sculpture,” also began as a portrait of a woman who affected Brancusi deeply, the Hungarian art student Margit Pogany. Even the phallic Princesse X, unjustly removed from the 1920 Salon des Indépendants on grounds of obscenity, had a living counterpart, possibly Marie Bonaparte. In all these cases, however, through numerous repetitions, Brancusi increasingly distanced himself from the individual model’s distinctive physiognomy, allowing abstract form to triumph almost entirely over tangible representation.
During the 1920s, by contrast, many of Brancusi’s portraits achieve a new equilibrium, admitting a more pronounced characterization of the subject while retaining the formal clarity that the sculptor prized. Despite the reputation as a visionary recluse that Brancusi himself cultivated, he attended nearly every significant avant-garde event during this prodigiously creative period and clearly found great interest in the personalities he encountered. In addition to the portrait of Nancy Cunard, he made a black marble sculpture of his friend and patron Agnes Meyer as La reine pas dédaigneuse (“The Not-Disdainful Queen”), with a tiara-like contour around the featureless head and a formidably regal bearing (Bach, no. 242; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). There are also several heads of La Négresse, an African woman whom Brancusi saw at an Exposition Coloniale in Marseilles, which relate to the present sculpture in their additive approach to form and rakishly positioned topknot.
“Refined, rigorous, and aesthetic as Brancusi’s form may be, he is attentive to a large world which he engages with humor and his own rare sweetness,” Geist has written. “The characteristic unity of a sculpture by Brancusi is not that of its formalist reputation, but rather a poetic unity in which thought and form are inseparable” (op. cit., 1975, p. 20).
Both the present work and the wooden Nancy Cunard were first shown publicly in 1933, at a landmark solo exhibition of Brancusi’s work that the distinguished dealer Joseph Brummer mounted at his New York gallery. The show featured fifty-seven sculptures, the majority of which Brancusi’s close friend and dedicated advocate Marcel Duchamp brought to Brummer directly from the sculptor’s studio in Paris. Duchamp took charge of installing the show too, sending Brancusi almost daily updates about the placement of the sculptures. Although the Depression was well underway worldwide, the exhibition was well-attended and critically acclaimed. “Everyone is amazed that such an enormous undertaking could be accomplished in these times,” Duchamp reported to Brancusi (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 65).
At the Brummer exhibition, Brancusi instructed Duchamp to display the present sculpture with its cruciform base atop a dark, crudely carved wooden pole. Patterned as a succession of bulges, perhaps echoing the African bangle bracelets that Cunard famously wore up her arm, the pole functioned as a disjunctive, surrogate body, its rough form deliberately contrasting with the chicly coiffed head. “As he had done with Princess X,” Anna Chave has explained, “in Nancy Cunard Brancusi purposely made an effigy of a sophisticated aristocrat, formed as a golden arabesque, surmount a humble base simply patterned with a single, repeated form. Thus, in a sense, he abstractly visualized his Romanian past in his sturdy, rustic-looking bases while imagining his Parisian present in his sleek, glittering sculptures. To a much greater degree than Cunard, Brancusi straddled disparate worlds” (op. cit., 1993, p. 189).
After the Brummer show, both versions of Nancy Cunard were returned to Brancusi’s studio. In 1950, the sculptor presented the walnut head as a gift to Alexina “Teeny” Sattler, who had recently divorced the dealer Pierre Matisse and would soon become Duchamp’s second wife. The bronze portrait traveled back to New York in 1955 for Brancusi’s first museum exhibition, a comprehensive retrospective at the Guggenheim that permanently secured the nearly eighty-year-old sculptor’s place as a monumental figure in 20th century art. Frederick and Elizabeth Stafford, who had recently married in Paris and begun to collect modern and African art, acquired the sculpture directly from Brancusi in 1955. It has remained in their family collection ever since.