Depicting two figures locked in an intimate embrace, Le Baiser represents the most enduring theme of Brancusi's entire oeuvre--"the cornerstone of a major body of sculpture of our time," Sidney Geist has proclaimed (Brancusi, New York, 1978, p. 83). The earliest version of the composition, dated 1907-1908, was one of the very first sculptures that Brancusi created by direct carving, marking the opening achievement in his career as a mature artist. It was his "road to Damascus," Brancusi later declared--his definitive turning point, like the apostle Paul's conversion. "With the carving of The Kiss, Brancusi, by a supreme effort of will, intelligence, and imagination, leaps out of his past," Geist has written. "Placed against everything that precedes it, The Kiss gives the impression of issuing from a new hand" (ibid., p. 1).
With the rough-hewn and radically reduced forms of Le Baiser, Brancusi inaugurated a distinctly anti-classical, anti-naturalist visual language, its quiet, transcendent poetry every bit as ground-breaking as Picasso's contemporaneous act of savagery and disfiguration, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. "The violence Brancusi did to naturalistic convention by drastically simplifying the figures in The Kiss, however, is countered by the unified and immutable forms of the work," Anna Chave has explained. "The crucial difference between Brancusi and Picasso remained: between a vision risking incoherence and deeply colored by negativism and a vision more restorative and at times even euphoric" (Constantin Brancusi: Shifting the Bases of Art, 1993, pp. 62-63).
Brancusi worked unflaggingly on Le Baiser for nearly four more decades, refining and re-inventing the densely packed, cubic form in a series of five powerful variations. He also used the motif of the sculpture as a form of signature on letters and calling cards, transforming this eternal symbol of unity and love into his own personal emblem. The present sculpture, a unique work, is the single plaster cast that Brancusi made from the penultimate version of Le Baiser--"the most compact and massive" of all the interpretations, Geist has written, originally carved in brown limestone in 1923-1925 and currently housed in the Musée national d'art moderne, Paris (Constantin Brancusi: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1969, p. 112). To a visitor to his studio around this time, Brancusi explained, "The figures are not individual, but one is a part of the other. They are sufficient in themselves and stolidly, unconcernedly, resist the diverse influences of the world. It represents more than a single embrace; it is a dynamic expression of the strength of love" (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 56).
Brancusi arrived in Paris from his native Romania in the summer of 1904, three years before he sculpted the first version of Le Baiser. His early work from Paris was heavily influenced by Rodin, and in March 1907, he secured a job as a pointing technician in Rodin's studio, transferring the master's compositions from clay into stone. He left after only a month, however, proclaiming, "Nothing grows under big trees" (quoted in Constantin Brancusi, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 39).
By this time, Brancusi had already begun to search in earnest for an alternative to Rodin's well-trodden academic path. He made frequent trips to the Louvre, the Trocadéro, and the Musée Guimet in Paris to study a range of archaic artistic traditions, and in the fall of 1906, he visited the immensely influential Gauguin retrospective at the Salon d'Automne, where he was awe-struck by the stylized, vehemently anti-classical statuettes and reliefs that Gauguin--"the primitif of modernist primitivism, its original, seminal figure"--had executed in Polynesia (K. Varnedoe, in "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, p. 179). Forsaking the refined, professional Western tradition of modeling and casting sculpture, Gauguin cut directly into blocks of wood and stone, imbuing his work with a sense of immediacy and authenticity that cast a spell upon a whole generation of the avant-garde. Picasso began to carve in wood during the winter of 1906-1907, and Derain took up stone carving around the same time (fig. 1). Brancusi cast off the shackles of his long and thorough academic training by the end of the year, abandoning modeling and embracing la taille directe with an almost religious fervor. "Direct cutting is the true road to sculpture," he later declared (quoted in Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2004, p. 129).
The first sculpture that Brancusi produced by means of direct carving was a stone head of a girl, now lost. Le Baiser followed soon thereafter and is the earliest extant example of Brancusi's achievement in the new technique. For this pioneering and experimental work, Brancusi selected a theme that his erstwhile mentor Rodin had famously explored already, that of two lovers embracing (fig. 2). However, he discarded the complex, rippling outlines of Rodin's Le Baiser, instead using only the sparest and most austere of signs to suggest the two interlocking bodies.
The forms of Brancusi's sculpture are entirely contained within the roughly hewn block, which looks almost fresh from quarry; limbs and other features are inextricable from the stony matière, not so much articulated as sketched or engraved in the hard surface. Ann Temkin has written, "Whereas Rodin's work shows two lovers seated on a rock, in Brancusi's version, the lovers are the rock, existing in no particular time or space other than their own" (exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 90). In carving so roughly his own version of Rodin's well-known image (which had of course been realized by an artisan), Brancusi declared his independence from the master and the master tradition of sculpture, which he memorably dismissed as "nothing but muscle, beefsteak, beefsteak run amok" (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 53).
Brancusi's Le Baiser departs from Rodin's treatment of the theme in its emotional content and sexual politics as well. By contrast with the buttery and complicated forms of the passionately entangled couple in Rodin's Le Baiser, Brancusi's simple, squarely compact couple looks balanced and secure, even stolid. Whereas Rodin depicted a large, muscular man physically dominating a voluptuous, swooning woman, Brancusi created an image of absolute sexual equality, with his male and female figures serving virtually as mirrors of one another. The sole indicators of sexual difference are the curve of the chest and the length of the hair.
Even in their nude embrace, the chaste and emphatically desensualized figures offer scant gratification to the prurient gaze, denying the viewer the empowered role of voyeur. The two figures are fused into a single form, four-square and almost perfectly symmetrical--"a representation of the amalgamation of man and woman through love," Brancusi would later explain (quoted in ibid., p. 56). "While working, as usual, for a long time at this piece of sculpture I realized how far off the mirroring of the exterior forms of two people was from fundamental truth," he continued. "I wished in fact to do an object which might recall not a single couple, but all the couples, every man and woman who loved each other on this earth of ours before leaving it" (quoted in ibid., p. 56).
The formal and thematic possibilities of Le Baiser continued to captivate Brancusi throughout his long career. "Only rarely is Brancusi content with a unique expression," Geist has explained. "He has favored themes which he pursues in series...recapitulating his past in terms that keep pace, as it were, with the evolving present" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1969, pp. 15 and 21). Just months after he carved the first version of the composition (Bach, no. 79; fig. 3), Brancusi produced a slightly larger variant that replaces the warmth and subtlety of the earlier work with coarser and more expressive handling (Bach, no. 81). The following year, in 1909, he elaborated the motif into a full-length sculpture that depicts the two lovers with their legs and feet intertwined (Bach, no. 93). This version was created as a grave marker for a young woman who committed suicide after an unhappy love affair and still stands in its original location in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
In 1916, the American collector John Quinn, who had seen a plaster cast of the 1907-1908 Le Baiser in the collection of Armory Show organizer Walter Pach, requested a new stone version of the composition from the artist. Brancusi happily complied, producing an elongated and increasingly geometric variant of Le Baiser--no longer a first effort at direct carving but a sophisticated adaptation of it, reflecting a new awareness of the formal reductions of cubist sculpture as much as a debt to Gauguin's "primitivist" carvings (Bach, no. 127; fig. 4).
The inception of the present version of Le Baiser dates to 1923, by which time Brancusi had achieved nothing short of international renown (fig. 5). In the ten years since the Armory Show, which placed him firmly at the forefront of the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic, Brancusi had secured the patronage of a small but passionately devoted coterie of American collectors, including Agnes and Eugene Meyer, Louise and Walter Arensberg, Katherine Dreier, and once again, John Quinn. Although sales were much leaner back home in France, the great scandal of the 1920 Salon des Indépendants--in which Brancusi's bust of Princesse X was unjustly removed on grounds of phallic obscenity--had seen artists, writers, composers, and other avant-garde luminaries all rally behind the sculptor. "It was a remarkable testimony to Brancusi's reputation and an exceptional outpouring of support for an émigré artist who chronically lacked defenders in the Paris press and lacked French patrons," Chave has written (op. cit., p. 95).
In returning to the theme of Le Baiser during this period of confidence and mastery, Brancusi was able to consolidate the strengths of the previous versions into a single, exceptional work. The present configuration retains many of the geometric stylizations that gave the 1916 Le Baiser its particular power and incisiveness. The couple's arms and hands are flattened almost to fit the block of stone, the hairlines are unified into a single arc, and the two eyes, each half-seen in profile, combine to make one cyclopean, almond-shaped eye. The heads in the present sculpture, however, are more rounded and less block-like, imbuing the composition with a tenderness and humanity that harks back to Brancusi's very first statement of the theme. In place of the almost mechanically smooth stone of the 1916 version, moreover, Brancusi has opted here for a more varied and subtly worked surface, which delicately breaks the continuity of the compact mass. In certain parts, he has obliterated all traces of his own hand; elsewhere, he has starred the surface with the repeated marks of a bush hammer, calling attention to the sculptor's creative act and to the process of taille directe. Although Brancusi made one final, highly stylized version of Le Baiser in the early 1940s (Bach no. 277; Musée national d'art moderne, Paris), he never again achieved the finely calibrated balance between abstraction of form and sensitivity of touch that characterizes this penultimate interpretation of the theme.
The stone version of the present sculpture was first shown publicly in 1933, at a landmark solo exhibition of Brancusi's work that the distinguished dealer Joseph Brummer organized 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 as well, sending Brancusi almost daily updates on the placement of the sculptures. The exhibition opened in November to great acclaim. Attendance was high, and--although America had plunged into the Great Depression--several sculptures sold. Duchamp reported to Brancusi, "Everyone is amazed above all that such an enormous undertaking could be accomplished in these times" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 65).
In addition to the six independent versions of Le Baiser that Brancusi produced over the course of his career, he also used the theme as the basis for two important architectural projects: La colonne du baiser and La porte du baiser. The artist recognized the architectural possibilities of the composition shortly after its inception, exhibiting the first version of sculpture in 1910 as Fragment d'un chapiteau. In 1916, he began to experiment with an overtly architectural treatment of the theme, transforming the figures of the lovers into paired uprights, united by a circular motif that evolved from the eye forms of the original couple. This project culminated in 1933 with the creation of two ten-foot plasters, one of which was exhibited at the Brummer Gallery as Column of The Kiss: Part of the Project for the Temple of Love (Bach no. 259; Musée national d'art moderne, Paris). The proposed sanctuary never came to fruition, however, and Brancusi subsequently installed the two columns as doorposts at the entry to his apartment.
In 1937-1938, Brancusi elaborated the idea of the column into La porte du baiser, adding a lintel carved with a schematized relief of forty embracing couples (Bach, no. 268; fig. 6). Along with La colonne sans fin and La table du silence, La porte du baiser forms part of Brancusi's great sculptural installation at Tîrgu-Jiu in Romania, a World War I memorial that Friedrich Teja Bach has described as "one of the major sculptural achievements of the twentieth century" (ibid., p. 278).
(fig. 1) André Derain, Figure accroupie, 1907. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna. BARCODE: 28861454
(fig. 2) Auguste Rodin, Le Baiser, 1900-1904. Tate Gallery, London. BARCODE: 28861447
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, Le Baiser (plaster version), 1907-1908. Sold, Christie's, New York, 1 November 2005, lot 43. BARCODE: 28861430
(fig. 4) Constantin Brancusi, Le Baiser, 1916. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE: 28861478
(fig. 5) The stone version of the present sculpture in Brancusi's studio, 1926. BARCODE: 28861485
(fig. 6) Constantin Brancusi, La porte du baiser, 1937-1938. Tîrgu-Jiu, Romania. BARCODE: 28861461