The unique reputation of Constantin Brancusi is built primarily on his works in stone and bronze. These sculptures, carved or cast, smooth and polished to perfection, represent idealized, transcendent forms. Less known to the general public is the much smaller corpus of works in wood. In fact, the misperceptions concerning the wood sculptures were such, in the early years, that Brancusi's private collectors shunned them, finding them uncharacteristic in relation to his more famous streamlined style.
Madame L.R. (Portrait of Mme L.R.) is a magnificent example of Brancusi's earliest sculptures in wood, which present a material and a carving technique, an iconography and an intention that are indeed far removed from his more typical production. Whereas, to take for example, his most famous motif, L'oiseau dans l'espace (fig. 1), is soaring, spiritual, and almost immaterial, the wood sculptures are solid, grounded and mysteriously enigmatic. They are no less essential to the appreciation and understanding of his oeuvre.
It is difficult to say how many works in wood Brancusi produced in that some were dismantled, remodeled, or destroyed. But it is safe to suggest that there are about thirty sculptures or fragments of sculptures extant today. The major portion of these works was realized between 1913 and 1925, a period during which Brancusi also began carving oak bases for his pieces in marble or bronze. Although he executed a few large wooden sculptures after the 1920s and continued to make bases, it is the works from the early years that are the most surprising. Initiated at a time by which Brancusi had already begun to develop his vocabulary of idealized forms in marble (we recall that La Muse endormie I is dated 1909-10 (fig. 2), the first Maïastra (1910-12; Museum of Modern Art, New York), and the earliest Mademoiselle Pogany dates from 1912; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), the wood sculptures show an unexpected return to a primitive aesthetic, such as seen earlier in works like Le Baiser, and a cruder and less finished carving style1.
The earliest sculptures in carved oak that are extant today include the head remaining from Brancusi's earliest piece, Le premier pas of 1913, now known as Tête d'enfant (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) L'enfant prodigue (1914/15; Philadelphia Museum of Art), Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.) (1914/18, this piece), and Petite fille française (1914/18; fig. 3). Common to the latter two works, executed at approximately the same time, are a human subject, a substantial scale (neither intimate nor monumental), a relatively raw finish, and, unlike the marble works that consist of an uninterrupted flow of volumes, they give an impression of stacked, disparate parts.
Despite appearances, the wood pieces were generally carved from a single piece of wood. Since the raw material was salvaged oak beams, it would have been difficult for Brancusi to achieve the continuous lines and polished perfection of his stone works, nor was this his intention. It seems that he was obeying other inspirational imperatives. Brancusi always claimed that his forms were dictated by the nature of his material, and wood was no exception. It would inspire a renewed repertory of images and spiritual forces, familiar to him through his knowledge of African art.
Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.) gives the impression of a standing figure composed of visually separate parts. This notwithstanding, the subject was carved from a single piece of wood2 (fig. 4). The title of the object, suggesting that it is a woman's portrait, leads us to read the upper motif of the sculpture as a helmet-like or fan shaped head or coiffure mounted on a beaded neck. The subsequent elements, totally abstract, nonetheless read as the woman's shoulders and bust or torso, followed by a single, again beaded leg, set on a semi-circular or horseshoe shaped foot. The complete figure is placed on a small "festooned" rectangular base that has accompanied it since it left Brancusi's studio.
Although there is some controversy as to whether Brancusi was genuinely interested in African art, many aspects of Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.), as of Petite fille française, point to an African reference3. First, the carving from a single piece of wood is not irrelevant. African sculptors favored this technique that produced a symmetrical and frontal aesthetic that is quite foreign to the European tradition. Also unusual for the period is the formal rigor and abstraction seen in the silhouettes and proportions of these two figures by Brancusi. In Africa, similar formal interpretations served to emphasize the archetypal value and symbolism of sacred ancestor figures.
African models proposed new canons of representation for Western sculptors. Brancusi's use of natural as opposed to painted wood is also worth noting in this context. For Brancusi, it probably corresponded to his "truth to materials" doctrine, but was reinforced by African examples. Although other European sculptors also looked toward African art, among them Amedeo Modigliani, Jacques Lipchitz, Jacob Epstein and the German Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (fig. 5) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff for example, in many cases their European background and religious or folk art traditions encouraged them to paint their wooden sculptures. Also, the anatomy of their figures remained relatively European and naturalistic. Whereas in Brancusi's case, and in particular in the two figures under discussion, the absence of arms, the stylized coiffures and facial features, the rhythmic processes of swelling, thinning or hollowing the silhouettes, the distended proportions and scored, striated or "beaded" appendages, all these details emit a more forceful echo of African art (fig. 6).
More specifically, the head and neck of Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.) are extremely evocative of traditional Hongwe reliquary figures from Gabon (fig. 7). The fan-shaped head, the horizontal grooving on one side of the bipartite face, the vertical panel or separation down the center, the headdress at the crown of the head, and the proportions of the neck below, all point to a knowledge of Hongwe conventions. At once abstract and figurative, the Hongwe reliquaries have a magical force and presence that, from what we know of Brancusi, would have appealed to him.
Brancusi rarely divulged his sources, and this is also true as concerns his relation to African art. His exposure to it seems inevitable, due to the fascination for this art in Paris during these decades, the collectors he knew, and the museums he visited. His rare but pertinent comments manifest his familiarity with African sculpture and his respect for African carving techniques, as well as for the "instinct and faith" of African cultures. He further expressed on occasion his affinities for all forms of artistic "primitivisms" including that of "the blacks"4. And certainly, the sculptures provide eloquent evidence of these affinities.
It therefore appears paradoxical that Brancusi would designate this sculpture as a "portrait" of an acquaintance. Yet Brancusi's portraits were never portraits in the strict sense of the term. Instead they were sublimated representations, sometimes distilled from a more realistic portrait study of a real person, but often an invention of his imagination. Among those that began as portraits of women he knew are his Muse endormie of 1909-10, started as a portrait of the Baroness René Irana Frachon, and Mademoiselle Pogany, begun in 1912 as a portrait of a young Hungarian art student, Margit Pogany. These early portraits always retained some distinguishing features of the model: the long thin face and aquiline nose of Rene Frachon, and the large eyes and bun-like chignon of Margit Pogany provide excellent examples.
As time went by, in later portraits, the features were smoothed and the reference as well, but they remained present nonetheless. Photographs from the period show Eileen Lane's wide oval face (Portrait de Mlle Eileen Lane, 1923; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), Agnes Meyer's regal stance and willful chin (Mme Eugene Meyer, jeune, 1916-30; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), and Nancy Cunard's capricious curls (Jeune fille sophistiquée, 1925-27; Bach, no. 227), for example. Freely inspired by the model, or through photographs or images in his mind's eye, as Brancusi progressed toward a more abstract idiom, he erased his sources, the image became generic, and the particular subject unimportant. Indeed, as he worked, the spiritual essence - as he understood it - of the model would be transformed into a spirit incarnate in the object. The nominal attributions, when they remained (for example René Frachon and Nancy Cunard's names are not present in the official titles of their portrait-sculptures) served as discreet homages to women he knew or had known, some casually, some more intimately. And since these works were usually not commissions, they were rarely acquired by the "model."
Léonie Ricou (1875-1928) who is usually identified as the "L.R." in the title of our sculpture, was a woman Brancusi met in approximately 1908-10 (fig. 8). A cultivated Parisian and lively divorcée, Ricou had a salon in the heart of Montparnasse, at 270 boulevard Raspail, from around 1908 to the outbreak of World War I. Here she entertained poets and writers, among them Guillaume Apollinaire, Alexandre Mercereau, Paul Fort, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and artists including Pablo Picasso, Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni, Julio Gonzalez, Amedeo Modigliani, Brancusi and many more. According to eyewitness reports she had a remarkable collection that was sold after her death. Consisting of gifts and purchases, it presumably included several sculptures by Brancusi and a gouache portrait.
Ricou's letters to Brancusi in the Brancusi Archives at the Bibliotheque Kandinsky/Centre Georges Pompidou (175 letters, postcards, visiting cards, mostly undated, but situated between 1914 and 1921) suggest that their relationship was never more than a warm friendship based on her infinite admiration for the man and his art. They also indicate that Ricou was away from Paris during much of that period, "in exile" as she put it, due to World War I. Although there are some allusions to works she has seen or might own, there is no reference to Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.), and, in view of her absence from Paris, it seems unlikely that she had any direct relation with the sculpture at the time of its execution. It is more probable that Brancusi carved the piece according to his inspiration, drawing from a Hongwe reliquary model and/or other sources, and then, as a gesture, named it after Mme Ricou. Perhaps the sculpture's helmet-like coiffure topped by a curved motif, reminded him of that of Mme Ricou. Early photographs show her as a young girl with a full head of hair framing her face, the crown presumably held back by a Spanish comb that she was in the habit of wearing. Whatever Brancusi's reason for the title, we may assume it was relatively fortuitous.
Mrs. Ricou never owned Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.). The first owner of the sculpture was the painter Fernand Léger who theoretically received it in exchange for a painting sometime after 1918, the year he and Brancusi met (fig. 9). Although the piece remained in Léger's collection until his death in 1955, at which time it was passed on to his widow Nadia, there is no further information on the subject and the sculpture was never exhibited during Léger's lifetime. Since the present sculpture left Brancusi's studio around 1919-20, it is absent from all later studio photographs. In the 1920s, he attempted to carve a second version of the sculpture. Disappointed with the outcome, he dismantled and remodeled it into two separate (and barely recognizable) parts.
In view of the relatively small body of work and its limited visibility, the critical destiny of Brancusi's wood sculptures is very different from that of the rest of his oeuvre. As already mentioned, his early collectors, most of them American, preferred the marble sculptures. In December 1917, Brancusi proposed Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.) to his American patron John Quinn, who politely declined the offer, stating that he preferred the works in stone. However, some time thereafter, Henri-Pierre Roché, acting as Quinn's advisor, persuaded him to purchase some wood sculptures and even some roughly carved furniture Brancusi had made.
Clearly the works in wood were overshadowed by the works in polished marble and bronze. The wood sculptures were more difficult, mysterious and even disquieting in the context of the total oeuvre. It is perhaps for this reason that their audience was more circumscribed, consisting of artists, intellectuals, and real connoisseurs. Aside from Henri-Pierre Roch, who worked with Quinn, Marcel Duchamp persuaded both the Walter Arensbergs and Katherine Dreier5 to acquire wood sculptures at an early date. This notwithstanding, many major works in wood remained in Brancusi's studio until shortly before his death. It was then that James Johnson Sweeney, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and a longtime friend and admirer of Brancusi, purchased several wood sculptures for the museum, endorsing this aspect of Brancusi's oeuvre as crucially important and unjustly overlooked.
As a result of this history of collecting, most of Brancusi's wood sculptures are in public institutions today: either bequeathed to or purchased by American museums, or, for those that remained in Brancusi's studio, bequeathed by the artist to the French State (now in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). In one sense, Fernand Léger saved Madame L.R. from a similar destiny. In fact, it is one of two wooden sculptures still in private hands, and it is the earlier and more important of the two.
Brancusi's works in wood complete and enrich his oeuvre, rendering it infinitely more complex as an ensemble. In contrast to the sublime images of his marble sculptures that correspond to inaccessible human dreams and desires, the iconography of the wood sculptures draws on other myths and realities. Indeed, titles such as La Chimère (1915/18; The Philadelphia Museum of Art), Socrate (1921/22; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), or Le Roi des Rois (also known as L'esprit de Bouddha, 1938[?]; fig. 10) resonate as though referring to "ancestor figures" from other places and times.
Finally, the freedom and invention and even the crudeness of these works in wood are essential to an understanding of Brancusi. Formally, and metaphysically, they exist as a counterpoint to his transcendent style. This helps to explain the imperious necessity in his eyes for the roughly carved oak bases that he started making at approximately the same time, and that create a tension through contradiction with the works in marble and bronze. Whereas the birds in space incarnate the human ideal of soaring weightlessness, pure spirituality, and radiant light, the carved oak sculptures, and the bases, embody other vital forces that are inherent to human nature: The obscure mysteries of the instinct and imagination, and the wisdom of the earth.
Margit Rowell, November 2008.
1 The following essay concerns the sculptures in carved oak, which, due to the nature of the material, were more primitive in style and facture. Brancusi also carved in maple, walnut and fruit tree woods but the resulting works were very different in form and finish.
2 The lower part of the leg was broken while in Léger's possession (prior to 1955) and has been restored.
3 Several art historians ascribe Brancusi's return to wood to his early training in woodcarving in Roumania. Others attribute it to his interest in African art. On this point, this author endorses the latter position, as will be argued.
4 See Sidney Geist's essay on Brancusi, in Primitivism in 20th Century Art, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, pp. 345-362, for an extensive discussion of Brancusi's relation to African art.
5 Major collectors of avant-garde art in the United States.
(fig. 1) Constantin Brancusi, L'oiseau dans l'espace, 1925.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 2) Constantin Brancusi, Muse Endormie I, vers 1909-10.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, Petite fille française, Le premier pas, vers 1914-18.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
(fig. 4) Constantin Brancusi, Vue d'atelier avec La colonne sans fin, Platon, Madame L.R. (Portrait de Meme L.R.), Colonne du baiser et L'oiseau jaune, vers 1920.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(fig. 5) Casque Kponyugu, Senufo, Côte d'Ivoire, début du XXe siècle.
Musée Rietberg, Zurich.
(fig. 6) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karyatide, vers 1909-10.
(fig. 7) Reliquaire Mahongwe, Gabon.
Collection particulière, Paris.
(fig. 8) Portrait photographique de Léonie Ricou.
(fig. 9) Fernand Léger dans l'atelier de Constantin Brancusi, vers 1920.
(fig. 10) Constantin Brancusi, Le Roi des Rois: L'Esprit de Bouddha, 1938[?].
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.