Brancusi's first version of Le baiser, executed in 1907-1908, is widely recognized as one of the seminal works in the sculptor's oeuvre. Depicting two figures locked in an intimate embrace, the sculpture inaugurated one of Brancusi's most enduring themes, generating a series of celebrated variations over a span of four decades. Sidney Geist asserts, "The Kiss may be considered as the opening movement in Brancusi's career as a mature artist" (op. cit., 1969, p. 41), while Anna Chave continues, "Most critics have viewed The Kiss as marking the greatest watershed in the artist's career" (op. cit., p. 59). Brancusi himself viewed the sculpture as a turning point in his work. He referred to it as his "road to Damascus" (a reference to the apostle Paul's conversion to Christianity) and used the motif throughout his life as a form of signature on letters, calling cards, and other mementos. In a monograph devoted to the sculpture, Geist writes:
With the carving of The Kiss, Brancusi, by a supreme effort of will, intelligence, and imagination, leaps out of his past. Nothing, or very little, in his earlier work prepares us for its special poetry, its unobtrusive, densely packed invention. Placed against everything that precedes it, The Kiss gives the impression of issuing from a new hand. The Kiss not only marked the opening of Brancusi's mature phase, it was a seminal work which excited continuous and various influence on the development of the oeuvre. The Kiss is, indeed, the cornerstone of a major body of sculpture of our time (op. cit., 1978, pp. 1, 83).
Brancusi arrived in Paris in the summer of 1904, having walked there from his native Romania. During his first three years in the French capital, he produced at least fifty sculptures, many of them heavily influenced by Rodin. In March of 1907, he took 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 F.T. Bach, op. cit., 1995, p. 39). At the end of 1907, perhaps with the intention of definitively escaping Rodin's influence, Brancusi abandoned modeling and adopted direct carving, the technique that he would employ almost exclusively for the remainder of his career. Newly popular at the start of the twentieth century among avant-garde artists such as Picasso and Derain (fig. 1), the process of cutting directly into stone or wood reflected the taste for the "primitive" pioneered in the painting and sculpture of Paul Gauguin. In contrast to the refined, professional Western tradition of modeling and casting sculpture, direct carving was thought to convey a sense of immediacy and authenticity. As Brancusi himself famously declared, "Direct cutting [taille directe] is the true road to sculpture" (quoted in C. Giménez, op. cit., p. 129). Brancusi's earliest direct carving was a stone head of a girl, the present whereabouts of which are unknown. The limestone version of the present sculpture, now housed in the Muzeul de Arta in Craiova, Romania, was probably the second. The present work is one of eight plasters that Brancusi cast from the Craiova sculpture shortly after its creation.
The use of direct carving in place of modeling is not the only way in which Le baiser departs from academic convention. The sculpture is also vehemently anti-classical in its stylized simplification of form, which draws upon a range of archaic artistic traditions that Brancusi had studied in the Louvre, the Trocadéro, and the Musée Guimet in Paris. The radical reduction of form in Le baiser is particularly striking in comparison to Rodin's treatment of the same theme, originally created for the Gates of Hell (fig. 2). Brancusi has discarded the complex, swooning outlines of Rodin's sculpture, instead using only the most rudimentary and austere of signs to suggest two interlocking bodies. The forms of Brancusi's sculpture are entirely contained within the roughly hewn block, with limbs and other features not so much articulated as sketched or engraved in the hard surface. As Ann Temkin writes, "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" (op. cit., p. 90). Brancusi's dramatic simplification of form indeed imbues Le baiser with a deeply poetic universality. To quote the artist himself, "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., p. 56). Even signifiers of sexual difference have been nearly obliterated, with the female figure distinguished from the male only by her longer hair and the gentle swelling of her chest. Anna Chave writes:
The Kiss consists of a rudimentary stone cube engraved with the basic outlines of a human couple. By such an act of derealization, Brancusi hoped to revivify what he regarded as a moribund visual mode, the beefsteak and cadavers of the mainstream, European tradition of sculpting the figure. 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. By contrast with the rippling, buttery, and complicated forms of the passionately entangled couple in Rodin's Kiss, Brancusi's simple, squarely compact couple looks balanced and emotionally continent, even stolid. Where Rodin rendered a man physically dominating a woman, Brancusi created an image of absolute sexual equality, with his male and female figures serving virtually as mirrors of one another. Though he no doubt drew on his experience while he worked, as any artist must, he aspired to make of this couple not a record of any particular pair of lovers, but an image of all lovers of all time (ibid., pp. 56, 177).
Over the course of his career, Brancusi carved at least five variants of the 1907-1908 Kiss. The present version, however, is arguably the most successful. Geist calls it "the tenderest version of Brancusi's tenderest theme" (op. cit., 1978, p. 90), while Radu Varia writes, "Curiously, in none of the later versions did Brancusi achieve the simple, radiant grandeur and above all the poetry of his first Kiss of 1907" (Brancusi, New York, 1986, p. 134). The artist began work on two variants of Le baiser just months after completing the original sculpture. One of these, dated to 1908, shows the couple chest-length like the Craiova composition, but replaces the warmth and subtlety of the earlier work with coarser and more expressive handling (Bach, no. 81; Private Collection). The following year, Brancusi elaborated the motif into a full-length sculpture that depicts the 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; it still stands in its original location in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. In 1916, the American collector John Quinn, who had seen a plaster cast of the Craiova Kiss in the collection of Armory Show organizer Walter Pach, requested a new stone version of the sculpture from the artist. Brancusi complied, producing an elongated and increasingly stylized variant of the original, chest-length composition (fig. 3). The artist returned to the theme in 1925, carving a compact version from subtly modulated brown stone, and a final time in the early 1940s, building upon the stylizations of the Quinn sculpture to create the most abstract and geometric of all the variants (Bach, nos. 205, 277; Musée national d'art moderne, Paris).
Brancusi also used the motif of Le baiser as the basis for two important architectural projects: the Column of the Kiss and the Gate of the Kiss. The artist recognized the architectural possibilities of the composition shortly after its inception, exhibiting the Craiova sculpture in 1910 as Fragment of a Capital. 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 in New York 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 Temple of Love never came to fruition, and Brancusi subsequently installed the two columns as doorposts at the entry to his apartment. In 1937-1938, he elaborated the idea of the Column into the Gate of the Kiss, adding a lintel carved with a schematized relief of forty embracing couples (fig. 4). Along with the Endless Column and Table of Silence, the Gate of the Kiss forms part of Brancusi's great sculptural installation at Tnrgu-Jiu in Romania, a World War I memorial that Friedrich Bach describes as "one of the major sculptural achievements of the twentieth century" (op. cit., 1995, p. 278).
(fig. 1) André Derain, Crouching Figure, 1907. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna. BARCODE 23662414
(fig. 2) Auguste Rodin, Le baiser, 1898. Musée Rodin, Paris. BARCODE 23662407
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, Le baiser, 1916. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 23662391
(fig. 4) Constantin Brancusi, Gate of the Kiss, 1937-1938. Tnrgu-Jiu, Romania. BARCODE 23662384