Among the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, Constantin Brancusi is considered a pioneer of modernism and one of the fathers of modern sculpture. He sought to free sculpture from imitation of nature and external appearances, and to capture the essence of people, animals, objects, states, actions, and the dynamism of form. He was unapologetically outspoken about those who misdefined his work: “They are imbeciles who define my work as abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.” His artistic vision was nourished as much by his peasant origins and the folk art, crafts, and traditions of his native country, Romania, as by the Classics, such as Plato, and Eastern philosophers, especially Tibetan spiritual poet Milarepa. These influences found inspiration—and a home—in avant-garde Paris where Brancusi’s expressions of essence and simplicity developed with an intense and infinite refinement.
Constantin Brancusi was born to a peasant family on February 19, 1876, in the small village of Hobita in Southwestern Romania. He endured an arduous childhood; he had to leave school after first grade in order to herd the family’s sheep and then worked as sheep herder for others. To pass the time while watching sheep, he began sculpting in wood. Suffering physical abuse at the hands of his father and brothers, he often ran away from home, finally leaving for good at the age of nine to work in a nearby town. He took on different jobs, in a grocer’s shop, in a public house. Displaying a phenomenal aptitude for carving wood, he created a violin at 18 years of age, which impressed an industrialist who enrolled him in the School of Arts and Crafts in Craiova. In order to attend school, the young Brancusi needed to catch up on the immense gap in his education and taught himself how to read and write. After graduating, he was admitted to the School of Fine Arts in Romania’s capital, Bucharest, where he swiftly distinguished himself as a sculptor of exceptional talent.
Fascinated by the artistic concepts of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, Brancusi left for Paris in 1904, traveling most of the way on foot. This journey is intrinsic to the mythical aura surrounding the Romanian sculptor: the mystical-looking peasant of divine talents and “primitive exoticism” literally walking to Paris from his native country to fully realize his iconic fate. During this pilgrimage he stopped in major European cities like Vienna, Munich, Zurich, and Basel, and visited museums as well as the studios of painters and sculptors. He was undaunted by having to sell almost all of his clothes to be able to continue the journey and he sang as he walked, believing in his fate: “I knew that what had to happen, would happen.” Once on French soil, a bout with pneumonia landed him in a hospital run by nuns, after which he had to complete the last leg of the journey to Paris by train.
Life in Paris greeted him with practical hardship at first, forcing him to work as a dishwasher in restaurants. But the sophisticated metropolis quickly opened its heart revealing new artistic and intellectual developments pulsating with excitement and inspiration to the young sculptor. He obtained a Romanian-sponsored scholarship to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts in the class of sculptor Antonin Mercié where he befriended painter Amedeo Modigliani.
Soon after, Brancusi met his lodestar, Rodin, and even worked in the French master’s studio. However, the working relationship lasted only a few weeks, and Brancusi left, declaring: “Nothing grows under the shadow of big trees.” Yet this encounter with Rodin affected his art profoundly and launched the revolutionary artistic vision and practice that would establish his role as a pioneer of sculpture. That practice was rooted on the principles of “direct carving”—which the Tate Museum defines as “an approach to making carved sculpture where the actual process of carving suggests the final form rather than a carefully worked out preliminary model.” Brancusi rejected the established practice of planning and composing a sculpture. He believed that by carving and cutting directly into the raw material, the sculptor engages in an authentic, intimate, spiritual duet with the material, and has intuitive access to what he called “the inner form.” In his words: “matter must continue its own life when modified by the hand of the sculptor.” Brancusi’s pioneering “direct carving” method, also known as “taille directe” was widely adopted among his contemporaries as well as among next generations of artists and artistic movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Neo-Expressionism, and Primitivism.
After leaving Rodin’s studio, Brancusi heralded this new style; one of his first works in the new style was, ironically, named the same as one of Rodin’s famous sculptures, “The Kiss.” In 1909, the Romanian sculptor opened his own studio in Montparnasse which would become a hub of creative encounters between him and many great artists of the time who, along with Modigliani, had become his friends: Guillaume Apollinaire, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Erik Satie, Henri Rousseau, among others. He also made friends in the Parisian Romanian community of intellectuals and artists, like George Enescu, Panait Istrati, Eugen Ionescu, Emil Cioran, Paul Celan. By this time, Brancusi was already creating smoother and more contoured sculptures in bronze and marble, and producing multiple versions of his works, such as “The Kiss,” “Maiastra” (named after a fantastical bird of Romanian folklore) and “Sleeping Muse.” In 1913, five of his pieces made their debut in New York City’s Armory Show, the first exhibition of new avant-garde European and American art in the United States. Americans showed great enthusiasm and began buying his work. Throughout his life, Brancusi, who traveled to New York a few times, acknowledged how crucial American critics and collectors were for his career: “Without the Americans, I could have never produced all that, nor even perhaps have existed.”
As renown found Brancusi, so did love, with some especially notorious romances. His “Princess X” sculpture, controversial because of its phallic shape, was considered obscene and caused a scandal at the 1920 Salon des Indépendants in Paris. The sculpture was inspired by Princess Marie de Bonaparte, a great-grandniece of Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom it is said that Brancusi got romantically involved. While he claimed that his sculpture represented womanhood’s essence, one wonders whether it was not, in typical Romanian fashion, an ironic stab on his part at the Princess’s obsession with sex and her longtime therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud. Another close relationship was that with Peggy Guggenheim who, frustrated with the high prices the sculptor was asking for his work, is said to have flirted with the idea of seducing Brancusi, marrying him, and inheriting all his sculptures. She later discovered that, despite his affection for her, what he wanted most was to sell his sculptures, not make her his heiress. In fact, Brancusi had quite a grim view of marriage, and declared that an artist like him should never get married because he would become subjugated and eventually “massacred” by his wife.
Still, these thoughts would not stop him from continuing to fall in love. In his early sixties he became enamored of famous Romanian singer, Maria Tanase, who was 37 years younger, and whose voice both soothed and stirred the permanent yearning for his native country that had haunted him ever since his legendary walk to France. The two met in Paris and fell in love instantly, the sculptor declaring: “When I listen to you, Maria, I could sculpt a Maiastra bird for every one of our songs. I’ve traveled the world, everyone knows me by what I’ve known how to do, but when I hear our songs, I miss my country, my and your [people], the doleful sound of the Jiu river, my village…” Their love story, however, did not last. They pursued their own paths through fame; a fame which brought Maria Tanase to New York at the 1939 World Fair and gave her the opportunity to sing for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She remains one of the greatest cultural icons of Romania.
Ultimately, alongside his art, Brancusi’s other eternal love was Romania. True, Paris had given him a home and catapulted him into international fame. And it is in Paris that tourists from all over the world can view his studio reconstructed in its entirety next to the Pompidou Center and visit his resting place at Montparnasse Cemetery. Yet his soul always belonged to Romania. Throughout his life he wore the simple clothing reminiscent of the peasant attire from his village and cooked traditional Romanian dishes for his famous friends. He played the violin and sang Romanian folk songs. In 1938, he completed a sculptural ensemble in Targu Jiu, The Heroes’ Way, an homage to the Romanian heroes of World War I. “The Table of Silence,””The Gate of the Kiss,” and “The Endless Column” form one of the greatest outdoors sculptural ensembles of the 20th century, and they are heart-stopping sights.
After the communists came to power, Brancusi did not want to return to live in Romania but visited several times. As he got older and became at the same time more famous and more withdrawn, he allowed a Romanian immigrant couple to care for him and got his French citizenship to leave his inheritance and masterpieces to them as well as to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. He passed away on March 16, 1957 at 81 years of age. Today, his works are housed in the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other museums around the world. His masterpieces are the best sold creations of any Romanian artist, and rank among the top of the most valuable artwork in the world; several having been sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for sums between 12 and 30 million dollars.
“What my work is aiming at is, above all, realism: I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic, fundamental nature; this is my only deep preoccupation.” Always on the quest for the essence and for the discovery of what he called a “continuous line,” Brancusi sweeps the viewers of his art into flight, a transcendental dance between infinity and intimacy. On this, the 145th anniversary of his birth, let us honor the memory of the genius pilgrim who walked from Romania to France, devoid of material possessions but carrying the greatest treasure he would offer the world: a vision of modernism nurtured by ancient bonds to philosophy, spirituality, primitive art, and nature. And let his words, as his art, invite our own imagination to soar: “I don’t create birds, but flights.”
Top: “Sleeping Muse”
Photo courtesy of the Author