Born February 21, 1876, in Hobiţza, Gorj, Romania; naturalized French citizen, 1956; died March 16, 1957, in Paris, France. Education: Attended School of Arts and Crafts, Craiova, 1894-98, and School of Fine Arts, Bucharest, 1898-1902; studied under Antonin Mercie, École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905-07.
Sculptor. Worked in Paris from 1904, briefly under Rodin. Major sculptural works include The Prayer, 1907; The Kiss, 1907 and later versions; Head of a Young Girl, 1907-08; Sleeping Child and Sleeping Muse, 1909; Maiastra, 1910; Mlle Pogany, 1912-13; Sculpture for the Blind, 1916; Princess X, 1916, 1920; Golden Bird, 1919; Beginning of the World, 1920; Bird in Space, 1923; Fish, 1930; and "Monument for Tirgu Jiu," including Endless Column, Table of Silence, and Gate of the Kiss, 1937-38. Also produced numerous photographs and works in wood. Exhibitions: Individual shows include Alfred Stieglitz Gallery, New York, NY, c. 1915; Wildenstein Galleries, New York, NY, 1926; Brummer Gallery, New York, NY, 1926; Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 1955; Bucharest Art Museum, 1956; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, 1995; (photography) Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1994; and Tate Modern, London, England, 2004. Group shows include Salon d'Automne, annually, beginning 1906; New York Armory Show, New York, NY, 1913; and What Is Modern Sculpture?, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, 1986. Work included in permanent collections, including Beaubourg Museum, Paris, France; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum; and Tate Gallery, London.
Histoire de brigands, [Paris, France], 1969.
Romanian-born artist Constantin Brâncuşi has often been called the father of modern abstract sculpture, though Brâncuşi himself famously derided such an appellation. "It is only fools who could say my works are abstract," the artist was quoted as saying by Eric Shanes in Apollo. "What they are categorizing is in fact the most realistic thing possible, for reality is not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." For this rough-hewn artist, born of peasant stock, that essence was to be found in the biomorphic forms of nature, and Brâncuşi turned to such basic shapes and worked in natural elements in order to appeal to the sensibilities of a broad spectrum. His idealized shapes are, thus, not abstract at all, but the most realistic of all, the groundwork and bedrock of reality. His stylized twin blocks of The Kiss seem like dumplings embracing, yet they express a poetic depth in their simplicity. He had to battle with U.S. customs over his Bird in Space, with the bureaucrats arguing that it was not a work of art because it did not have a clear referent. This flash of polished metal is the stuff of flight, but it took the courts to sort that argument out. His monumental work for the Romanian town of Târgu Jiu—which includes The Endless Column, towering into space over a hundred feet, but seemingly forever—is an expression of human striving that is anything but abstract.
Despite his small output, Brâncuşi's ability to render meaning through form made his art revolutionary and transformative, and caused it to influence sculpture in the twentieth century. As Sanda Miller noted in Grove Art Online, Brâncuşi was "one of the most influential of 20th-century sculptors, but he left a relatively modest body of work centered on 215 sculptures, of which about 50 are thought to have been lost or destroyed." Brâncuşi was also a draughtsman, painter, and photographer; several major exhibitions have been mounted celebrating his photographs, many of which were taken as subject shots from which sculptures were later modeled. His closeness to the folk art of his native Romania can also be see in his numerous wood carvings. Yet it is the signature ovoid heads and birds in flight by which most people remember this remarkable artist.
Brâncuşi was born in 1876 in a small village in the mountains of Transylvania, where his parents farmed a small piece of land to support their family of seven children. Growing up on the land, Brâncuşi developed a strong affinity for nature and the rhythm of the seasons, and it was this connection to nature and nature's ways which he kept with him throughout his life, and which informs all his best work. Life was not easy for the Brâncuşis, and at age ten Constantin left the family to make his own way in the world. Some reports claim he ran off with a band of gypsies; whatever the case, he was living in the nearby provincial town of Târgu Jiu by about 1887. Here he labored at various jobs for the next five years and lived in poverty. Although he had little formal schooling, somehow during these years he managed to teach himself to read and thereby feed his insatiable curiosity about the world. While it is not known exactly when he began to
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work at art, and whether his first attempts were in drawing or wood carving and sculpting in clay, by 1892 Brâncuşi had left Tirgu Jiu for the relative cosmopolitan environment of Craiova, the capital city of Oltenia province. There, over the course of the next three years, he was able to bring his scholarship to the level needed to gain entrance to the city's School of Arts and Crafts. Admittance was helped along by a grocer for whom he was working at the time. Impressed by the violin his young employee had fashioned out of a wooden crate, the grocer persuaded a powerful and influential customer to help Brâncuşi gain entrance to the school.
At age eighteen, Brâncuşi was much older than his classmates at the School of Arts and Crafts, and he quickly became known for his hard work and diligence. As he excelled particularly in woodcarving, his instructors suggested that Brâncuşi focus on sculpture. Meanwhile he also earned a living working for a furniture maker, a job that taught him the craft of finishing and polishing wood. This skill later came to the fore in his sculptures with their fine, high finishes. He was also known for the care and design he put into the wooden bases for his sculptures, another skill learned from his years as a furniture maker. Brâncuşi graduated with honors from the School of Arts and Crafts in 1898. At age twenty-two, he had already strayed a long way from his peasant roots.
From Bucharest to Paris
During his years in Craiova the short and rather young-looking Brâncuşi grew his signature beard, initially to make him look older. During his final year at the School of Arts and Crafts he produced the bust of the Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius; the work was done with such attention to detail that it resembled an antique sculpture and won him grants to continue his training at Bucharest's School of Fine Arts. At Bucharest he continued the hard work for which he was so well known, winning a number of student awards and prizes. One award was for his piece Antinous of Belvedere, and another for Ecorche, a life-size figure that displayed the artist's intimate knowledge of human anatomy. In fact, in Bucharest Brâncuşi studied anatomy under a well-known professor and even performed dissections on human cadavers. His life-size statue was later used as a model at the Bucharest medical school, and Brâncuşi earned one of his first commissions creating the bust of the founder of the medical school.
Graduating from the School of Fine Arts in 1902, Brâncuşi decided that he needed to travel within Europe to complete his education. Going by foot, he stayed for a time in Munich, Germany, and then moved on to the French capital, which was considered the capital of art at the time. He arrived in Paris in 1904 and ended up staying there for the rest of his life, over half a century. As it was with many foreigner artists who came to Paris, the early days were not easy for Brâncuşi. He took on menial jobs, such as that of a dishwasher, to make ends meet, and also sang in a Romanian church. However, because of his rural upbringing he was used to harsh living conditions and was able to survive on very little. Little by little, with the help of some Romanian friends who were already established in Paris, he began to earn commissions for busts, and these modest sums helped him eke out a living. Some early works from this period include Portrait of a Concierge, Portrait of Dr. Zaharia Samfirescu, and Portrait of Restaurant Owner.
Toward a Simplification of Form
By 1905 Brâncuşi had won a place at the École des Beaux-Arts, but once there he railed against the curriculum, for the teachers stressed working on sculptural details from churches and cathedrals rather than working from live models. For a time, he did double the workload, creating not only his own studies, but also ones that would satisfy his teachers. At this time Brâncuşi also came under the thrall of African masks and statuary, a vogue that had reached Paris at about this time. Brâncuşi was not alone in this fascination; another expatriate, the Spanish-born artist Pablo Picasso, was also heavily influenced by African artifacts during these same years in Paris. Brâncuşi took up carving in wood once again, influenced by such works, and he also began chiseling directly in stone without using a clay model. He wanted to take his inspiration directly from nature, releasing the forms hidden in such materials as stone and wood.
Brâncuşi was invited to exhibit at the Salon d'Automne, one of the most influential annual exhibitions in Paris, in 1906. Here he displayed three works, Pride, Bust of a Boy, and Portrait of G. Lupescu. The following year, having reached age thirty-one,
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he had to leave the École des Beaux-Arts because of its age regulations. For a time he worked for the powerful sculptor August Rodin, whom he had met at the Salon d'Automne. However, this working relationship did not last long. Quickly recognizing the danger of working for such a famous man, Brâncuşi left, and he later would note: "Nothing can grown in the shadow of the great trees."
That same year Brâncuşi received his first large commission, which was for a grave monument to be erected in Romania. With the money from this commission, he rented a studio in Montparnasse, the town he would call home for the rest of his life, and set to work on the funeral monument, which included a portrait of the deceased person as well as the kneeling figure of a boy. This piece, The Prayer, marks the beginning of Brâncuşi's signature style. He had found his own voice in his own idiom and was free of the influence of his teachers as well as of Rodin. His work became increasingly simplified in form, losing the traditional sense of figure or subject and revealing instead Ur-forms of nature: blocks, egg-shapes, sweeping arcs. With The Kiss, Brâncuşi made his final breakthrough to a more primitive art with simplified forms that speak volumes beyond their mere shapes. Here a block of limestone has a minimum of sculpting, just enough to show hair, eyes, and arms and to suggest a couple embracing and kissing. Sleeping Child and Sleeping Muse similarly employ "ovoids as virtually self-sufficient objects, remaining on the threshold of abstraction through the identification of the forms with the human body," according to Miller.
Blending both folklore and primitive art, Brâncuşi had devised a new and direct sculpture for a new century. With Sculpture for the Blind from 1916 and Beginning of the World from 1920, this process of simplification of forms extends to the point where the ovoids no longer actually resemble human features, but rather suggest them in their very forms. Sometimes, as with his Princess X, such simplification caused problems for the artist. The piece had to be withdrawn from an exhibition in Paris because viewers thought it depicted a penis and testicles rather than a woman's head, neck, and breasts, as Brâncuşi had intended. According to Miller, part of the inspiration for the "reductionist tendencies and organic softening of Brâncuşi's sculpture at this time" came as a result of his friendship with Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani.
Achieves Artistic Prominence
Brâncuşi's name soon became known outside of his native Romania and outside of artistic circles in Paris. Though much of the work from his early years has been lost, he did take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913 in New York, with five pieces on display, including Mlle Pogany, done in plaster and later rendered in bronze. His first one-man show was held at New York's Alfred Stieglitz Gallery, while in London he exhibited several works, and he also took part in a cubist exhibit in Prague in 1914.
As he continued to work to distill the human form to its bare essentials, Brâncuşi was also doing the same for avian life. Beginning with his 1910 sculpture Maiastra, he continually simplified the shape of a bird until it was stripped to a line in flight, as with his 1923 work Bird in Space. It was this piece that, when brought to exhibit in the United States at New York's Brummer Gallery, provoked the trial over the work's custom's status: Was it a work of art or an "object of manufacture," as the customs officials claimed, and thereby subject to import tax? In any event, enough art critics were brought in to testify to convince the court of the artistic value of Bird in Space, despite that fact that it did not exactly resemble an actual bird.
Brâncuşi enjoyed sculpting animals, as can be seen in pieces such as The Penguins, The Cock, and The Fish. As Miller commented, "Brâncuşi was rare among 20th-century sculptors in his interest in portraying animals with tenderness, originality and affection, often with a touch of mischievous humour." Brâncuşi also maintained strong ties to Romania, although he had become a French citizen. His studio in Montparnasse was decorated in the folk tradition of his native country, and he frequently visited Romania prior to the outbreak of World War II. His last trip there occurred in 1937, when he was commissioned to create an ensemble of sculptures for a park in Târgu Jiu, the town where he had lived after first leaving home. This monument was meant as a commemoration of the Romanians who had fallen in World War I, and for this task the artist developed three massive sculptures. The first of these, The Gate of the Kiss, forms the entrance and is decorated with forms used in his original of The Kiss. With The Table of Silence, he constructed a huge stone table surrounded by twelve stone stools, bringing to mind not only the biblical Last Supper, but also Arthurian legends surrounding the knights of the Round Table. For a third component, he designed the cast-iron shape of The Endless Column, which uses repeated diamond-shaped elements derived from Romanian folk art that soar heavenward as if forming a link between earth and sky.
Brâncuşi last traveled to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II to take part in the tenth anniversary of New York's Museum of Modern Art. During the war he remained in Nazi-occupied Paris, working on a monumental version of The Cock, an earlier sculpture depicting a rooster crowing. This proved to be one of Brâncuşi's final pieces.
Lasting fame came to Brâncuşi following World War II, when he was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a twentieth-century original. However, he could not fully enjoy such accolades. Ill-health plagued his final years, and he was unable to attend the 1955 retrospective of his works staged at New York's Guggenheim Museum. He died in Paris on March 16, 1957, and was buried in Montparnasse, his home for a half century.
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Lauded for Unique Vision
Brâncuşi's simplified, stylized sculptures, with their highly polished surfaces, are instantly recognizable. Though often copied, a Brâncuşi piece cannot be duplicated, for the artist's search for the essence of things led him to artistic solutions that cannot be simply replicated. His fame has not diminished since his death; if anything he has become more solidly part of the canon of modern art. If the price of art is any indication of its real value, then Brâncuşi has most assuredly achieved a place of prominence in the world of art; a sculpture by this man who believed in simplicity sold for over eighteen million dollars in 2004. Reviewing a 1995 retrospective of Brâncuşi's work staged at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Michael Gibson wrote in Insight on the News that the artist "strove not to imitate nature's objective forms but nature's creativity." For this sculptor, "simplicity is complexity resolved," as Gibson further noted, quoting the artist himself. Writing on that same exhibition, Time contributor Robert Hughes noted that "there has ceased to be any doubt of Constantin Brâncuşi's status as a modernist master." For Hughes, "Brâncuşi's most original use of traditional material arose from his handling of polished bronze. No earlier sculpture had made such a feature of polish." Hughes went on to conclude that "the history of art is full of sculptures that signify aspiration—through gesture, expression, movement. But [Brâncuşi's work] is different. The aspiration is part of the substance. No sculptor had embodied such a feeling before." Reviewing a 2004 retrospective held at London's Tate Modern Gallery, Andrew Lambirth, writing in the Spectator, observed that Brâncuşi "produced some of the most exquisite, serene and musical sculptures ever, and lent speed to the introduction of abstract and primitive modes into modern art." Lambirth also noted that Brâncuşi "was a pioneer of direct carving," not bothering to work from a clay model. Also commenting on the restrospective, Richard Cork commented in the New Statesman that, "Hewn or cast with magisterial finality, the work of Constantin Brâncuşi is a cornerstone of modern sculpture. Leave him out and our understanding of the restless revolution perpetrated by other 20th-century sculptors quickly collapses."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bach, Freidrich Teja (with others), Constantin Brâncuşi, 1876-1957 (catalogue), Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA), 1995.
Balas, Edith, Brâncuşi and Rumanian Folk Traditions, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Brezianu, Barbu, Brâncuşi in Romania, Editions ALL (Bucharest, Romania), 1999.
Faerna, Jose Maria, Constantin Brâncuşi, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1997.
Geist, Sidney, Brâncuşi: A Study of the Sculpture, Grossman (New York, NY), 1968.
Geist, Sidney, Brâncuşi: A Retrospective Exhibition (catalogue), Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (New York, NY), 1969.
Geist, Sidney, Brâncuşi: The Sculpture and the Drawings, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1975.
Geist, Sidney, Brâncuşi: The Kiss, Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1978.
Giedion-Welcker, Carola, Brâncuşi, George Braziller (New York, NY), 1959.
Gimenez, Carmen, and Matthew Gale, Constantin Brâncuşi: The Essence of Things, Tate Gallery (London, England), 2004.
International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI) 1990.
Istrati, Alexandre, and Natalia Dumitresco, Brâncuşi, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1987.
Kramer, Hilton, Brâncuşi, the Sculptor as Photographer, Callaway Editions (Lyme, CT), 1979.
Lewis, David Neville, Constantin Brâncuşi, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1974.
Miller, Sanda, Constantin Brâncuşi: A Survey of His Work, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Shanes, Eric, Constantin Brâncuşi, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Spear, Athena T., Brâncuşi's Birds, New York University Press for the College Art Association of America (New York, NY), 1969.
Tabart, Marielle, and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, Brâncuşi, Photographer, Agrinde Publications (New York, NY), 1979.
Tabart, Marielle, and others, La Colonne sans fin, Centre George Pompidou (Paris, France), 1998.
Varia, Radu, Brâncuşi, 2nd edition, Rizzoli International (New York, NY), 2002.
Zervos, Christian, Brâncuşi: Sculptures, peintures, fresques, dessins, Cahiers d'art (Paris, France), 1957.
Apollo, April, 2004, Eric Shanes, "Ideal Reality: Tate Modern's Brâncuşi Exhibition Reveals a Fundamental Failure to Grasp the Sculptor's True Meaning," p. 58; August, 2004, Eric Shanes, "Love Triumphant—Again: Eric Shanes Explores the Possible Influence of a Commemoration of World War I on One of Constantin Brâncuşi's Last Sculptures, The Borne Frontiere," p. 62.
ARTForum International, November, 1995, John Berger, "A Kiss for Us," p. 70.
Art in America, January, 1996, Marcia E. Vetrocq, "Re-reading Brâncuşi: The Philadelphia Story," p. 60.
Art Journal, summer, 2000, Roxana Marcoci, "The Anti-Historicist Approach: Brâncuşi, 'Our Contemporary'," p. 19.
Financial Times (London, England), February 4, 2004, William Packer, "Two Sides of the Plane: Visual Arts: William Packer Looks at the Strangely Complementary Exhibitions from Two Abstract Sculptors," p. 15.
History Today, January, 2004, Charlotte Crow, "Constantin the Great," p. 7.
Insight on the News, October 16, 1995, Michael Gibson, "'Supreme Sensitivity' Is a Brâncuşi Constant," p. 32.
Nation, January 22, 1996, Arthur C. Danto, "Constantin Brâncuşi," p. 30.
New Statesman, February 9, 2004, Richard Cork, "Figure Heads," p. 39.
Newsweek, October 30, 1995, Peter Plagens, "When Less Was More," p. 76.
Spectator, January 31, 2004, Andrew Lambirth, "Rare Purity of Spirit," p. 59.
Time, September 1, 1986, Robert Hughes, "The Liberty of Thought Itself; In Paris, a Big Provocative Survey of Modern Sculpture," p. 68; December 18, 1995, Robert Hughes, "Funk and Chic," p. 77.
Grove Art Online,http://www.groveart.com/ (October 18, 2004), Sanda Miller, "Brancusi, Constantin."
Guggenheim Museum,http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/ (October 19, 2004), "Constantin Brâncuşi."
Metropolitan Museum,http://www.metmuseum.org/ (October 19, 2004), "Constantin Brâncuşi."
Museum of Modern Art,http://moma.org/ (October 19, 2004), "Constantin Brâncuşi."*