Constantin Brancusi - Toward the absolute

07/09/2017 - 28/10/2017

Three solar totems


‘Art is the absolute truth’

Constantin Brancusi, Studio notes


                                                                        by Jerome Neutres


Princess X, Head, and Sophisticated young girl: the three sculptures that make up the "Toward the absolute" exhibition appear to be one of those "mobile groups" so dear to Constantin Brancusi (Hobitza, Romania, 1876-Paris, and 1957) who always liked to arrange his artwork in his studio as avant-garde contemporary installations. They are produced from models that the sculptor made in plaster that are now kept at the Pompidou Centre. By their technique these sand castings illustrate Brancusi's use of what is commonly called "polished bronze", which is actually a copper and zinc alloy sanded down until it reflects like a mirror. An irradiating treatment of the material is one of the signatures of Brancusi's style and a key to understanding the aesthetic and philosophical pursuit of a body of work that has established itself as the foundation of modern sculpture. "Art is a mirror in which each can see whatever he thinks," writes Brancusi, who appears in sculpture to be reflecting on a photo he took of the Sophisticated young girl (1932). The purity of the lines, perfection of the construct, and brilliance of the polishing: In his sculptures, often produced in series, Brancusi seeks a finish as regular, purified, and brilliant as the modern industrial products that he so admired, along with his friends Léger and Duchamp. In his personal effects can be found a number of worn out polishing disks from a Black & Decker machine, of which he was a major customer. It is no coincidence that Brancusi is also referred to as the initiator of the art of seriality and industrial finishing, as well as one of the inspirers of contemporary design, and who was the instructor of Noguchi, his assistant at the end of the 1920s.

The search for the absolute, at work in Brancusi's art, occurs on one hand through this quest for brilliance to the point of the transparency of the material, and on the other hand it occurs through the simplification and the abstraction of forms because "simplicity is complexity resolved"[1]. Brancusi wanted to reveal "the essence of things", rather than their "outer envelope", because "visual art brings ideas into being, it does not simply represent them", he explained, summarizing his approach into one formula: "I have made matter express the inexpressible." His art seeks to be a mirror in which one may contemplate the invisible and indescribable roots of reality. Brancusi also advised his collectors to maintain the reflections of his sculptures as to gold. In a letter to his first collector, John Quinn, who acquired thirty of his works in the years 1915 to 1920, one of the most significant of his time, he asked the wealthy New York lawyer to ensure this mirror effect through regular polishing. The artist himself preserved his polished bronzes wrapped in sheets to protect them from light and moisture. Often very oxidised, many castings made during the artist's lifetime have lost their brilliance today along with their reflective magic. Paradoxically, posthumous editions, like these three pieces, seem to better reveal the light and mirror properties of these masterpieces, stemming from the origin of their creation. Inspired by the gilded bronzes in gold leaf of Asian antiquity (a technique he employed in his early sculptures, the first was the Sleeping muse) that he observed during his frequent visits to the Guimet Museum in Paris, Brancusi reinvented a solar statuary opening a new path of art and influencing a great many contemporary artists. It was when Dan Flavin beheld a Brancusi sculpture in which light and material all became one that in 1963 he dedicated his first neon sculpture "to Constantin Brancusi"[2].

 A woman's bust transgressively represented in a phallic form, Princess X (1915-1920) is the culmination of a quest to formalise the essence of femininity that Brancusi began in 1909 with the Woman looking in a mirror. It was under the first titles of Portrait of Mrs P.D.K., and Portrait of Princess Bonaparte, that the polished bronze as well as an initial marble version[3] were successfully presented in New York. In 1920, Brancusi finished a second slightly different version[4] of the one he hence called Princess X[5], and the development of which, as always in this artist's work, accompanies the work's growing abstraction and its ambition of universality. Whether, in the genesis of his work, he first thought of psychoanalytic theses on the sexuality of Princess Marie Bonaparte, a disciple of Freud, or on the sensuality of the portrait sculpted by Canova of Princess Pauline Bonaparte, remains secondary, for Brancusi then erases any reference in order to focus on the real issue of this sculpture: "My statue (...) is Woman, the very synthesis of woman. It is the eternal feminine of Goethe, reduced to its essence (...) in its sinuous lines that glow like pure gold, and summarise in an archetype all female effigies of the earth"[6], according to words attributed to the artist. "Eternal", "essence", "archetype", and "effigy": with Princess X, and later with the Sophisticated young girl - Portrait of Nancy Cunard, Brancusi seeks to create new totems of femininity similar to the Sleeping muse and Miss Pogany.

The figure of this Sophisticated young girl, of which there is an initial version in wood, is summed up in a singular totally abstract ovoid shape, suggesting twisted movements reminiscent of the imposing bracelets of Nancy Cunard, an extroverted artist and collector above all of primitive African art as minimalist as his works, which inspired Brancusi so much. Although the work initially bears the name of Nancy Cunard, the sculpture is not a portrait in the classic sense, it is yet an attempt to create a universal form, in this instance from the spirit of the muse, the symbol of freedom, of verve, refinement, and eccentricity. Clearly, we can also compare Princess X and the Sophisticated young girl to the Head (c. 1920), a sculpture first made in wood, then in plaster, and finally melted in polished "bronze", and which, in addition to its totemic dimension, shares with two other Brancusi works (and many others) a certain phallic morphology. This Head, which explicitly makes reference to a primitive African sculpture, is initially the upper portion of another vertical sculpture - a slender oak figure entitled Plato that itself falls within a series of minimalist totem sculptures in wood, with titles as significant as Adam and Eve and Socrates... In the end, Brancusi only retains the head that is now preserved at the Tate Gallery in London, and then he made a plaster model to produce polished bronzes, including the one presented here. In his work the artist was inspired by African and especially Asian statuary traditions. Princess X reminds one of a linguam, an upright stone symbol of Shiva and the act of creation in Hindu mythology that Brancusi was passionate about. In the Tantric tradition that he studied, accession to a form of absolute occurs when bringing together opposites, especially the masculine and the feminine. Contemplating the essential androgyny of the Princess X one thinks of the hermaphroditism of the Ardhanarishvara, an Indian figure half man and half woman resulting from the fusion of the god Shiva and goddess Parvati. The word statuary comes from the Latin stare, which means to "stand", and humanity's first sculptures were often linguams, menhirs, and totems, trained upright to the sky like an ode to creation. In keeping with this universality, Princess X, Head and Sophisticated young girl remind us that sculpture first and foremost addresses the body and sexuality. Focused on the origin of things, Brancusi left us sculptures of such universal shapes that they cross fashions and impose themselves today as if out of time, and hence seem even more "contemporary" than many current artistic creations.

[1]The Brancusi quotes are taken from his studio notes. Archives of the Brancusi Foundation, Pompidou Centre.

[2] Diagonal of 25 May 1963 "dedicated to Constantin Brancusi"

[3]This first marble version of Princess X is now in the collections of the University of Nebraska, USA.

[4]There are two separate casts at the origin of the Princess X series, both from the same period (1915-1916), kept at the National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre. The treatment of the hair and the hand vary particularly from one cast to the next.

[5]This second polished bronze, part of the Brancusi legacy to the French government, is today preserved at the National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre.

[6] See Constantin Brancusi's quotation in the article "To the independents, the man who shapes women", in L'Ere nouvelle, 28 January 1920, p. 6.