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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Constantin Brancusi, born in Romania in 1876, was a remarkable sculptor and photographer. Widely considered the patriarch of modern sculpture, Brancusi's abstract work was ground-breaking and undoubtably ahead of its time.

Unlike his more famous contemporary, Rodin, Brancusi pioneered a direct carving approach to sculpture, preferring to remain completely hands-on with his work and the materials he used. Additionally, he was at the vanguard of minimalism, as most of his sculptures describe the subject matter in a very simple way, leaving space for interpretation and revealing deeper, more complex meanings than may have first appeared.

A prolific sculptor and photographer, Constantin left some 215 works and over 1200 photographs on his death and bequeathed them to the French State. While Constantin had known critical and financial success in his lifetime, after his death in 1957 his sculptures became very much sought after. Indeed, in 2017 his Sleeping Muse (1913) was bought at Christie’s for $57.3 million, making it one of the most expensive sculptures ever sold.

Brancusi the Sculptor

Although Brancusi studied art in his native Romania and later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Art, his talent for carving was certainly innate and largely self-taught. In fact, such was his natural gift, it is said that the reason he gained acceptance to the Craiova School of Arts and Craft initially, was because he had crafted a violin from an orange crate in his spare time. Brancusi's desire to fashion beauty from basic materials was the root of his genius, lending a primitive simplicity to his work. Of course, his inspirations came from the traditional carvings that were and still are typical of the Romanian culture; from mantlepieces to saltcellars, decorative carvings are ubiquitous. Many of Constantin's works are clearly inspired by indigenous designs.

What is of particular note about Brancusi's works, however, is that although he was clearly inspired by intricate traditional carvings, his own renderings were sleek to the point of abstraction, it is almost as if he peeled back all the unnecessary adornments to reveal the truth of whatever he was observing. An exceptional example of this is, Bird in Space (1928) where he has completely dispensed with any outward detailing of the creature, Brancusi has instead focused on the qualities of aerodynamics and the feelings associated with flight and freedom, creating an altogether more complex expression by limiting detail. This amazing ability to simplify subject matter while at the same time magnify meaning is precisely what makes Constantin’s sculptures perpetually modern and relevant.

Another element of Brancusi's work that sets him apart from both his contemporaries and modern artists is the fact that his choice of material was as important to him as the shape he was fashioning. It is said that he would spend just as much time polishing his creations as creating them in order that he could convey their complex beauty. Perhaps the best and most famous example of this is Sleeping Muse I (1909-10); in this simple rendition of the head of his subject, Constantin polished the bust to a high gleam in order to represent the shining spirit of the sitter in contrast to the angular features of her face. This technique, specifically used in portraits and busts, helped convey a human element his sculptures, almost giving them breath and soul.

A Passion for Photography

Brancusi first discovered photography around 1914, but it wasn't until he befriended famous American surrealist Man Ray that he really began his passion in earnest. Ray was already smitten with photography as an art form and was able to help Constantin by advising him on equipment and technique. Brancusi found that by photographing his work, not only could he record each sculpture as he wanted it to be seen, but he could also expand the layers of meaning and depth by playing with light and shadow.

Although his skills as a photographer were only vaguely acknowledged in his lifetime, after his death there were several exhibitions in Paris and New York which explored his use of the camera more fully. Many of Constantin's photographs were not of his sculptures at all, but of his studio where he met with clients, friends and students. Through these pictures we gain an even deeper understanding of the artist for they are often not group shots, but more studies of moments; close-ups of dried paint or a random plant, which refocuses on the beauty of the mundane. It is clear to see that Brancusi saw life in many levels, a mixture of juxtaposed pieces which combine to create a magnificent whole. The entire collection of his 1250 prints are housed today in the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

Most Famous Works

Without doubt, the most famous of Brancusi's work is The Kiss (1907-08). This stone carving depicts two people in an embrace, but it is far removed from any classical form. In fact, it has a strong feeling of African art as it is simple in design and detail. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Brancusi favoured direct carving and perhaps because of this the sculpture offers an honesty and clarity that is often missing in more detailed works. Although the original was fashioned from stone, Constantin reworked this shape later also taking many casts of it to develop in plaster and other materials. Today the original sits in the Muzeul de Arta in Craiova, Romania, but a later rendering, in limestone, can be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Of course, to fully understand the evolution of Brancusi it is important to also discuss, Fish (1926). This sculpture, which today sits in the Tate Modern in London, is truly a seminal work. It depicts a stylised shape of a fish on a wooden base for support, on top of a mirrored circle to signify water, light and speed; the essence of the fish. Not only does it highlight Constantin's habit of using many different materials in his work; bronze, wood and metal, but it highlights a shift in the art of sculpture. Today, we take for granted all the elements involved in an art installation, but potentially, without Brancusi's vision, modern art as we know it would not exist; for that we can thank, Fish. Perhaps one of the most recognisable and emotive of Brancusi's work is, Endless Column (1918).

Part of an ensemble piece designed to honour the fallen of Romania during the First World War, it is a 1300m tall column of rhomboids which are thought to symbolise the infinite and the gift of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their homeland. It is a profoundly spiritual piece and it clearly demonstrates what a mystical view Constantin had of life. There is a deep connection between heaven and earth, a cosmic and mystical force bringing all beings together. Even though Brancusi lived in Paris when he was commissioned to create this sculpture, he was proud to remember his fellow Romanians in this way. He never accepted payment for this work. Erected in 1936 in Targu Jui, Romania, it remains a national monument today.

Finally, any list of Brancusi's most famous work must include, Sleeping Muse I (1909-10). As previously mentioned, this is a marble bust, and it depicts the face Baroness Renee-Irana Frachon. The shape of this sculpture was one that Constantin would return to again and again using many different materials and in ever simplified forms. The sculpture has been rubbed to shining by the artist to convey the light of essence and this use of polished surfaces to add dimension, was yet another technique pioneered by Brancusi. Art historian, Laurie Adams has said that the sculpture's smooth lines and refined features creates the epitome of elegance.

Brancusi's Legacy

Brancusi's legacy is remarkable. A poverty-stricken peasant from Romania, who taught himself to read and write and walked from his home to Paris so he could become the artist he was in his soul, is seen today as the father of modern sculpture. Without the fire that burned so brightly within him and the drive to bring to life his creations, the art world of today would be quite a barren place. Today his work can be found in museums in every continent. People of all walks of life are moved by his honesty and the way he saw the world; simple and beautiful. In truth he opened doors for the Henry Moores and the Anthony Gormleys among us to step forward and show us their vision of life.