The many masks of modern art

One of the great problems confronting early 20th-century sculpture was that it had no Cezanne upon whom to draw. By that I mean that sculpture lacked the kind of seminal figure that painting, in the first years of this century, had in Paul Cezanne. It was Cezanne, after all -- aided to a great extent by Van Gogh and Gauguin -- who opened the door to 20th-century painting and gave it legitimacy and direction.

auguste rodin, the last great sculptor of the 19th century, was unfortunately , just that: a 19th-century sculptor whose influence upon this century's art was , for all practical purposes, nonexistent. If anything, it was against him that most of the innovative sculptors early in the century rebelled.

And so sculpture had to start out cold, had to establish its modern identity and direction all by itself.

Modernism, both in sculpture and in painting, was generally viewed by early 20th-century artists as either a formal truth to be pursued at all cost (a kind of artistic Holy Grail), or as a huge warehouse of pictorial devices from which the artist could pick and choose whatever seemed appropriate to the creative task in hand.

Needless to say, those who saw it as truth generally looked down upon the others as unimaginative opportunists whose work, while evidencing talent and skill, nevetheless could not seriously be called art. Any attempt to apply the discoveries of a formal purist or innovator such as Matisse or Braque to an art of humbler objectives was rejected by the purists as a compromise and an evasion of modernism's basic tenet: to seek out the truth in art regardless of where it might lead or what its practical applications might be. Just as science was divided into pure and applied, so was art divided into what was true and what was contaminated by practical or commercial considerations.

This issue of artistic purity and formal truth became the central issue for the younger sculptors and painters who emerged during the years preceding World War I. And since perfection and truth in art have usually been associated with simplicity and cohesiveness, and more recently with irreducible form, the artists of that period soon found themselves painting circles, squares, triangles, and lines, and sculpting the most elemental and primeval of forms.

Chief among the latter was Constantin Brancusi who reduced sculptural form to its basics: to the egg shape, the slab, the box, the ball, he rounded, elliptical shape that resembled a stone worn smooth in a stream and so on. And with these forms he created sculpture of such simplicity and truth that they quickly became a crucial part of the formal vocabulary of 20th-century art.

Brancusi's creative inventiveness was so exceptional that one could almost say that he willed the sculpture of our century into being. But art is never created in a vacuum. There are always precedents and inspirations for everything in art, no matter how novel or unique such art may at first appear.

In Brancusi's case, inspiration and precedent came from several sources: from primitive in nature (such as the shape of an egg, or the movement of a bird in fligh), and from the spirit of Eastern religion and art. He drew from all of these, but the most crucial thing about his art came from within himself -- and that was the conviction that the new form of sculpture he envisioned was not only relevant to the times, but true to the ultimate goals of art as well.

Such vision and persistence were doubly remarkable if we remember that when he came to Paris in 1904 there was nothing even remotely resembling abstract sculpture to be seen there or anywhere else. Rodin was still king and sculpture was entirely representational.

Brancusi almost immediately set about stripping sculpture down to its essentials. He distilled and compacted the complex into The simple wherever he would, and became the great master of omission, of knowing how to reduce the irrelevant into the relevant.

But while his art may have looked abstract, it never really was. If he was drawn to the perfect shape of the egg, for instance, it was not only for its form, but also because of the mystery and promise the egg contained. Perfect it might be but one day it would break open and life itself would emerge.

It is this profound sense of containment, of being based in life, that sets Brancusi's art apart from the more abstract work of his younger contemporaries. Even his pieces the resemble smooth stones somehow retain a quality of "pregnancy" about them, as though they contained life, or were as much like seeds as like stones.

His forms, absolutely simple as they may be, always resonate with qualitite felt rather than seen. His famous "Bird in Space," for instance, is not an abstract and stylized bird, but a work representing flight itself.

And his "King of Kings," while it may at first resemble a totem pole, can more accurately be read as a sculptural sentence, a short alphabet of forms stacked vertically rather than arranged horizontally.

brancusi's vision of a sculpture of containment and of essences has persisted right up to the present, and will most likely continue for a long time to come. His influence has been widespread and profound, although, like Mondrian -- in some ways his counterpart in painting -- he spawned very few genuine followers.

It is both too easy and too difficult to follow someone like Brancusi. Too easy because it requires little talent to mimic his art, and too difficult because his standards were so high that to follow him within such a simple format, and then to fail, was to announce publicly the paucity of one's talent and imagination.

Brancusi was, without any doubt, one of the pivotal figures of 20th-century art, and one of its two or three most influential sculptors. His ideas and his forms were the inspiration for numerous contemporary sculptors, including Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi. He was one of our most determined visionaries. If ever a 20th-century creator sought the Holy Grail of art it was Constantin Brancusi, and if any ever found it -- even if only for a moment -- it was he.

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