A Balanced Look At Brancusi

Constantin Brancusi

By Friedrich Teja Bach,

Margit Rowell, Ann Temkin

MIT Press

406pp., $55

Artists do not often make good critics of other artists' work. They are too selective - only interested in those parts of it that impinge on their own work.

The sculptor Henry Moore's comments on Constantin Brancusi are a case in point. Moore consistently acknowledged that "Brancusi's work, apart from its individual value, has been of historical importance in the development of contemporary sculpture." But Moore narrowed the Romanian sculptor's achievement to just one salient aspect: "Brancusi ... simplified form, got people to look at shape again for its own sake, and made a martyr of himself, really, for a single form, for the egg, or the egg-form, as the basis of sculpture."

As the current exhibition of Brancusi at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the book based on it inevitably show, there was much more to Brancusi's sculpture than the "egg-form" - though a pared-down, polished, exhaustively perfected ovoid does tend to stick in the mind as the sine qua non of Brancusi's oeuvre.

Moore was using this to make a point about his own sculpture: "It may now be no longer necessary to close down and restrict sculpture to the single (static) form unit. We can now begin to open out. To relate and combine together several forms of varied sizes, sections and directions into one organic whole."

The irony of Moore's last sentence (he was speaking in 1937) is that it is actually rather a good description of Brancusi's own practice of combining forms of different sizes, sections, and directions. He was not merely a subtractive sculptor, reducing his shapes and forms to a singular essence; he was an additive sculptor.

This is specially true if one considers how his bases - valued as sculpture in their own right - are often a buildup of different formal units, and even at their simplest add another, conceptually contrasting, element to the sculpture they support.

The black marble portrait of his American patron Mrs. Eugene Meyer Jr., although it concentrates on a single vertical "direction," relates and combines varied forms.

In his introductory essay to "Constantin Brancusi," by Friedrich Teja Bach, Margit Rowell, and Ann Temkin, Professor Bach emphasizes the (often extremely subtle) fact that Brancusi's forms are never simply "pure forms" but sculptural and individual because they involve "irregularity and asymmetry."

These factors are understated, but they cannot be missed by a viewer prepared to attend sensitively to them. They are what makes Brancusi's sculpture, in Bach's words, have an "essence that is not objecthood but aliveness."

Moore, intent on a rugged, human, and less transcendental sculpture, latched onto what he wanted Brancusi to represent for him and not only failed to appreciate Brancusi's art, but even led himself into an unwittingly dismissive phrase: "the single (static) form unit."

"Static" is not remotely what Brancusi's sculptures are. It is true that - as Ms. Rowell in her essay in the book points out - the sculptor's aim was a timelessness, and his forms suggest completeness while hinting at some kind of infinite extension of themselves, but they also have an undeniable vitality. They never seem motionless.

They only need to be compared with the highly finished works of some other modern "abstract" sculptors for it to be instantly apparent how one exquisitely honed sculpture can seem full of life and another no more than a superbly crafted thing, admirable but lifeless.

The extremely polished surfaces of some of Brancusi's bronzes and stone-carvings, though sometimes criticized as "precious," really came from a desire to reflect light in all its changeability. Rowell quotes Brancusi's own words: "We do not see real life except by reflections."

The restless reflections in Brancusi's surfaces - shifting even with the slightest movement of the viewer's eye - enliven and bring complexity to his apparent simplicity. They invest what people mistakenly take to be a stillness with even greater vigor and kineticism. His sculpture "The Seal (Miracle)" - or as it now appears to have been renamed "The Miracle (Seal [1])" - is, incidentally, on a base that can be revolved.

As Rowell also discusses, Brancusi himself never set out to be either a "modern" or an "abstract" sculptor. That he was thought to be both by his contemporaries now looks ironical. He himself said: "I never seek to make what they call a pure abstract form." His interest in archaic sculpture, as well as that of Asia and Africa, was - as it was for other so-called "modern" artists - actually an escape from modernity.

Modern Western industrialization had, if anything, depersonalized art, and a growing secularity in Western culture tended to rob art of its primitive purpose and force. So artists turned to non-Western art for inspiration.

Moore was no more a "modern" artist than was Brancusi - and yet both were perceived by reactionaries as epitomizing everything awful that "modern art" might mean.

On the other hand, both were enthusiastically collected, particularly in America, by collectors of modern art.

But a comment by one of those collectors, John Quinn, shows how he at least realized that Brancusi's art belonged to something extremely ancient. Radu Varia in his book about Brancusi describes how "The revelation of the splendor and originality of Brancusi's art was so intense that on acquiring an antiquity of inestimable value, Quinn declared: 'It is as beautiful as a Brancusi.' "

*The 'Constantin Brancusi' show remains at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 31.

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