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Why we love Brancusi
by Claudia Moscovici
Like his magnificent statues, for Romanians, the artist Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) is a national monument. To extend the metaphor, he’s also one of the pillars of Modernism. A favorite in his host country, France, he even has, like his mentor Auguste Rodin, his own museum in Paris. Like many art lovers, I’m a big fan of Brancusi’s sculpture and, like many native Romanians, I also take a certain pride that one of my compatriots has made such a big impact on art and culture. It seems obvious why so many people appreciate Brancusi. But as an art critic and aesthetic philosopher, I’m tempted to examine in greater detail answers to the question: Why do we love Brancusi?
1) He’s got Fame
This question of why we love Brancusi might not even come up if people didn’t know about the sculptor and weren’t exposed to his art in museums, galleries, and books about Modernism and the history of art. One of the most famous Romanians—up there with Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran (in philosophy and the history of ideas) and Eugen Ionesco (in drama), Constantin Brancusi is well known and much appreciated internationally. Almost every major museum in the world exhibits his art nowadays. But Brancusi achieved both fame and notoriety during his own lifetime.
He studied with the legendary sculptor Auguste Rodin but was smart enough to leave his famous teacher after only two months to seek recognition in his own right, famously stating: “Nothing can grow under big trees.” Soon he became one of the “big trees” himself, becoming known throughout the world for his sculptures The Kiss (1908), variations of Bird in Space (1928) and, of course, his chef d’oeuvre in Tirgu-Jiu, Endless Column (1938). Wealthy investors, including John Quinn, bought his sculptures. He exhibited his works in prestigious places, including the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and the Armory Show in New York.
One of the premier Modernist artists and a bohemian at heart, Brancusi kept company with some of the most influential artists, poets and writers of his time, including Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Amedeo Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Guillaume Appollinaire, Henri Rousseau and Fernand Lèger. His list of acquaintances and friends reads like a Who’s Who of famous Modernist artists, poets and writers.
2) He’s got Personality
The artists that make it big often do so not only through their artistic accomplishments, but also through their magnetic personas and promotional antics. It’s difficult to say if Pablo Picasso would have had such an impact without being able to manipulate art deals and shape the public taste or if the Surrealist movement would have become so prominent without Salvador Dali’s zany antics, which weren’t completely random. For instance, to underscore the lobster motif in his art, Dali gave a talk in New York City with his foot in a bucket and a lobster on his head.
Similarly, Brancusi stood out from the crowd through his quirky combination of bohemianism (his free-spirited thirst for life, women and parties) and severe asceticism. The apparent contrast between his simple, Romanian peasant roots and his sophisticated tastes and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity (he was interested in mythology, art, craftsmanship, music and transcendental philosophy) also drew attention. Furthermore, sometimes retreating at the pinnacle of your success can be a good career move. After creating the monumental Endless Column—which marked the apex of his artistic career—the artist became reclusive and created very few works of art.
While prolific and sociable up to then, during the next 19 years of his life Brancusi created fewer than 20 works of art, all of them variations upon his previous works. The former bohemian socialite also retreated from public view, while, paradoxically, his fame continued to grow. In an article in Life Magazine (1956), the artist is described as an eccentric hermit: “Wearing white pajamas and a yellow gnomelike cap, Brancusi today hobbles about his studio tenderly caring for and communicating with the silent host of fish, birds, heads, and endless columns which he created.”
Years earlier, Brancusi also attracted attention through the shocking novelty of his art: particularly his sculpture called Princess X (1920), a phallic sculpture representing Princess Marie Bonaparte, which created such an uproar at the Salon of 1920 that it was eventually removed from the exhibit. In a clever and rather accurate pun, the art critic Anna Chave even suggested that it should have been named “Princess Sex” rather than “Princess X”.
Brancusi found himself again in the limelight in 1926, when he shipped a version of Bird in Space to the American photographer Edward Steichen. Not viewing the sculpture as a work of art, which would be duty-free, the customs officials imposed taxes upon the piece for its raw materials. Although both of these incidents got Brancusi international attention—or notoriety, depending upon your perspective–artistic magnetism goes beyond mere shock value or even publicity stunts.
Such magnetism is perhaps best described by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when he urges every person to live his or her life as a work of art: “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” Artistic fame happens when both the artist and the art are able to intoxicate us, as Brancusi clearly does. A peasant and an erudite artist and intellectual; a bohemian and an almost saintly aesthete; a socialite circulating in Paris’s most elite artistic circles and a recluse, Brancusi’s paradoxical and enigmatic personality attracted almost as much attention as his truly innovative art. Which brings us to the next—and most important– factor: Brancusi’s talent.
3. He’s got Talent: Brancusi’s Originality, Exemplarity and Inimitability
a) Brancusi is Original.
Although this doesn’t always happen in the history of art, I’m not alone in believing that Brancusi’s fame is very well deserved and that he’s a very talented artist. However, it’s tough to dissect or explain talent philosophically: usually people say they know it when they see it. Sometimes we need to appeal to aesthetic philosophy to understand more closely the reasons behind something that seems obvious or intuitive. In this case, I believe that Immanuel Kant’s second aesthetic criterion from The Critique of Judgment (1790): namely, his definition of artistic “genius” (or what we would call today, somewhat more modestly, “talent”), offers us helpful ways of evaluating the merit of Constantin Brancusi’s art. This brief digression into Kant’s aesthetic philosophy will help us understand why Brancusi’s art is original, exemplary and inimitable or, simply put, why he’s got talent.
Kant defines artistic talent as “the innate mental aptitude through which nature gives the rule to art.” (The Critique of Judgment, 225) In other words, talent is partly innate, not just acquired by training and practice. Moreover, producing a work of art is an inherently creative endeavor that requires talent. It’s never just generating a mirror image of reality, but rather a creative interpretation of that reality (or what he calls “nature”). Furthermore, Kant maintains, not all artistic creations are equal. Some stand head and shoulders above the rest, even generating new artistic movements. He offers three main criteria that distinguish artistic talent. First of all, for a work of art to show real talent, “originality must be its primary property” (The Critique of Judgment, 225).
Brancusi is, without a doubt, original. His first major work is The Prayer (1907), a minimalist sculpture that reflects the artist’s unique and eclectic mixture of influences: Romanian folkloric peasant carvings, classical sculpture, African figurines and Egyptian art. A very talented craftsman and woodcarver, Brancusi also innovates a new method of creating sculptures: carving them from wood or stone as opposed to modeling them from clay or plaster, as his mentor Auguste Rodin and many of his followers were doing at the time. Most likely deliberately named after Rodin’s The Kiss (1908), Brancusi’s second major sculpture (by the same name) effaces the realism of the lovers, as they embrace to form one rounded, harmonious monolith: quite literally, a monument to love. Years later, in Bird in Space (1928), the artist conveys movement, altitude, aerodynamics and flight rather than the external features of the bird itself. The pinnacle of his career and the logical conclusion of capturing feelings and concepts through essential forms, Endless Column (1938) represents the soaring spirit and heroism of the WWI Romanian civilians who fought against the German invasion. It’s a monument for which, incidentally, Brancusi refused to accept payment.
One of the most innovative aspects of Brancusi’s art is that his sculptures capture the essence rather than the form of objects. Relying upon the Platonic and Aristotelian definitions of forms, the artist distinguishes his minimalism from abstraction. Brancusi protests: “There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.” For Plato, Forms are the original, essential perfect models—such as goodness, virtue or humanity–for concepts and objects. Aristotle transformed this Platonic notion of Forms, distinguishing between the essential and the contingent, or essence and accident. The essence of the object defines what it is no matter how much it changes its appearance or state. Relying upon this Aristotelian concept, Brancusi was one of the first and best known Modernist artists who sought to capture the essence of the emotions and objects he conveyed: be it love and sensuality or heroism and courage.
b) Brancusi is Exemplary
But originality–in the sense of producing an artifact without imitating other artifacts and without learning how to produce art–does not suffice to qualify an artist as a genius (or talented). An artist may create, as Kant puts it, “original nonsense” that nobody cares about or likes. Taking this possibility into consideration, Kant argues that, secondly, artistic objects must also be “exemplary; and, consequently, though not themselves be derived from imitation, they must serve that purpose for others, i.e. as a standard or rule of estimating.” (The Critique of Judgment, 225) When one produces truly innovative works of art, other artists tend to follow suit. Brancusi set the standard for Modernist sculpture, influencing tens of thousands—if not millions–of artists, many of whom continue his tradition today.
c) Brancusi is Inimitable
Yet there is only one Brancusi. As an anonymous art critic writing for the art website Brain-Juice.com aptly states: “The sculptures of Constantin Brancusi blend simplicity and sophistication in such a unique way that they seem to defy imitation. Yet it is impossible to think of an artist who has been more influential in the twentieth century. Almost single-handedly, Brancusi revolutionized sculpture, invented modernism, and shaped the forms and concepts of industrial design as we know it today.” (Brain-Juice.com on Brancusi) This brings me to the third criterion of aesthetic value that Kant offers to explain artistic talent: inimitability. Although good art is exemplary—in motivating other artists to imitate it—it is also difficult to copy because each talented artist has his own unique style. Brancusi has a signature style that many may emulate, but nobody can replicate.
His host country, France, has long recognized his genius and set up an Atelier Brancusi at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Many of us who love Brancusi’s monumental art are eagerly awaiting a Brancusi Museum in his native country, Romania, as well. In the meantime, we’ll continue to enjoy the Brancusi exhibits throughout the world and his newly restored Endless Column in Tirgu-Jiu.