Hidden reality

Different strokes: Through his art, Constantin Brancusi searched for the ultimate truth and set it to stone

Minimal and Expressionist sculptures by Brancusi

In 1904, a young man in his 20s left his village in Romania and embarked upon a long journey to Paris. He reportedly walked and hiked through Austria and Germany, covering a distance of about 2,000 km before reaching the French capital on July 14.  

He lived and worked in his adopted city until his death, producing most of his visionary sculptures in La Ville Lumière (the city of light).  A year before his death, he bequeathed his entire studio (comprising completed works, sketches, furniture, tools, library, record library, photographs, etc) to the French state.  

 

 

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) died in Paris on March 16, 1957, aged 81. By then, the enigmatic artist-turned-ascetic (whose closest companion was a dog named Polaire) had become ‘the high priest of modernism’, evidenced by an exceptional output of more than 200 sculptures and 1,200 photographs. To this day, he is regarded as one of the most significant and influential sculptors of the 20th century.

Hard work 

Born in the small Romanian village of Hobita, Brancusi had a troubled relationship with his father, who was an estate manager to the local monastery. Leaving home at the age of 11, he took up menial jobs before managing to acquire formal education in arts in Bucharest. When he reached Paris after an arduous journey in 1904, another period of hardship and uncertainty ensued. But in 1905 he could enrol himself at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris; and to pay the bills, he began washing dishes. 

In 1908, he chiselled The Kiss, depicting a man and woman in deep embrace and lip-lock. As it turned out, the boxy stone sculpture became a defining point in his long and distinguished artistic career. Commercial success came by when his work was shown at the sensational New York Armory Show in 1913. Together with Duchamp and Matisse, Brancusi received more attention in the press than any other international artist in the show. In 1914, his reputation soared when his solo show was arranged in New York by photographer and modern art proponent Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).

Simplified vocabulary 

In Paris, Brancusi quickly became a part of the vibrant avant-garde scene, befriending some of the biggest names of the era. In his own art, he chose to tread a completely unique path by developing a new and simplified vocabulary that laid stress on evocation rather than mere realistic representation. He successfully pushed his medium to the brink of abstraction and ‘balancing forms inherent in materials with the symbolic allusions of representational art’. His sculptures began exemplifying the ideal form of the human face, mythical birds, animals, fishes, and swans through minimal but precise and clean geometrical lines.

 Most importantly, the meticulous sculptor and control-freak pioneered the technique of direct carving on pieces of his material — be it wood, stone or marble. He almost completely rejected the standard sculptors’ practice of making a clay model to be cast or completed by other skilled labourers. Instead, he did almost all the work himself including polishing his bronzes sometimes for weeks. “An artist should always do his own chores,” he insisted.

“A sculptor’s toil is slow and solitary.”

Further, many of his works were produced not from live models, but from his own imagination. He disregarded the classical realism approach to sculpting, and cared less for the individual model’s distinctive physiognomy. “Art is creating things one is unfamiliar with,” he proclaimed. “If we limit ourselves to exact reproduction, we halt the evolution of the spirit.”

Brancusi did not clarify the visual sources of his forms and designs. Critics and historians, however, felt that his art was fuelled by spiritual reflections as well as Romanian folk carvings, myths, and folklore. Primitive cultures which embodied a direct connection between heaven and earth was a matter of great interest to him; he was particularly taken in by their strong affinity with the sacred, the cosmic, and the mythical. He was fascinated with the forms, energy and spiritual content of African, Assyrian, and Egyptian art, which in some ways got reflected in his own creations.

With these invocations and inspirations, Brancusi could instil a sense of mystery to his works which otherwise looked deceptively simple. It is clear that he sought to capture the true essence of his subjects, with their reduced forms revealing the secrets of hidden truths.

Love for music 

Brancusi considered his studio to be a sacred space.  He carefully organised his life in his studio, so that there was no crack between thought and work. He could be seen keeping his saws and chisels close to his bed. 

A highly charismatic character, who cultivated a sense of mystery around him, Brancusi was known to love music. He had painstakingly accumulated a huge collection of records of folk music from all over the world. He had once reportedly even built a violin for himself.

Historians have recorded Brancusi’s deep attraction to Buddhism, and his particular admiration for the Tibetan monk Milarepa (1052 -1135), whom he studied earnestly. “Like Milarepa, Brancusi was searching for a superior way to live and express hidden truths,” writes Aaron Mendoza in his essay On Brancusi and the Spirituality of Sculpture. “His work would eventually transcend the need for interpretation and lay bare the essential. His mission was to search for an ultimate truth and set it to stone… Like Milarepa before him, he set out to search for dharma. He was searching for the beauty in the hidden reality of things... The words of Milarepa enabled Brancusi to distil things and reach for new forms... Milarepa went to the caves to unlock the truths. And Brancusi went into the stone.”

In May 2017, a small 10 ½-inch  bronze female head sculpture, La Muse Endormie by Brancusi was sold for a whopping $57.4 million in a Christie’s NY auction, exceeding the pre-auction estimates of $25 - 35 million.

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