Skip to content

Bird In Space Brancusi Essay

Around the same time, he imagined a temple for the Maharajah of Indore that would contain three versions of "Bird in Space," one black, one white, one bronze. Since Brancusi treated his studio as if it were a sacral space, the temple was only a natural extension of this mystical ideal: after all, his dedication to carving was virtually monklike, his sculptures were like reliquaries, his bases like altars.

Brancusi never actually constructed the Maharajah's shrine, but the show unites his three "Bird in Space" sculptures in one gallery, an affecting display. For various reasons, Brancusi is an especially complicated artist to exhibit. Apart from the practical problem of showing his sculptures in the round, there is the matter of how to combine them. Should they be arranged chronologically? Thematically? By material?

This show (on view through December) spent the summer at the Pompidou Center in Paris, where it was a hit with the public, though critics complained about the way it was laid out. The Philadelphia presentation, overseen by Ann Temkin, a curator at the museum, ought to get a warmer reception. It's straightforward and judicious. It looks exceptionally handsome.

The arrangement is essentially chronological. Groupings seem apposite: they're partly inspired by the clusters in Brancusi's studio, if not derived straight from them. The spindly-legged, bulbous-headed "Socrates" (1921-22) towers over "Newborn [II]" (1916), as it did in the studio. "Endless Column" (1918), with "Cup II" (1917-18) resting on top of it, is paired with "Little French Girl" (1914-18), which is what you see in a Brancusi photograph.

Ms. Temkin might have made clearer the few instances where she has combined sculptures with bases though there is no evidence that the artist had wanted them together. This matters because no artist made more of bases than Brancusi did, and no exhibition has made it more obvious just how integral they were to the rhythm, geometry and allusive complexity of his work. Constructed sometimes out of massive oak beams salvaged from razed Paris buildings, they have a hand-hewn roughness that is the very antithesis of the sleek, almost chic, stone and metal objects they support. They look as world-weary as the sculptures are otherworldly, and that paradoxical combination is potent.

"Newborn [II]" (1927) is a delicately incised, stainless steel ovoid on a stainless steel disk, a kind of Art Deco head of John the Baptist on a platter, notwithstanding what Brancusi might have had in mind. The work is supported by a rugged wooden base that resembles an arm -- an object as organic as the head is mechanistic. Likewise, the great "Maiastra" (1910-12), Brancusi's suave, swoop-necked bird from Romanian legend, is even more extraordinary for resting on its beautiful, and altogether different, primitivist base.

FOR YEARS, BRANCUSI'S WORKS WERE talked about and illustrated in books apart from their bases. The focus was on his quest for universal, self-contained abstract forms. This emphasized his modernity, to be sure, but it denied the expressive tensions in his art, with or without the bases. These tensions were not just between rough and smooth carving but between the sacred and profane: it's absurd, for instance, to deny the phallic allusions of emblematic works like "Princess X" or "Torso of a Young Man" and instead discuss them merely as pure forms, since that is to ignore much of their effect. Brancusi's sculptures are more eloquent, not less, for sustaining different, even contradictory, interpretations.

Brancusi himself was said to be a loner and also a bon vivant. He was a peasant who trekked from Romania to Paris in 1904 with a sack on his back and a flute in his hand, yet also a man whose friends included Duchamp, Satie and Pound. One biographer has it that he followed Tibetan mysticism. But we know he once amusingly suggested an apartment tower in the shape of his "Endless Column" to rise above Central Park in Manhattan.

And why not? Who says Brancusi had to be single-minded in life or in art? In Romania he learned native folk carving, which helps explain his bases. On the other hand, at the academy there, then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he was trained to prize refinement and finish: as revolutionary as his stone sculptures are, they seem indebted, with their impeccable surfaces, to these academic standards. A subsequent stint in Rodin's studio gave Brancusi a profound new sense of stone's imminent possibilities, and in the early rooms of this exhibition you see him grappling with this modernist legacy -- along with Gauguin's and that of the sculptor Medardo Rosso.

What did Brancusi not learn from? Nothing. He became absorbed above all by non-Western and pre-modern art: by African art, Asian art, Egyptian art, Cycladic art and the art of medieval Europe. He was open to everything. Perhaps his most distinctive achievement, in the end, was to invent modernity out of a combination of ancient traditions, to make what looked utterly new out of what was incredibly old. Or more to the point, to create a modern image of timeless beauty out of venerable sources. This approach was the opposite of Futurism's, and radically different from the avant-garde idea that to be new meant to reject the past.

No wonder Brancusi's sculptures are summed up as "unclassifiable" in an essay by Margit Rowell, the Modern's curator of drawings, who organized the show with Ms. Temkin. They are unclassifiable. Peerless, in fact.

Continue reading the main story

John Quinn, New York (1923–d. 1924; purchased from the artist in December 1923 for Fr 25,000; his estate, from 1924); [Brummer Gallery, New York, until 1926; sold in 1926, for $1,000, to Levy]; Edgar A. Levy, New York (1926–40; sold in 1940 to Matisse); [Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1940–42; sold on December 9, 1942 to Marx]; Samuel and Florene Marx, Chicago (1942–his d. 1964); Florene May Marx, later Mrs. Wolfgang Schoenborn, New York (1964–d. 1995; her bequest to MMA)

New York. Brummer Gallery. "Brancusi," November 17–December 15, 1926, no. 26.

Arts Club of Chicago. "Sculpture and Drawings by Constantin Brancusi," January 4–18, 1927, no. 26.

New York. Pierre Matisse Gallery. "Landmarks in Modern Art," December 30, 1940–January 25, 1941, unnumbered cat.

Paris. Centre Georges Pompidou. "Constantin Brancusi, 1876–1957," April 14–August 21, 1995, no. 68.

Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Constantin Brancusi, 1876–1957," October 8–December 31, 1995, no. 68.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.

John Quinn, 1870–1925: Collection of Paintings, Water Colors, Drawings & Sculpture. Huntington, N.Y., 1926, p. 27, ill. p. 189, as "The Bird".

Athena T. Spear. Brancusi's Birds. New York, 1969, unpaginated, no. 12, pl. 17.

Judith Zilczer. "The Noble Buyer:" John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde. Exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Washington, 1978, p. 152.

Carol Vogel. "32 Works of Art by Masters Left to Met and the Modern." New York Times (November 25, 1996), pp. A1, C12, ill.

William S. Lieberman in "Recent Acquisitions. A Selection: 1996–1997." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 55 (Fall 1997), p. 75, ill. (color).

Grace Glueck. "A Surprise, and Then a Collection." New York Times (February 28, 1997), p. C31, ill.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York, 2012, p. 405, ill. (color).

Richard Meyer. "Changing Partners: Richard Meyer on 'Reimagining Modernism' at the Met." Artforum (November 2015), p. 144, ill. (color, installation photo).