More than a century ago, the artist Constantin Brancusi first exhibited his sculptures at the New York Armory Show in 1913. His work was shown alongside artists essential to the canon of modern art history: Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The show generated great interest as its composite was especially ground-breaking for the time. In fact, one writer described Brancusi’s works specifically as being, “disturbing, so disturbing indeed that they completely altered the attitude of a great many New Yorkers towards a whole branch of art.” Yet, others in the arts, such as famed, prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, found Brancusi to be an inspiration: “[Brancusi] has had more influence on my work than most architects.”
Now on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Constantin Brancusi Sculpture features 11 of the renowned sculptor’s works. Noted for his singular approach to materials, the pieces are primarily comprised of bronze, stone, and wood, however his work has also extended into other arenas of art, including drawing, photography, and film. Regardless of the medium, sculpture is always the core of Brancusi’s artistic impressions.
With a youth spent in rural Hobiţa, Romania, Brancusi refined the skills of carving and woodworking. A natural craftsman, he once designed a working violin with on-hand woodshop materials as a teenager. Later, Brancusi moved to Paris to continue an artistic trajectory. He studied at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts and socialized among avant-garde art and intellectual circles, cultivating a reputation for great effort in the art studio and free-spirited revelry in his personal life. Brancusi worked briefly as an assistant to Auguste Rodin, but left after determining that in spite of his admiration, “Nothing can grow under big trees.” He went on to establish his own studio at the Impasse Ronsin, a notorious Parisian alley and bohemian arts collective—dank, seedy, and abundant with artistic visionaries and progressive arts ideas. During this time, the young artist developed his signature style as a sculptor, relying on the workmanship of his youth to carve directly from wood, sandstone, travertine, and marble, rather than modeling clay and bronze casting, as was then popular with Rodin and other artists.
Brancusi was a master of allusion. Through formally spare and reductive techniques, abstract shapes evoke the subjects in his artwork. His method was most interested in the spirit of the subject with abstract form as a secondary effect. He once explained: “What my work is aiming at is, above all, realism: I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature.” The works’ themes echo this simplified tact, centering almost exclusively on people and animals, particularly women, children, and birds. Brancusi’s interests in mythology, folk lore, and traditional and exotic arts also informed his style. His celebrated creativity and precision extended readily to the sculptures’ pedestals—these he considered functional artworks of their own right. Often geometric in form and fashioned from the same materials he sculpted, Brancusi’s pedestals were created for specific sculptures or constructed from existing sculptures, such as with Maiastra, whose pedestal combines his sculpture Double Caryatid. This unique approach blurred the divide of where art ends and the environment begins. Conceptually, his work re-envisioned the relationship between art and the surrounding world.
Brancusi’s artistry also encompassed drawing, photography, and film. The former were casually produced with on-hand materials and based on subject matter similar to his sculptures, studio objects or the sculptures themselves. His photography incorporated sculpture as well, at times representing his pieces directly and other times, distorting, and obscuring the works through light and shadow. Brancusi’s films—inspired and influenced by friend Man Ray—focused on his sculptures and their spurring visions, as well as a broader interest in movement, objects, and space.
One hundred years after Brancusi’s first exhibition, art history has traced from the reaches of modernism and abstraction to contemporary art and its further open boundaries. From this vantage, Brancusi’s work seems less scandalous and more pioneering, an innovative, expansive vision on all that could be artistically possible.
Constantin Brancusi Sculpture is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 18, 2018.
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