Constantin Brâncuși’s oeuvre is remarkable for its refinement and innovation, but his humble beginnings are just as noteworthy. Born in the village of Hobita, Romania, in 1876 to a peasant family, he showed a propensity for carving farm tools from the early years of his childhood. He later worked in a cabinet-maker’s workshop and studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Craiova, before enrolling in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts in 1898.
In 1903, Brâncuși left Romania and journeyed to France by foot, stopping at Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Zurich and Basel along the way, and finally reaching Paris in the summer of 1904. There, he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts for two years and quickly became acquainted with the artists and intellectuals of the avant-garde, including Amedeo Modigliani, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Cocteau. His early work caught the eye of Auguste Rodin – a sculptor greatly admired by Brâncuși – who invited him to work in his studio. However, Brâncuși left after less than two months because, as he said, ‘nothing can grow in the shadow of a great tree.’
From then on, he pursued his own style and preoccupations, drawing from diverse influences and the all-encompassing energy of modernism. Along with Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani, Brâncuși became interested in African art. He was especially fascinated by hand-carved wood sculptures, so similar to those found in his native Romania’s folk tradition, and so different from Rodin’s impersonal method of bronze casting. He began to explore the use of native motifs and simple forms, and continued to draw on Romanian myths and folktales throughout his artistic career. His first important piece was The Kiss (1907), which features two figures in a symmetrical embrace, reduced to a single, fundamental form. As with many of his works, he revisited The Kiss repeatedly throughout his life, reproducing it in different materials. One of these pieces was made to be used as a gravestone and can be found in the Montparnasse Cemetery.
From 1907 onwards, Brâncuși continued to develop his distinctive style, constantly refining and simplifying his forms. A sensitive creator, he also brought out the natural characteristics of the materials he used – roughly carving into wood and stone, and polishing bronze and marble until they gleamed. In so doing, he sought to reveal the core of his subject in tune with his belief that ‘what is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.’
This idea is epitomised in his Sleeping Muse (1910), which is reduced to the perfect ovoid of a woman’s head, serene and complete in its incompleteness. In The Beginning of the World (1920), a polished bronze egg lies, dreaming, on a steel plate, which in turn rests on a limestone stand. The powerful, primal egg-shape is solid and evocative, encapsulating such an expansive subject in an elegant fashion.
Between the 1920s and ‘40s, Brâncuși created seven versions of Bird in Space, which represents the ‘essence of flight’. The upward, ascending sweep of the sculpture suggests movement, balance and grace, at once ethereal and firm. Brâncuși’s abstract art, though popular with American collectors since his first solo exhibition in New York in 1914, was quite alien to the wider public. When a bronze cast of Bird in Space was being sent to the USA in 1926, the US Customs Office refused to classify it as a work of art, believing it to be a part of an industrial machine.
Later in his career, Brâncuși became more interested in the link between architecture and sculpture. His earlier work, Endless Column (1911), had already toyed with the idea of a single geometric shape, which could be reproduced and repeatedly stacked on top of one another to create an infinite vertical structure. In 1938, he created a 100-foot tall, cast-iron version, which stands in Tirgu Jui, Romania, as a monument to the Romanian soldiers who fell in the First World War. The sculpture poignantly represents their ‘infinite sacrifice’. Here, the Endless Column is part of an ensemble of sculptures, which also comprises the Gate of Kiss and the Table of Silence. The collection blurs the lines between art and architecture, and as such has had a great impact on both disciplines.
By the end of his life, Brâncuși was working on grand architectural projects, several of them unrealised – the recreation of his Endless Column as a skyscraper in Chicago, or a temple in India for the Maharajah of Indore.
In 1952, Brâncuși became a French citizen. In 1956, a year before he died, he bequeathed his studio to the state of France, on the condition that it would be preserved as it was. He had arranged his sculptures in a particular way, always conscious of the relationship between art and its surroundings. He also painstakingly photographed his sculptures, individually and in situ, creating a body of work that is valuable in its own right. Now, his studio has been reconstructed in its entirety near the Centre Pompidou, and can be visited for free (Atelier Brâncuși, Rue Rambuteau, Piazza in front of the Centre Pompidou).
Even today, Brâncuși’s art appears as vivid and essential as if it had been born new into the world just a moment ago. It is this purity of form that echoes on in the work of sculptors that have come after him. But his work continues to pulse with the spirit of the many lives he had lived.