Constantin Brancusi


The sculptures of the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi (1876 – 1957) are among my favourite artworks of all time. He sought the essence of forms: he eliminated as many details as possible until only the crucial form remained. As a result, the sculptures teeter on the brink between figurative and abstract art. You don’t often see Brancusi’s work in the Netherlands. The Kröller-Müller Museum has a few works in its collection and his work is occasionally included in exhibitions, for example in Framing Sculpture at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in 2014 (from 4:15)

The film below shows that it is still quite difficult to include works by Brancusi in exhibitions:

Works by Brancusi were on display last year at Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle. Curator Hans den Hartog Jager explains how Le Nouveau-Né (The Newborn, 1920) was in fact the starting point for the exhibition Behold the Man.

Doede Hardeman, the curator of the exhibition From Rodin to Bourgeois: Sculpture in the 20th Century that was shown last year at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, also considers Brancusi’s work the pinnacle of his exhibition (from 14:00).

But just what is it that makes Brancusi so special? He arrived in Paris in 1904 following a long trek through Europe. The art world was in enormous flux: because photography suddenly enabled realistic depictions of reality, artists now had the freedom to experiment. Brancusi became a master of reduction. For example, he simplified a head until it was reduced to a sort of egg. Not everyone was ready for this degree of abstraction.

In 1926 Brancusi had his sculpture L’Oiseau dans l’espace (Bird in Space, 1923) shipped to New York for an exhibition. But the customs officials did not believe it was a work of art: after all, it looked nothing at all like the bird of the title. They admitted it to the country not as a sculpture but as a utilitarian object (category: Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies) with the attendant high importation tax. Brancusi took the matter to court. Following a complex discussion about the definition of art, he was finally vindicated: abstract sculptures were now officially recognised as works of art.

Brancusi’s studio, photo: Piero Sierra via Flickr.

Brancusi’s studio was also extraordinary. He saw it as a single, large art installation: the sculptures stood on specially designed plinths to show them at their best, and everything had a well-considered place. The artist left his studio in its entirety to the French state on the condition that everything remained exactly as he had left it. You can still visit it today in the centre of Paris: as if the artist might return at any moment to continue his work.

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