Inconstancy

Peter Campbell

  • Brancusi
    Pompidou Centre, August 1995
  • Constantin Brancusi: A Survey of His work by Sanda Miller
    Oxford, 256 pp, £45.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 19 817514 0
  • Constantin Brancusi Photographe by Elizabeth Brown
    Assouline, 79 pp, frs 99.00, April 1995, ISBN 2 908228 23 8
  • Constantin Brancusi: 1876-1957 by Margit Rowell and Ann Temkin
    Gallimard, 408 pp, frs 390.00, April 1995, ISBN 2 85850 819 4

Brancusi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904, already a competent modeller and furniture-maker – a craftsman as well as a sculptor, trained in the Craiova school of arts and crafts. He is a node in any number of nets drawn to explain 20th-century art in terms of who might have known whom, what they might have learnt. There are many moments to choose from. A month working with Rodin. A visit to the Paris air show in 1912 with Léger and Duchamp – when the latter famously pointed to a propeller saying: ‘C’est fini la peinture. Qui fera mieux que cette hélice? Dis, tu peux faire ça?’ (Brancusi was already making sculpture of propeller-like smoothness – Prometheus, for example, a head as simple as a bean seed.)

Later there were American connections – in 1916 John Quinn began collecting his work; he knew the photographers Edward Steichen and Man Ray – and Romanian connections, which were maintained all his life. There is hardly a significant name which does not turn up in some context or other, from Picasso and the Douanier Rousseau to Nancy Cunard and Paul Poiret. Brancusi’s work was the first to turn to, still is perhaps, if you wished to point to a sculpture of essences. It was (until Henry Moore) the cartoonist’s favoured notion of modern sculpture – in 1926 the New Yorker published a drawing by Helen Hokinson of two toqued ladies circling a Bird in Space, shaping themselves to its undulating line. Sculpture as essence, sculpture as pure form, sculpture as a response to material, the probity of direct carving, the virtues of Egyptian hierarchy and of Cycladic simplicity: these can all be illustrated from his work. Because he stuck to a few themes it is easy to keep an overview of his oeuvre in your head – a dozen or so images sum him up. And because his beginnings seemed pleasingly exotic – some commentaries on his work like to build on peasant origins – the life, like the work, seems to explain itself. There is no arguing about it. He was a great man, a central figure in 20th-century art.

Yet, despite expert curatorial attention, the current exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which brings together a large and representative collection of his work, is profoundly unsatisfactory. This is only a paradox on the zoo-keeper view, which insists that loving care can always keep works of art alive and happy. Some of Brancusi’s are, indeed, resilient but most become dispirited when removed from their native habitat. As the exhibition includes his own photographs of work in his studio it offers evidence to support what would otherwise be a mere intuition: that there was a time and place in which these pieces meant more.

It seems contrary to prefer photographs, however interesting, to the real thing. But in the exhibition the pieces do seem to suffer – to be both real and dead, like a snake’s discarded skin. The photographs of the studio, themselves considerable works of art, are like film footage of the living snake, or like those pictures of tribesmen dancing and hunting that accompany ethnographic displays of ceremonial masks, and bows and arrows. They show why man-made objects, even purely aesthetic objects like these, may only be fully understandable in the environment in which they were made. It would be absurd not to be grateful for the opportunity to see so much original work. But it is impossible not to regret the diminishment of its power.

Gathered together in private collections or, as they are here, in a public museum, Brancusi’s sculptures, like the artefacts in the ethnographic display, gain status and, at the same time, lose the qualities that attach to things which change, and are changed by, the environment they were made in, or for. Portable sculptures do not have the inevitable presence that comes from being part of the landscape, and that attaches to decorations, memorials and idols which are fixed in one place, or are part of a building. Nor can they, like paintings, carry their space with them. They are at the mercy of whatever space they are put in. The ceremonial element in sculpture, which draws on the power of its three-dimensional presence to assert that this is a thing, not a representation, is drained away, as that of all works of art is, when they are transported from their native walls and niches, when the altarpiece becomes a picture, the effigy a sculpture, the icon a decoration, the fetish a curiosity. Because Brancusi’s sculptures, even when they are of secular subjects, carry some of the power of fetishes and idols, the de-consecrating tendency of the art exhibition is particularly hard on it.

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