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.
Brancusi’s mature output consists of variations on, and repetitions of, a few primary ideas, often made many years apart. He perfects and repeats his inventions, until they have the inevitability of utensils – spoons, say – which have achieved simplicity through countless judicious adjustments. There is the egg, and its relations – pure ovoids, single heads as elementary as river stones, made persons by minimal mouth-grooves and eye slots: they lie on their sides, harshly pillowed on the floors of display cases. There are birds – pigeon-breasted, plump as scent bottles (you cannot escape the resemblance to luxurious kitsch) – streamlined as if for lift-off at ballistic speeds. There are the birds in flight, the movement rather than the bird itself, materialised as a waisted column topped with a neat, oblique chamfer, which seems to define flight, not represent it; one fancies the space which contained all the upward paths of a whole field of larks might have a shape like this. The oval marble fish can be read as the abstracted average of all things which slip through water – seal flippers, submarines and diving birds as well as fish.
Nor is Brancusi’s smartness to be ignored. In the portraits (the most famous are of fashionable women) abstraction and simplification pick on those elements – pencilled eyebrow, neat fringe, smooth chignon – which cosmeticians and hairdressers also, by less radical smoothings and underlinings, emphasise. But he was protected from the blandness of mere smartness by his need to push on beyond pleasing simplification. Sanda Miller tries to put her finger on why Elie Nadelman’s entire 1911 exhibition in London should have been bought up by Helena Rubenstein, who used the pieces to publicise her cosmetics, while Brancusi’s effigy (along with those of Matisse and the critic Walter Pach) was burnt by outraged traditionalists when the Armory Show went to Chicago in 1913, and in so doing elaborates what a cursory comparison of one of Nadelman’s heads with, say, Brancusi’s Mlle Pogany makes clear – the former is an agreeably stylised, the latter a radically transformed, version of the human face. Mlle Pogany’s eyes (froggy, or ‘batrachian’, as Sanda Miller more obscurely puts it in an almost apt comparison – bush-baby is closer) grotesquely engulf most of her cheeks. The projecting lips of The White Negress are a caricature. Brancusi does things which would give a cartoonist reason to pause, and manages to make of them something which is witty, not coarsely humorous.
His genius was to make sculpture that is playful without being coy, light in spirit without being frivolous. His modernity cannot come as cleanly to the palate as it must have done when heavier dishes were still on the table, but the nature of the freedom he found can, to a degree, be felt when you follow the story of his transition, via a Rodinesque aesthetic, to simpler shapes and juxtapositions. The change involved outside influences. Just which ones, and in what order they came to him, is made clearer by Miller, despite the paucity of documentary evidence: African, Pacific and Egyptian sculpture, Romanian peasant carving and the work of contemporaries (in particular Modigliani and Nadelman) were all significant.
There is a division between smooth pieces in polished bronze and stone and rough ones in wood. The smooth and shiny objects stand on plinths, some cross-shaped in plan, some pillars of wood, roughly carved in shapes which echo African sculpture or Romanian peasant decoration. Smooth always stands on rough – bronze or marble on wood or stone. But the photographs show that objects changed places and changed function and one day’s supporting plinth became, next day, a sculpture or part of an assemblage of sculptures – like Rodin, Brancusi played games with things he made, making new combinations as a child will with toys and building blocks.
These simple, memorable pieces have a place, which is itself far from simple, in any account of 20th-century sculpture. The situation is complicated by the fact that one of the sculptural languages Brancusi used, and to a great extent Invented – the streamlined, shiny, abstracted, quasi-biological shape – has been contaminated. How do his pieces avoid the embarrassment that arises when other sculptures and objects (at best illegitimate descendants) in sinuate that they belong to the same family? One usually deals with that sort of thing by noting the distance superior observation puts between, say, Watteau’s paintings and their Lancret cousins. One establishes hierarchies. In Brancusi’s case this is particularly difficult. His sculptures in polished stone and mirror-finished bronze are uncomfortably close to film-festival trophies and shamelessly bulbous costume jewellery. The customs officers in New York who wanted to tax his works as industrial products knew a machined surface when they saw one. The high finish which prevents the bronze sculptures from offering what is abundantly present in the wood sculptures and some of the stone carvings – evidence of a personal way with material – makes unusual demands on the discriminating eye. Even if you believe that any kitschness arises adventitiously from surface resemblance (like Watteau’s resemblance to Lancret) you cannot ignore the Jazz Age smartness. Nor do you want to. For one thing it is useful in suggesting a context in which the sculpture should be at home: the bare, quasi-nautical interiors through which between-the-wars designers like Eileen Gray expressed a new luxury of strong light and hard surfaces. Don’t those interiors, which go with sunglasses, open cars and chrome-and-glass, also go with Brancusi bronzes?
This conjecture takes you back to the studio. For it is another reason to wonder why the work feels so wrong in the exhibition. If the spirit of the white architecture of the Twenties and Thirties lives anywhere, it is in exhibition design. But look again at the studio photographs and you find evidence of a simplicity which goes a good deal deeper than the imposed minimalism of ornament-free architecture. They show what almost everyone who visited Brancusi’s studio seems to have sensed – that it was like a holy place. Man Ray, for example, wrote in his autobiography:
The first time I went to see the sculptor Brancusi in his studio, I was more impressed than in any cathedral. I was overwhelmed with its whiteness and lightness ... Coming into Brancusi’s studio was like entering another world – the whiteness ... extended to the home-built brick stove and the long stovepipe, here and there emphasised by a roughhewn piece of oak or the golden metallic gleam of a polished dynamic form on a pedestal. There was nothing in the studio which might have come out of a shop, no chairs or furniture. A solid white plaster cylinder six feet in diameter, cast on the floor of the studio, served as a table, with a couple of hollowed out logs to sit on ... Brancusi lived like a hermit in his studio in the heart of Paris. He refused to exhibit – a sculpture was the result of years of patient finishing – a curve the result of endless rectifications.
The effect of the work in the studio was calculated. Brancusi knew how he wanted it (and himself) to be seen and controlled the presentation of both. Pictures of the places in which he worked before he moved to the new white studio in 1916 are not particularly impressive. As Ray points out, everything there was a Brancusi – the stools which he had carved, the white plaster cylinder-table, even tools. Working, he wore what people thought of as peasant clothes. His beard had a priestly look. Unhappy with the way his work had been illustrated, he turned to Man Ray for advice about setting himself up as a photographer and even had a darkroom built into a corner of the studio. Ray is dismissive of the quality of the pictures but Brancusi was, in fact, a much better photographer, not only of his work, but of himself, than his friend was.
The importance of all this has never been in doubt. Brancusi willed the studio and its contents to the French nation, and it has been reassembled, more or less accurately, more than once. The most recent reconstruction– you could mistake it for a large toolshed – overlooks the sloping space outside the Pompidou Centre where the fire-eaters and portrait-sketchers gather. A modest building, displaced as if it were one of those magical flying houses which turn up from time to time in fairy tales, it is passed every hour by thousands queuing to ride the Pompidou escalators. At the moment, while it is being refurbished, the tools and sculptures it contained are on show in the exhibition upstairs. But even if it is put together again with perfect discretion it will never become what Brancusi’s photographs show his studios were: works of art in themselves, repositories, stages on which new works and new assemblages came and went. Brancusi’s workspace, his work in it and his photographs of it are powerful because they suggest an alternative life for sculpture. Or rather emphasise that while it is being made (which in Brancusi’s case meant as long as it was in the studio) all sculpture – a snowman as much as a work of high art – goes through a Pygmalion phase in which the act of making a creature from inert material imitates the processes of biology.
The museum experience separates us from this moment, and is, by comparison, cold. Nor are museums kind to other sorts of magic. The suggestion that museum visitors are like religous congregations cannot be sustained. The use of the object as a way into something else is discouraged by the mere fact of its display as a work of art. To kneel in front of a crucifixion in a gallery is not appropriate. Even to prefer pictures of places you would like to be in to places you want to avoid has been reckoned, at least since the invention of the sublime and terrible, to show a lack of understanding of the purposes of art and of the function of the gallery as a place in which images and objects too strong for domestic life may be experienced.
If you come to the conclusion that no neutral space suitable for Brancusi can be constructed in a museum, the most satisfying publication on sale at the exhibition is Elizabeth Brown’s book of Brancusi’s photographs. The studio photographs are also reproduced in the catalogue, often facing colour plates of the same subjects, made in the technically brilliant high-key manner perfected for the photography of watches, glass and silverware in advertisements. Like illustrations to a favourite novel, they can seem an addition which subtracts. You would never learn from these pictures what you know from Brancusi’s own: that they are of pieces which, in their time, had many of the qualities of religious art. (The names Brancusi gave them often announce or imply religious themes: The Spirit of Buddha, The King of Kings, The Prodigal Son, The Wisdom of the Earth.) In two projects – one complete, the Tîirgu-Jiu complex in Romania, and another un-realised, ‘The Temple of Deliverance’ in Indore – Brancusi planned sculptural groups which night be reckoned to have some of the power of those he put together in the studio. On photographic evidence, however, the former (which is dominated by an example of the Endless Column, a very tall, metal version of the faceted columns he more frequently made in wood – as, for instance, in the self-portrait on he opposite page) cannot match the concenrated power of the studio assemblages. It is the temple – which would have included he three Birds in Space (bronze, black marble, and white marble) already in the possession of the Maharaja of Indore, and the wooden totem-like piece known both as The King of Kings and as The Spirit of Buddha – would have done.
Brancusi virtually ceased making sculpture in the last twenty years of his life. Perhaps his work was complete and he had done all he could in his chosen space. His case is not unique. The work of many artists is not at ease in the world. Various reasons can be offered: the rise of industrialisation, the superfluity of man-made objects, the contradiction between the common, or at least dominant, aesthetic public patronage implies and the marginal place ‘high’ – that is to say, seriously collected and officially endorsed – modern art has in the popular imagination. The uneasiness this engenders has itself become the starting point of various kinds of conceptual and minimal art, much of which is a commentary on its own situation. But the unease has a longer history than that suggests, and the particular case of Brancusi, and the failure of the Brancusi exhibition to do justice to his achievement, raises wider questions about the ecology of art. Paintings, photographs, sculptures and so on – ‘art objects’ – must have an ecology of some sort. They behave like organisms. Species and subspecies proliferate, take over from each other, die out. More than literature, which can hibernate in the scruffiest books, more than music, which can be compacted into cascades of numbers to be called up at any hour from a tape or disc, works of art need space. There is a sense in which one artwork excludes others: our walls are full long before our shelves.
The physicality of artworks endangers them: they crumble; when discarded they are more likely to be destroyed than merely forgotten or left to be taken up again, like a book bought in youth and reread in age. They are unique, and, whether precious or repugnant, they colonise spaces in the same way that species of plants colonise cliffs or bogs. Big wall paintings found safe places in the slow-changing environment of churches and town halls. Portable pictures infiltrated the marginal environment of living-rooms and bedrooms. Selective pressures – practical, social and economic – decide which species will prosper. For example, corporations are unwilling to buy nudes, and as corporations are big buyers of new work the struggle to find a niche becomes, for a nude, more perilous. But boardrooms and concourses can take big pictures, and corporate buying allows some big species of artwork to survive and evolve. The wall space of Parisian apartments determined the scale of the standard Impressionist painting. Abstract art of all sorts has had a competitive advantage in colonising much public territory because even people who have no great liking for it are not embarrassed by it. Species come and go. Each has its day.
Most works of art are, in some sense, seen in the wrong place. For many there is not, and could never be, a right place: neither the place they were made for nor any they have been sold into. In the recent Venetian exhibition at the Royal Academy there was a picture of paintings from a church being given their annual outing, escapees from dim chapels which frustrated scrutiny. But modern galleries can pour more light onto pictures than they can stand. Pictures painted for small rooms are shown in big ones. Objects made to be handled are shown behind glass. Artificial light destroys the sense of time of day; natural light is too dim or too bright. A floodlit ceiling cannot respond to the changing weather: not floodlit, it becomes a faint, brown mystery. It is not just a matter of the good curator tastefully correcting what is wrong. The fate of most pictures and sculptures is to be involved in an argument with a space from the moment of their making. They never settle down.
Thinking about how and in what circumstances it was made has always been a useful way to understand art, because it draws attention to process rather than artefact. The caveman painting bison in dim lamplight; Vermeer’s own presence in the silent rooms where letters are read, lace made, pearls weighed; Chardin’s sequestered hours with the larder shelf on which peaches, game and utensils were arranged. In the paintings of Freud and Bacon, where the light of a single bulb and closed doors seem familiar from one painting to the next, the space becomes claustrophobic. The artist seems to be imprisoned with the subject. In the case of the painters of the School of Paris, photographers (Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï) produced images which sustained a myth of the perfect melding of light, life and art and contributed much to the idea of a delectable world created in the imagination by works of art. In all these cases the margins of the room which contained subject, work and artist are important because the work is about what it is to make art as much as it is about peaches or lightbulbs or bodies.
When the act and environment of making becomes central, when the work of art becomes a live performance which can only be imperfectly reconstructed, the experience of looking at it is in some degree diminished. But far better that than an art of sculpture which is tailored to the gallery, to what can be displayed, annotated, classified to please or intrigue visitors who would rather not be too vigorously engaged. Museums will always have a clinical, aseptic aspect. It is necessary to their curatorial function. The Brancusi exhibition can lead one to the unlikely conclusion that, if one of the experiences it offers – either looking at the photographs or looking at the real sculpture – had to be discarded, then the latter would be the one to go. This is evidence of alienation between ourselves and the physical world. The paradox is that photography, one of those means of mechanical reproduction which are held responsible for this alienation, may in this case be the best means of understanding what it would be like if sculpture resumed its power to mediate between animate and inanimate.