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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 16 · 24 August 1995
I am in my second year of subscription to your finely literate magazine and I have no intention of ceasing my readership. However, there is one tiny complaint I feel compelled to express, even if it shows me up to be nothing but ignorant among my respected co-readers. I do not know French. I can’t read it, pronounce it or understand it. The two words I am most familiar with in French, outré and recherché, I learned from reading Sherlock Holmes. I did not see a warning that French is required on the subscription label I sent in to you. So it frequently irritates me when your writers insert French sayings into their articles, never having the courtesy to assume that some bumpkin in Montana won’t comprehend the language and neglecting to translate the lines in a succeeding parenthesis. One of the latest and worst infractions (there are always several per issue) was in Peter Campbell’s article on Brancusi (LRB, 20 July), where in the first paragraph he states that Duchamp ‘famously pointed to a propeller saying “wa-wa-wa, wa-wa-wa” ’ (as far as I could make out). I understand that Europeans perhaps assume that everyone is bilingual, and I can read Hebrew quite well, and I was once very fluent in Japanese, and I studied Spanish in school, but the only French I encounter in life here in Montana is on my passport and the Canadian goods I purchase over the border.
Great Falls, Montana
Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995
I sympathise with Mona Morstein’s cri de coeur about French (Letters, 24 August). It’s worse in cowboy books. You are no sooner galloping along the mesa than you are pitched into an arroyo by a cuchillero wearing something that’s not even in a Spanish dictionary. But we LRB readers like to read things we can’t quite understand, like your Japanese letter. We expect it. Omne ignotum pro magnifico. Magnifico is one of those men in hotel lobbies in a white suit with gold epaulettes, who stops you getting in. Every magazine needs one.
That’s an amazing letter from Darkest Montana: a self-styled ‘bumpkin’ has the brass to complain of the LRB’s occasional peppering of its articles and reviews with French. Here is one reader who begs you to continue dipping into any language you choose while pursuing your mission civilisatrice. I say that even though I hail from Darkest Illinois.
Vol. 17 No. 19 · 5 October 1995
Mona Morstein censures the London Review of Books (Letters, 24 August) for its use of French words and phrases. Well, it depends on what is to count as ‘French’. In the same issue there is a letter signed ‘James Fletcher’, and (I assume) passed or emended by the LRB letters editor, in which we discover that note is masculine: ‘notes égaux’. In the issue for 3 August, the heading for Jonathan Fenby’s piece on Le Pen was the work of someone who, innocent of the original Biblical ‘le salaire du péché’, thought that the invention ‘les gages de la peur’ would do for ‘the wages of fear’. (And leaving it in plain English would never do, would it?)
Barnard College, New York
What is wrong with ‘les gages de la peur’ – apart from its not being Biblical (or the title of the film)?
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 17 No. 20 · 19 October 1995
It is kind of Alan Gabbey (Letters, 5 October) to suggest that the editors of the LRB rather than I should be held responsible for my having, in a moment of étourderie, unsexed la note. I checked inégal in Petit Robert, missed the only feminine plural example, panicked, and made them inégaux in spite of knowing quite well that they are, of course, always known as notes inégales. I am making arrangements to be horse-whipped on the steps of his club, perhaps with a nerf de boeuf. (But I make no apology for giving them in French: Baroque musicians would mean something quite different if they spoke of ‘unequal’ or ‘uneven’ notes.)
I had better also confess to a more serious mistake. I’ve discovered since my previous letter was published (Letters, 24 August) that Adolf Scherbaum’s magical recording of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto was probably not made on a natural trumpet at all, but on a small piston trumpet of his own design – in which case he goes down the drain as an example of instrumental authenticity. In his place I offer Fritz Neumeyer’s 1952 recording of the alla Turca of Mozart’s A major Piano Sonata on a late 18th-century Viennese ‘hammerfluegel’ by J.G. Fichtl equipped with a ‘bassoon lever’, which allows one to hear the point of the joke in piece that is merely irritating played on a modern piano.
I took Mona Morstein’s complaint (Letters, 24 August) to be not so much about the use of foreign languages in the LRB as about the lack of any footnoted translation. I have no objection to quotations and passages of text appearing in another language, but I would like to know what it means in my own, in this case English. Then those readers like Magnifico (Letters, 21 September) could hopalong in ignorance until they fell into the next arroyo and the rest of us could pick up a little learning along the way. Also, Sie verstehen was ich meine, oder brauchen Sie doch eine Übersetzung?
Vol. 17 No. 21 · 2 November 1995
What’s wrong with ‘les gages de la peur’ (Letters, 5 October) is that ‘gages’ is the wrong word. If the theme is fear, not sin, the correct adaptation of the Biblical ‘le salaire du péché’ has to be ‘le salaire de la peur’. Hence the title of both the Clouzot film and the Georges Arnaud novel on which it was based.
Barnard College, New York
Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995
John Bayley found culinary sources not helpful to him in identifying Pommes Anna, a dish Barbara Pym’s diary records her having served to Philip Larkin when he visited her in Finstock in 1977 (LRB, 19 October). The problem, I believe, is that the dish is usually referred to as ‘potatoes Anna’, under which heading a trip to our kitchen bookshelves revealed it in the following indexes: Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, Beard’s Fireside Cookbook, The Settlement Cookbook, Gourmet Cookbook and House and Garden Cookbook, to say nothing of Nora Ephron’s novel, Heartburn. In none of these sources did I find a footnoted traslation, explaining that ‘potatoes’ were pommes. I do not know if the failure to translate words from the English is as flagrant an offence as the failure to translate them to the English.
Santa Ana, California