The sculptures of Constantin Brancusi blend simplicity and sophistication in such a unique way that they seem to defy imitation. Yet it is impossible to think of an artist who has been more influential in the twentieth century. Almost single-handedly, Brancusi revolutionized sculpture, invented modernism, and shaped the forms and concepts of industrial design as we know it today.
Brancusi was born on February 21, 1876, in Hobita, a village in Romania's Carpathian Mountains. For centuries, the region was known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly ornate woodcarving. It was largely the simple, geometric patterns used by Romanian folk craftsmen that shaped the style of Brancusi's mature works. His parents, Nicolae and Maria Brancusi, were poor peasants, and little Constantin herded the family's flock of sheep from the age of seven. Even as a very young child, he showed remarkable talent for carving tools and other objects out of wood. He was also strong-willed and determined; to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers, he often ran away from home. At the age of nine, Constantin left his native village to work at various menial jobs in Tîrgu-Jiu, the nearest large town. At 13, he came to Craiova, capital of the neighboring Dolj County, where he worked at a grocery store for several years. When Constantin was 18, his employer, impressed by his talent for carving, raised the money to enroll him in the Craiova School of Crafts. Here Constantin indulged his love for woodworking and, since he had received little formal education, taught himself to read and write.
After graduating with honors in 1898, Brancusi entered the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received rigorous academic training in sculpture. As a student he was hardworking as well as talented, and he quickly distinguished himself. One of his earliest surviving works is a masterfully rendered écorché, a statue of a man with the skin removed to reveal the musculature. Though just an anatomical study, it already foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal the essence rather than merely copy outward appearances.
Bored with Bucharest, Brancusi traveled to Munich in 1903, and from there to Paris. In Paris, he found a community of artists and intellectuals brimming with new ideas and welcoming him into their circle. After spending two years in the workshop of Antonin Mercié, another academician, Constantin was invited to enter the workshop of Auguste Rodin. This was a tremendous privilege, especially since Brancusi had long admired the eminent French sculptor and was greatly influenced by his work. But, always independent, Brancusi left Rodin's side after only two months, saying: "Nothing can grow under big trees."
It was after this break with Rodin's school that Brancusi "struck out on his own," developing a revolutionary style and establishing himself as one of the leaders of modernism in art. His first mature work, entitled The Prayer (http://www.itc.ro/museum/pozema/pozejpg/branc1m.jpg), was commissioned as part of a gravestone memorial. A rough, minimalist, almost primitive bronze sculpture of a young woman crossing herself as she kneels, it marked sculpture's first step toward semi-abstract, non-literal representation, and reflected Brancusi's belief in depicting "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." Previously, like Rodin and his followers, Brancusi had modeled his sculptures in clay or plaster and then made bronze casts. Now, he returned to the technique that was truly his own - carving. After 1908, he abandoned modeling altogether and carved all his works from wood, marble, or stone.
In the next several years, Brancusi worked on many versions of Sleeping Muse and The Kiss (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/brancusi/thumbs/kiss_1912.jpg). In these sculptures he fused the traditions of Classical, folk Romanian, African, Egyptian, and Cycladic art, as he would continue to do in all his subsequent works. Like many artists, he also began to incorporate "industrial chic" into his sculpture. All these influences helped him develop the geometrically regular and spare outlines that became the hallmark of his style. Yet, contrary to popular belief, Brancusi never became an abstractionist: though his forms became more and more simplified with time, they continued to resemble the subjects they represented.
His works brought Brancusi growing popularity in France, Romania, and the United States. Wealthy collectors, most notably the lawyer John Quinn, were buying his sculptures. Magazines and art reviews published praiseful articles. In 1913, he was simultaneously exhibiting in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and at the Armory Show in New York. In 1916, Brancusi moved into a studio in the Impasse Ronsin, where he would live and work for the rest of his life. In the meantime, he had become close with many of the intellectuals and artists who lived in Paris before and during World War I. The poet Ezra Pound and author Henri Pierre Roché acted as his confidants, spokesmen, and biographers throughout his life. For a time, Brancusi worked closely with the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani; poet Guillaume Apollinaire and artists Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, and Fernand Léger were among his other associates.
Though charming and gregarious, Brancusi was a complex and somewhat mysterious person whom few seem to have known well. Short and lively, he wore a longish beard which, as he grew older, he supplemented by simple peasant clothing. His interests ranged from music to science and philosophy. A talented violinist and singer, he had an eclectic taste in music. He was also a famous cook of traditional Romanian dishes and an extraordinary handyman, building his own phonograph and fashioning most of the furniture, utensils, and even doorways in his home. His worldview, which above all valued "differentiating the essential from the ephemeral," was shaped not only by Plato but also by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu and the 11th-century Tibetan monk Milarepa. On the one hand, he was a "saint-like" idealist, almost an ascetic. He had turned his studio into a kind of temple, and all who visited it remarked on the deeply spiritual atmosphere that the artworks lent to the space. Yet, in the teens and twenties, he was known in his bohemian circle as a pleasure-seeker and merrymaker, throwing lively parties at which he served as host, cook, and entertainer. He appreciated cigarettes, good wine, and the company of women, and he overindulged in all three. As Brancusi gained wealth, he began to drink to excess and once had to be treated for nicotine poisoning. Though he never married, he carried on a number of affairs and had at least one child, whom, in a gesture uncharacteristic of a "saint," he never acknowledged.
In 1920, Brancusi added to his already wide fame by exhibiting a work called Princess X at the Salon. Its apparently phallic shape created a scandal, and, despite Brancusi's vehement protests that it was intended merely as an anonymous portrait, the work was removed from the exhibition. (Critic Anna Chave has suggested that another way to read its title is "Prince's Sex.") Around this time, Brancusi sculpted the first Bird in Space, a simple but sublime representation of flight (http://metmuseum.org/collections/images/ma/images/ma1996.403.7a%2Cb.L.jpg). This was based on an earlier series of sculptures called Maiastra -- in Romanian folklore, a beautiful and immortal golden bird that can foretell the future and cure the blind. Brancusi would make over 20 other versions in the next 20 years, in highly polished marble and bronze, with each Bird slightly differing from every other in curvature and thickness. These were so abstract that, when Brancusi came to New York in 1926 for an important exhibition, he was prosecuted by U.S. customs officials, who believed that his Bird in Space was an object of manufacture or some unpatented industrial tool. By this time, Brancusi had begun to attach great importance to bases, and he constructed bases for all his works with as much care and originality as he invested in the sculptures themselves.
The court case aside, Brancusi was embraced much more readily in America than in the Old World, and he visited the United States several more times in the course of his life. In 1933, he was commissioned by the Maharajah of Indore to build a Temple of Meditation in India that would house his works. Enthusiastic about the project, Brancusi went to India in 1937 to finalize his plans and begin construction. But the Maharajah was away, and then, bereaved by his wife's death, lost interest in the temple. To Brancusi's great disappointment, the project was never realized.
Brancusi's disappointment, however, did not last long. In 1938, he completed a World War I monument in Tîrgu-Jiu, the town where he had spent much of his childhood. The monument commemorates the courage and sacrifice of the Romanian civilians who successfully fought off a German invasion in 1916. This expansive memorial, made up of the Table of Silence, the Gate of the Kiss, and the awe-inspiring Endless Column, constitutes Brancusi's crowning achievement.
Perhaps because he himself saw in it the attainment of his ultimate artistic goal, the Tîrgu-Jiu memorial marked not only the apex of Brancusi's career, but also the beginning of its decline. In the remaining 19 years of his life, he produced only about a dozen works, mostly on themes he had treated many times before. World War II, and later old age, prevented him from traveling outside Paris. While his fame grew, the once gregarious socialite became almost a hermit. Because Brancusi seldom confided in others, the reason for this change remains largely a mystery. But it is likely that his reclusiveness was in part an act. Ever driven by ego and an impish sense of humor, Brancusi enjoyed playing the sage artistic visionary, and would spout ready-to-quote formulations meant at once to awe and mock the celebrity-hungry public. At the same time, though, his loneliness was real. He must have realized that most of his relationships were merely professional or superficial ones. Yet, unable to forge new, deeper relationships so late in life, he had no choice but to turn inward. And, wizened by age and the continual acquisition of knowledge, it's likely that he finally decided to trade the ephemeral for the essential in life as well as in art.
In 1956, a journalist from Life magazine wrote of the artist: "Wearing white pajamas and a yellow gnomelike cap, Brancusi today hobbles about his studio tenderly caring for and communing with the silent host of fish birds, heads, and endless columns which he created."
In his final years, Brancusi was cared for by a pair of Romanian refugees who had moved in next door. In order to make these caregivers his heirs, and to bequeath his studio and its contents to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris, Brancusi became a French citizen in 1952. He died on March 16, 1957 at the age of 81, leaving behind some 1200 photographs and 215 sculptures -- a relatively small output, but one whose aesthetic and cultural value is incalculable.
"My life has been a succession of marvelous events," Brancusi once said. Whether or not this was really so, he had the gift of seeing the marvelous in everything, a gift which he used to transform even the most mundane objects into ones that inspire a purifying sense of awe. With his gleaming, seemingly weightless heads, soaring birds, and columns, he revolutionized sculpture and invented visual modernism. Yet these works are also a continued celebration of being and coming into being, of both physical and spiritual ascent. They are at once mysterious and revelatory, concrete and ethereal, simple and sublime; they force us, too, to see the marvel that is inherent in everything.