Brâncuşi And The Significance Of Matter

In a holographic note drawn up in Romanian in the third person, Brâncuşi speaks about himself as about someone else and makes an important remark in connection with his relationship with materials."Turned down in 1910, he exhibited fully carved stone and marble for the first time with the Independents in 1912; in 1913 he displayed The Magic Bird, polished bronze, being the first sculptor to have dealt with the significance of various materials."[1]We think this argument has not garnered until now the attention fit for an analysis of Brâncuşi's work.The sculptor is known to have put on show, in 1912, at the Salon of the Independents, three works: The Kiss, The Sleeping Muse and Prometheus. The first was in stone and the other two in marble. Having explained which works were in stone and which in marble, Brâncuşi refers to The Magic Bird specifying it is in polished bronze. We know that The Magic Bird in bronze was cast after the original version of the first bird, also made of marble. The following variants of The Muse and of Prometheus were created according to the same strategy, the bronze being cast in molds made after the marble originals. Mention should be made that among the works displayed in 1912 at the Salon of the Independents only The Kiss had several stone versions and no bronze variant. This exception could be explained by the fact that the two variants of The Kiss, the bust and the full figure, created around 1907, had, from the very beginning, architectural connotations. In the catalogue of the 1910 exhibition of the Tinerimea artistică Society the bust variant of this sculpture went under the name Fragment from a capital.[2] As a matter of fact, in another drawing, a sketch of a Gate of the Kiss, The Kiss in its full- figure variant actually plays the role of capital. [3] It seems natural therefore that as elements of architectural morphology, the variants of The Kiss could in no way be cast in bronze.Given the difference in treatment of the sculptures exhibited in 1912 we ought to study more closely the ideas expressed by Brâncuşi in the respective autobiographical note. The artists declares expressis verbi that he is the first sculptor – we believe Brâncuşi was thinking of the entire history of art – to have paid attention to the "meaning", to the 'sense" of various materials. These words reveal an entirely new side of sculptural reality. We are therefore told that the various materials carry a meaning, a sense, that they have their own significance and that the artist can deal with this significance.Delving even deeper into this autobiographic note we will be astonished to find that Brâncuşi carefully chose his words, possible in a way similar to that of his selection of titles. [4] Under the word "meaning" we can still make out (although partly struck out in pencil) the word "individuality" (of the materials, our note.) Analyzing this detail we will remark that for Brâncuşi "the individuality of materials' and "the meaning of materials" bear almost the same significance. In fact, in another holographic note the sculptor resumes the question of the individuality of materials:"Each matter/material has it own individuality that we cannot destroy as we please but only make speak in its own language."[5]Comparing the contents of the two notes we will observe that the concept of the artist approaches the question of matters as a complex and above all consistent system. The meaning and by extension the significance of materials supplants not only their individuality but according to Brâncuşi, this individuality becomes a question of idiom. This third identification can be found in a third argument by the sculptor:"It is not my fault that I make wood other than I make stone, and stone other than marble, and marble other than bronze and so on and so forth. It's because I cannot say in marble what I can say in wood and in wood what I can say in marble and so on with the other materials. Simplicity is neither an end in itself because what I try to do is identify my thinking to the materials I stumble upon. Each material has its own language and my purpose is not to suppress it in order to replace it with my own, but simply to make it express what I think, what I see in its own language, which is part of the beauty." [6] An analysis of this will lead us to a first conclusion according to which the meaning of Brâncuşi's works is not entirely rendered by the meeting between the artist and a certain material that carries a certain language and by extension a certain meaning, but that we have here rather a question of coincidence. The sculptor was looking for materials that could offer him well determined meanings, already existing in his mind, as well as in the structures of various materials. From this vantage, with Brâncuşi the creative process can be widely identified to the choice of materials, which is tantamount to the sculptor's choice of a meaning or of a well determined significance, already existing in the structures of various materials. This interpretation is corroborated by a fourth assertion of the sculptor: "Matter itself must suggest subject and form; both must come from within matter, and not be forced upon it from without.. Generally sculptors proceed with matter by addition when they ought to act upon it by subtraction (…) All materials have within themselves the sculptures desired. The artist must labor to get it out, eliminating the superfluous material caging it."[7] We can therefore infer that the "individuality" of matter coincides with the individuality of the work that has to be liberated from the clasp of matter. With this we come in direct touch with the question of cutting, according to Brâncuşi related to the question of matter and its language, its sense and significance. In fact, Brâncuşi specifies that subject and form depend on the material to be chosen by the sculptor. The cut represents the means by which the artist gains access to the sculpture he desires, to the subject he is seeking, to the plastic form he "sees" in the intimate structure of the matter. In Brâncuşi's outlook the creative process is tantamount to a symbiosis between the spirit of the sculptor and the various materials. Meaning, language, subject, plastic form are spiritual realities that receive their material support through a rather mechanical work of which only the hands of the sculptor are responsible. This has been deftly put by Brâncuşi as follows:"Carving stone you discover the spirit of matter, the measure of its own being; the hand thinks following the thought of matter."[8] In other words, matter not only carries a meaning, it not only has its own significance, its individuality, its language, but it is also endowed with thinking that is conveyed to the hands of the sculptor that become, to paraphrase Brâncuşi, thinking hands. This is an extremely valuable idea, we believe, apt to emphasize the importance of the artisanal aspect as part of the creative process. It could be said that the sculptor has delegated all creative responsibility on matter and that the work must be interpreted as the fruit of matter. [9] According to this concept, the role of the sculptor is considerably diminished, his contribution being reduced to the choice of materials that contain the sculptures desired by the artist. The sculptures exist already in the structures of various materials. In light of this new perspective of the creative process we could wonder on the significance of an already noted coincidence. We are thinking of the concept and reality of the "ready-mades" created by Marcel Duchamp and perhaps seen by Brâncuşi, given their friendship. This possible connection seems even more pertinent if we replace the phrase "ready-mades" by the French variant used by Duchamp before he went for the English variant, respectively "objet-tout-fait". To go the whole hog, we ought to replace the word "object" by "sculpture". In light of Brâncuşi's concept of matter, we can infer that he always found himself faced with "une sculpture toute faite". According to Brâncuşi it is not only the significance but also the plastic form that is given by matter. [10] This form is characterized by "spirituality".[11] Although "toute faite", that is already existing, the sculpture must be released from the clutch of matter. It is the task of the hands to remove the superfluous material. This process, tantamount to cutting, was, according to Brâncuşi, "the true road to sculpture" [12], his Damascus Road.[13] At the same time, given that Brâncuşi cut his first works in 1907 and that, seemingly, he met Duchamp only in 1912, we have only a coincidence here. In fact, according to Brâncuşi what the hands must free from the clutch of matter was not a mere sculpture but "the existential contour of the idea". [14] By idea we have to understand "Platonic idea".Analyzing the various testimonies made by Constantin Brâncuşi on his poetics, we cannot fail to be impressed by the consistency of his thinking, vital for the creative process. "The idiom" of various materials put its imprint on his work so profoundly that it has come to be divided into distinct categories, one that "speaks the language of essential forms" and another characterized by a more free evolution of the plastic form. [15] The first corresponds to sculptures in stone, marble and bronze, the other to those cut in wood. Given that this division is excessive,[16] in our previous studies we have shown that by accepting the difference resulting from the different malleability of wood and marble it is one and the same concept that rules over the birth of various works. With a theoretical and philosophical scope, this conception can be identified with the technical procedure of the direct carving. According to this concept, it does not matter whether the work is in stone, marble or wood since Brâncuşi perceives, at the core of these materials, "a ready made sculpture," to paraphrase Duchamp. In fact, the "frontiers" separating the two categories of distinct works from the vantage of composition and above all, from a stylistic vantage, prove rather permeable. [17] Among the works in wood we can find a few examples that must be related stylistically to works cut in stone or marble that speak "the idiom of essential forms", these works in wood owing equally to the same "language", if we take into account the powerful geometric touch of the plastic form. Here are a few examples of works in wood, that can be related, from the vantage of the plastic form and of the "language" to those cut in stone or marble. [18] Torso of a Young Man (cat. 181, p. 466); The Sorcerer (cat. 194, p.471); The Rooster (cat. 201, p.474); Sophisticated Young Girl (cat. 239, p. 489); Study for Madame. Eugene Meyer (cat.239, p.489) The Tortoise (cat. 278, p.504). To these works in wood carrying figurative landmarks and speaking plainly "the languages of essential forms" we could add others, owing no less to a geometric interpretation, even if they are not replete with suggestions that could indicate participation in the figurative regime of the image. Cut (cat. 135, p.448); Cut II (cat. 137, p.449); Cut III (cat. 173, p.463); Cut IV (cat. 214, p. 480); Stool (cat. 232, p.487); Beast of the Night (cat. 246, p.492); Wood Shape (cat. 276, p. 504). Considering this double series we have to note that the division of the work according to the choice of materials into two clearly distinct categories is quite arbitrary since the same language characterizes works in stone, marble or wood. Taking into account this formal coincidence that ignores the difference between various materials, we are bound to accept the idea that Brâncuşi is solely concerned to outline the "existential contour" [19] of Plato's idea, captive at the heart of the matter. The road that leads him to this end is the gradual elimination of all redundant matter, that is direct carving. This conclusion resulting from an analysis of the sculptor's words, as well as of the work in itself compels us to rethink the question of the African influence over his wood sculptures, as well as that of the Romanian folk art. We believe we can equally discard the two "homologated" sources of the wood statuary confident solely in Brâncuşi's words about his creative strategy. The assertions related to the Platonic approach [20] are, in fact, corroborated by the daily artistic practice of the sculptor. This illustrates the extreme coherence of the sculptor's work from the point of view of plastic expression and significance. We can therefore conclude that Brâncuşi's creative approach was "modeled" by the potential of various materials to "contain" a well determined sculpture, by their appetence to allow themselves to be cut and equally by the vocation of these sculptures hidden in the structure of materials to be dedicated in bronze. Bronze casting enables the sculptor to "go further" [21] that is to intervene one more time on the shape "offered" by various materials in order to come gradually closer to what he deemed the Platonic form turned visible ought to have been. It is true that only the works in wood subject to the geometric canon of shape were cast in bronze but this pleads one more time for consistent thinking by the sculptor, Brâncuşi being actually persuaded that the form was suggested to him solely by the matter, that it was the result of his choice of one material or another. Still, there are moments when Brâncuşi seems to "betray" his poetics, and it is precisely what we want to prove in the last part of this study.The most telling case of such a "betrayal" seems that of the Portrait of Madame Eugene Meyer, the artist creating two variants thereof, one in walnut wood – which experts consider a mere preparatory "study" – and the second in black marble. This last work is equally known as The Unwhimsical Queen, title that Brâncuşi had chosen on purpose and that had been inspired by Marcel Duchamp and, possibly, by Henri-Pierre Roche. [22] It is important to note that Brâncuşi had chosen that second title to illustrate his alchemic option, because this is not simply a portrait but a much complex sculpture from the point of view of the symbolical scope: the second variant is the ideal portrait – in the Platonic sense – of Madame Eugene Meyer, and an alchemic queen at the same time. Brâncuşi made up his mind to do this portrait one evening in the year of 1929 when, invited at the Meyers' and learning that Charles Despiau had modeled the portrait of the hostess he told Agnes Meyer that he would show everyone what a portrait of her had to look like. [23] Given that the wood variant was already in work in the artist's studio – as shown in photos of his studio featuring the sculpture in various stages – we must conclude that Brâncuşi had suddenly recognized the Platonic essence of his model in the work already begun when he had made his proposal. The so-called study of The Portrait of Madame Eugene Meyer is dated 1916. It is true that Brâncuşi had met Madame Agnes Meyer round 1912[24] but we are sure that the sculptor did not think of his future model when he had begun the wood variant of the portrait. Brâncuşi usually began a portrait by a realistic exercise, as the first attempts at the portrait of Corneliu Cosmuta show, that became Prometheus. Or those for the portrait of Baroness Renee Irene Frachon, later turned into The Sleeping Muse. The Portrait of Madame Eugene Meyer did not go through such realistic phases. It is possible that this time Brâncuşi assimilated the realistic phase of his studies to the work of Despiaux, already terminated the moment he had decided to present his own variant of the portrait. We believe that this argument would enable us to exclude the possibility that the wood work be an actual study for The Portrait of Madame Eugene Meyer. It is highly probable that the wood sculpture was the starting point of a generic portrait, without a well-defined identity and that it was only later, in 1929, that this identity had been given. Then we find ourselves entitled to ask why Brâncuşi had not immediately presented his wood sculpture to Madame Agnes Meyer in order to satisfy her curiosity? [25] On the contrary, he preferred to start working on the black marble which reproduces the wood work on a different scale. Brâncuşi contented himself with a simple translation from a material to another. From the point of view of the creative process characterizing his work this solution is rather atypical and matches very little the assertions analyzed. Can it be inferred that Brâncuşi had this time betrayed the precepts of his poetics? Whatever. In 1916 he had cut the walnut wood as if it had been marble, deeming that that matter was hiding a portrait that he "desired", but that was not the portrait of Agnes Meyer. It was a certain portrait of generic value. Meanwhile, in 1929 when it had proposed to Agnes Meyer to make her portrait he had realized that the walnut work already present in his studio corresponded to the essence of his model. Following the logic of the sculptor's assertions, it is impossible to admit that the marble hid one and the same shape as the walnut wood, and that they spoke the same language. That is why we are forced to admit that in cutting the black marble for The Portrait of Madame Eugene Meyer, Brâncuşi had pushed the limits of his own convictions on materials. [26] We think he acted this way with a view to expending the symbolical scope of this work. To the significance already presented of the wood work, that turned it into a Platonic projection of the portrait of Agnes Meyer, Brâncuşi had added another by which the work participated in the alchemical ideology. In our previous studies we have proved that the second title, The Unwhimsical Queen, suggests the immobility of the Queen that has been fixed alchemically. [27]As to the materials, Brâncuşi chose the marble exactly for its color, black corresponding to the Nigredo of the alchemists. By the choice of the title and the switch from one matter to another, the sculptor had managed to put together three basic alchemical parameters, the fact of being a queen, the immobility of this queen and its black color, corresponding to Nigredo, the first stage of the alchemical work. We can say that Brâncuşi only seldom betrayed his convictions about matter. And when he did it was to enlarge the symbolical range of his work, adding to the Platonic significance of his sculptures by which the work participated to the rule of the idea, elements that indicated an alchemical ideology. Thus the betrayal was put in the service of an extremely rich range of meanings.
[1] Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati, Brâncuşi, Paris, Flammarion, 1986, p.57.[2] Brâncuşi in Romania, second edition, revised and completed , Bucharest, 1976, p.129.[3] See Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati, op. cit., p.194.[4] "…Brâncuşi chose the names of his sculptures with extreme care, all bearing a very specific meaning." See Ionel Jianu, Brâncuşi, Viata si opera, Bucharest, 1983, p. 138. See also p. 50.[5] See Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati, op. Cit., p.110.[6] Ibidem, p.121.[7] M.M., Constantin Brâncuşi, A Summary of Many Conversations, in "The Arts" New York, IV, no 1 July, 1923, pp.14-29, apud Friedrich Teja Bach, Constantin Brâncuşi, Metamorphosen Plastischer Form, Cologne, Dumont, 1987, p.318. [8] Paul Morand, in the catalogue to the Brâncuşi Exhibition of Brummer Gallery, New York, 1926, apud Barbu Brezianu, Brâncuşi Colloquium in Arta (Bucharest), XXII, 4?076, p.9[9] In this sense, see Cristian-Robert Velescu, Concepte ale poeticii lui Constantin Brâncuşi (Concepts of Constantin Brâncuşi's Poetics), Bucharest, Univers enciclopedic, 1999, pp.35-41.[10] Matter must itself suggest the subject and the form. See Note 7.[11] A testimony by Brâncuşi himself, dating from 1926, and taken down by Marcel Iancu, tells us about an original concept invented by the sculptor which enhances the complexity of his creative approach. Thus, we learn that: "…The spirituality of the form, a just, mathematical balance, the architecture must be appreciated as much as materials." Marcel Iancu, La Brâncuşi, in Contimporanul (Bucharest, XV, 64/1926, p.3.[12] Carvingis the true road to sculpture but also the worst for those who cannot walk. Phrase given by Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati, op. Cit. P. 68.[13] See Henri-Pierre Roche, L'Enterrement de Brâncuşi, in Carola Giedion-Welcker, Constantin Brâncuşi, Basel/Stuttgart, Benno Schwabe, 1958, p.212.[14] "Considering the form in itself we can grasp the existential contour of the idea." V. G. Paleolog, C. Brâncuşi, Bucharest, Forum, 1947, p.32[15] As method of creating the sculptural figure, the combination is limited basically to sculptures in woods. Created especially between 1914 and 1925 under the simultaneous influence of African sculpture, Roman art, Cubism and Dadaism, these works speak a different language from the essential forms in stone and bronze. Friedrich Teja Bach, Constantin Brâncuşi, la realite de la sculpture, in Constantin Brâncuşi (catalogue) Paris, Gallimard, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995, p.29[16] We have reviewed this division of Brâncuşi's work in our studies, considering that the pieces in wood, a material much more malleable than stone or marble, are no less "essential" than the works in stone or marble, or those cast in bronze after stone, marble and sometimes wood originals. We have equally proved that it highly probable that the choice of the direct cut technique be the outcome of the influence exercised by Plato's ideology over Constantin Brâncuşi's thinking. All this in view of the fact that the sculptures hidden in stone, marble or wood are for Brâncuşi the very essence – in the sense of Plato – of the realities that he means to represent. See "The Relationship between Brâncuşi's wood sculptures and Plato's thinking" in Concepts of Poetics, p.65.[17] The sculptures in stone, marble and bronze bear minimal figurative landmarks while the characteristic of most wood sculptures is their total abstraction. For Brâncuşi realism is mixed up with "the outer look" of things, their "carcass", while the abstract form corresponds to the "true reality", in Plato's sense included.[18] The coordinates of the works mentioned correspond to the catalogue established by Friedrich Teja Bach, in Friedrich Teja Bach, op. Cit.[19] See note 14.[20] He tried to turn his sculpture into a philosophy of action that he names the philosophy of Plato. See Dorothy Adlow, Brâncuşi, in Drawing and Design (London), II, February, 1927, pp.37-41, apud Eric Shanes, Brâncuşi, New York, Abbeville Press, 1989, p.16.[21] "Among the new things there is also twice…the bird and the sleeping muse (…) We should not consider them reproductions of the former because they were differently conceived and I have not resumed the subjects simply to make them different but to go further." (Letter from Brâncuşi to John Quinn, dated December 27, 1917, apud Margit Rowel, "Une oeuvre moderne et intemporelle", in Constantin Brâncuşi (Catalogue) Paris, Gallimard, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995, p. 50.[22]