Brâncuşi Vs. Brâncuşi

Modernism has brought to paroxysm the need of personal mythologies, immanent to Western civilization. No wonder that some of the heroes and saints of the avant-garde came from those peripheral European territories still uncharted from a spiritual point of view. By the beginning of the 20th century they were still haunted by archetypes, forms and myths that were able to particularize, as in a matrix, the creation of those artists aspiring to international recognition. The subsequent reaction of national recuperation and reintegration of these artists in their native cultures was determined by the needs of internal and external legitimacy of those peripheral cultures that remained nonetheless minor despite the contribution of some of their representatives to the developments at the top of the European mainstream of the time.Thus a strange ideological inadequacy has emerged between the two justifying procedures; the Western cultures adopting artists coming from the cultural periphery of Europe legitimized them following the classical modernist criterion of originality, manifested in this case through a culturally accepted (if not expected) exoticism. On the contrary, the native culture is legitimizing its offspring by means of catching it into a complicated web of biographic, social and formal-structural relationships that inevitably link the respective creator to a specific national tradition, a tradition whose sense is conferred, in retroactive fashion, precisely by that artist, whose work was frequently non-traditional, modernist. The two diverging perspectives are in fact complementary: on the one hand there is the reduction through alterity and on the other hand the reduction through proximity.In the Romanian culture of the first half of the 20th century there are three paradigms of integration discernible facing Western culture. They bear three names: Enescu, Ionescu, and Brâncuşi. Or, from the other point of view, Enesco, Ionesco and Brâncuşi. The fact that the channel followed by the three of them to penetrate Western culture was French made it that they are usually viewed as three hypostases of an identical phenomenon of integration. In reality, they constitute three different cases, especially from the point of view of the impact that their work had on Western culture.Enescu for example, despite his attempts to dissociate his major work from the original image created by his famous Rhapsodies, was never able to construct a more universal Enesco neither through his opera Oedipus nor through his Dixtuor and his other compositions. Even nowadays, that Enescu in the programme of orchestras all over the world is chiefly the Enescu of the Rhapsodies. European, American or even Japanese conductors are attracted precisely by the folkloric exoticism of these works, by the unadulterated national specific of a musical idiom, irreducible to a universal language and spiritual structure.If Enesco has remained mainly an Enescu, Ionesco, on the contrary succeeded to annihilate the prior Ionescu. Even with the translation into French of that unique work of Romanian literature that is Nu, it will be still impossible to give credit to the idea that before and behind the French Ionesco there was an accomplished Romanian Ionescu. Nu is too Romanian, and the very terror lived by its author haunted by the specter of being condemned to remain closed in an embryonic condition inside the Romanian cultural matrix will be thoroughly contradicted by the French and subsequently universal career of the same author. That Ionescu who was writing Nu in Romania was exasperated by the somber perspective of not becoming ever the Ioneso he finally became. Brâncuşi's case is most confusing and at the same time most significant because there is a national Brâncuşi and a universal one inside the work and the life of the same artist. Brâncuşi knew how to work in order to produce his early image of a promising autochthonous academist artist benefiting from the local grants that supported his living and even the further development of his career in Paris. Arriving in Paris he rather rapidly changed his views and subsequently the style, turning into one of the most radical avant-garde artists of his time, propelling the emergence of a universal Brâncuşi. However, it is the same intuition that kept him in permanent contact with the Romanian culture and civilization. This permanent balance has characterized not only the work but also the life of the artist. He was consistently and convergently building around his small circle of Romanian friends and disciples, then enclosing it in the larger circle of professional friendships with figures like Duchamp, Satie, Léger, Joyce, Pound and Man Ray. The whole strategy was necessary because Brâncuşi appeared at a moment when the creative act could not be deprived of an entire mythology that made it significant in a polyphonic way. Due to his overwhelming craftsmanship, Brâncuşi was rather concerned with the increased perfection of his finishing, preferring to leave behind him a mythology-free work, and managing to gather an entire mythology around his own life. Like an aura, his mythologized image gathered together heterogeneous elements, mixing various esoteric hints, some readings, many anecdotes, a visual culture not so extensive but accurately focused. Most important than everything was his ability to transform his psychology and his personality in a sine qua non ingredient of his work. His excessive requirements for those who handled his works, who were asked to wear gloves when they shipped the carefully polished bronze sculptures, together with the uncommon interest the artist paid to the pedestals of his works, that frequently turned into works of art themselves, contributed heavily to his aura of a dedicated craftsman that doubled his committed avant-garde consciousness. His system was completed by the use of improvised managers and agents like Duchamp, who had a key role in the promotion of Brâncuşi's work in the United States. Moreover, Brâncuşi designed and exploited an entire scenery linked to the exaltation of his own work: the visits in his workshop were carefully staged, in special conditions of lighting, stressing the tension and the dramatic contrast between the wondrous, effulgent works of art, theatrically disclosed out of their dust cover, and the sheer modest, suburban surroundings of his workshop. The very center of this system was the impenetrable personality of an omniscient patriarch.It is precisely the intense recourse to the objectual appearance of the work of art that ultimately characterizes the work of Brâncuşi, distinguishing it from the mainstream of avant-garde art, with which it has relationships of isomorphism, but not of essence. Avant-garde was rather minimizing the irreducibly phenomenal presence of the work of art in favor of an increased mental and conceptual awareness. Mondrian conceived his works as rather a mere evolutionary stage toward the emergence of the civilization of "the pure relationships" where his own art, as a production of objects, would be absorbed, eventually eliminated. Malevitch too was considering his works as a kind of "medium", a kind of metanoetic icon that mediated the access towards elsewhere, out of the proper objectuality of the work of art. Duchamp himself, by his consistent strategy of abstaining from the oeuvre, hijacking the ordinary into the realm of art, was prefiguring the later "social plastic" of Beuys, where the gesture and the doings of the artist replace the distinct objectuality of art.Whereas for so many representatives of the avant-garde the works of art were considered to be a still objectified stage of a more ample project, a socio-aesthetic utopia announced by their doings, for Brâncuşi, on the contrary, the entire mythology constituted around his personality had its finality in the objectual presence of his sculptures. This gives sense to his insistence that his work bequeathed to France should be preserved in the milieu and with the same arrangement he designed for it before dying. Such an insistence on the very being of the work of art is quite rare in the context of the avant-garde. The workshop, together with the entire mythology elaborated by the living artist were designed to produce a unique, irreplaceable aesthetic mechanics, thus the artist elaborating a real phenomenology of perception next to his work. All the interpretative stances on his work, combining the myths of archaic esotericism, Romanian national specificity, or the influence of primitive cultures were imposed by the epoch on his work. But their amalgam happens in and with the work of Brâncuşi, the one who knew to act as a "shaman and show-man", as Brâncuşi and Brâncuşi at the same time. His careful discrimination of the roles, and of the objects connected to the roles is manifest when one acknowledges that he said no to a first proposal to erect a monument in Târgu-Jiu representing a huge version of his Rooster. He answered that it belongs naturally to France. For his homeland Brâncuşi preferred to be Brâncuşi, and this is how the Endless Column and the entire ensemble in Târgu-Jiu were born.

by Erwin Kessler