Constantin Brâncuşi: The Temple Of Liberation And The Hieratic Emblem Of The Chimera

The Chimera, a sculpture carved in oak wood between 1915 and 1917-18, currently exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has so far attracted but limited exegesis.Petru Comarnescu, in a conference held in Craiova in 1957, made reference to the body "streamlined as to resemble a swan, head added against sinuous neck. The sweeping expanse of neck and nose, also to be construed as bill, as well as the eye of light piercing the circular shape of the head, symbolize the articulation of organic creations"(1). V.G. Paleolog assimilated it to such cryptic works as the Diligence of the Earth, Adam and Eve or the King of Kings(2). African influences were exegetically inferred in the Chimera(3). In a recent study, Sanda Miller pondered on the influence Dimitrie Paciurea's Chimeras might have possibly had upon Brâncuşi(4). For Teja Bach The Chimera claims kinship with either Greek mythology – viz. the lion-headed, goat-bodied and snake-tailed monster – or the gargoyles decorating the roofs of Gothic cathedrals, although it cannot be altogether excluded from the times' context of dadaist productions. Such diversity of opinions underscores the feeling of being confronted with an open work, opera aperta, as Brâncuşi's sculpture has been implicitly qualified by certain authors(5). Nevertheless, as long as the variety of interpretations reveals no consistent common core, they cannot be perceived as mutually subtractive, as annihilating one another. Is it possible that one and the same work should depict a swan's head, a chimera, a gargoyle, an African totem, etc.? What ethical-aesthetic-philosophic dimensions and what coherence-related implications can then be ascribed to Brâncuşi's plastic discourse under the circumstances? Though the authors under discussion ignore each other, each new contribution harbingers the approaching moment of synthesis, in other words, it inevitably prepares the project of their concatenation in a construction called to comply with certain harmony exigencies.The interpretation elements allowed by the works of Brâncuşi ought to be under constant reconsideration, with scrupulous and ever-increasing analytical rigour(6). It is our goal to connect the analysis of the subjacent symbolism of The Chimera with our previously published interpretations concerning the sculptures marking the beginning of the artist's mature career: The Prayer, The Kiss, The Diligence of the Earth.Thus, it is known from one of Henri Pierre Roche's letters, that The Chimera sent by Brâncuşi along with other pieces to the Contemporary French Art Exhibition organized in 1922 at the Sculptors' Gallery in New York, caused the artist's complaint against the organizers, for the reason that they "had placed The Chimera directly on the floor, rather than higher up, in the air."(7) This piece of information is backed by an undated drawing related to the Temple of Liberation project, displaying sketches of the elements making up the façade. A set of columns, identical to the one in Târgu Jiu, support an ornamental frieze reiterating the streamlined motif of The Kiss (also originating in Târgu Jiu); the corners of the frieze and the vault apex are dominated by silhouettes reminiscent of The Chimera. This drawing allows a stimulating basis for interpretation. The artist's instant complaint can testify to the existence of a certain coherent sense of the piece. Placing The Chimera directly on the floor would not have irritated Brâncuşi to such point had the piece been conceived of as pure abstraction, a mere vehicle for lax, equivocal meanings. Only for a Chimera endowed by the artist with a distinct meaning, did the framework become either accommodating or inappropriate, according to its ability to enhance the object or, on the contrary, to obscure it.The drawing we mentioned confirms the coherence of Brâncuşi's vision with regard to the elevated location required in order to enhance the value of the sculpture. On the other hand, The Chimera occurs here above the rhythmical motif of The Kiss, as if to convey a kinship in meaning, a correlation of symbolic valences to the major cycle of The Kiss.On the sketch The Temple of Liberation, The Chimeras depicted on the left side occur in the version reproduced in the sculpture, while on the right side the second vertical element does not occur in cross section but whole, going down all the way to the base. One can speculate that the two hypostases of The Chimera will have been drawn twice – once on the front of the Temple, then, once again, on the back side of the designed building – as if to tacitly validate both in conformity with the artist's vision. The existence of this second hypostasis of the composition challenges both Petru Comarnescu's interpretation and the similitudes signaled by Teja Bach. We feel urged to question the very significance status the authors attributed to the composition under discussion. Had Brâncuşi limited himself in carving The Chimera to mere stylization processes of given motifs, either real or mythological, the programmatic essentialization he operates would have been situated within certain post-figurative limits.Taking the sculpture as a starting point, the second, untruncated version of the work becomes impossible to correlate credibly with the same "swan", "chimera", "gargoyle" shape imagined in a different posture. Brâncuşi failed to build The Temple of Liberation. The existing sketch, left as sole testimony to the artist's intentions, is proof that the vertical element cross-section which the eye construes in The Chimera, demands to be interpreted along these lines, as amputation. Furthermore, the fact that this detail is associated to the well-defined context of a temple, a space reserved par excellence to symbolic excursions, doubtlessly pleads, once again, for an understanding of The Chimera¸ as a sculpture destined to mediate ample and coherent connotations, thus transcending the ambitions and possibilities of artistic approaches based upon stylization.Hermeneutic traditions provide ample comment regarding the polar symbolic values of both scenarios, for instance, placing "the chosen" on the right hand of the Father, while the damned are on the left, express a human vision far from limited to the Judeo-Christian area of influence. Considered in this context, the amputation of one of the vertical elements of The Chimera, as it occurs on the roof of The Temple of Liberation, turns out to be more than a mere optical element employed in pursuit of "balance"(8). One is tempted to say it assumes something of the deliberate character of a ritualistic act. Under the circumstances, the possibility that the sculpture depicts, albeit abstractly, a human body should come as no surprise…Let us thoroughly contemplate The Chimera. A plinth consisting of two abstract elements supports the base of the sculpture, allowing the viewer to recognize the stylized profile of a human sole: the heel, the sole as such and the toes are discernible. Above the sole rises the pillar supporting the dominant element of the composition, a thick wooden ring. Facing the vertical pillar, the stump of a second pillar hangs from the ring, split down the middle.We shall take advantage of the anthropological perspective of the current analysis to underscore the subjacent anthropocentrism of the composition. Brâncuşi had no need to read hermeneutic texts in order to know that the fantastic creatures of all mythologies were mere subconscious projections of man's image of himself. The chimera as monster waylaying travelers and killing those who succumb to its charms in a metaphor of the challenges existence confronts each and every individual with. Human destiny is constructive in nature. It does resemble a temple in progress. From one stage to the other, depending on the "builder's" ability, it can either wax solid or become fragile, it can appear either lofty or pitiful. When he states that "beauty is absolute equity"(9) Brâncuşi might have well had in mind the image of the temple each man builds to himself, in his own soul, through the life he leads.The sole supporting The Chimera directs the perception of the whole composition. The creature is thus viewed from the profile. The singular sole implies that the two feet have fused. Instead of two distinct entities – the right foot and the left foot – the artist chooses the option of a single foot. This compacting function is one of the composition techniques most specific of Brâncuşi. In The Sleeping Muses and Domnişoara Pogany physiognomic details were compacted within the face oval. The Birds fuse the legs and tail profiles, the contour of the body with the shape of the wings, they render indistinct the transition from the neck to the body. The Little Bird merges the shape of the body with that of the head. We have mentioned this last instance since it is particularly revealing with regard to The Chimera. The emblem meant to decorate the roof of The Temple of Liberation, was to be, according to Brâncuşi's vision, quintessentially reduced, simplified to the maximum. One can venture the hypothesis that the artist will have prefigured here the algorithm to be employed for The Little Bird, condensing the representation of the human body and head to the singular circle of the wooden ring. Such reduction may appear impossible to accept by the immediate perception. Brâncuşi's raison d'être, nevertheless, was the judgment rather than the rendition of the form. The sculptor's interest for Platonic philosophy incurred sustained critical interest. Teja Bach's exegesis, Eric Shane's analyses, particularly, and in Romania Mr. Cristian Robert Velescu's volumes published in 1993 and 1996 explore the ample extension of the possible influences exercised by Plato's texts upon Brâncuşi's sculptures. We dare add under the heading of Brâncuşi's silent, sometimes polemic dialogue with the Platonic texts – not as subscription to a certain teaching, but rather as translating into the material language of wood a question or reaction triggered off by these very texts – the audacity of figuring reductively the body and the head under the maximum simplicity shape of a single ring. Perhaps when he claimed that "In my philosophy of life, the separation of matter from the spirit as well as all other forms of duality are an illusion. The soul and the clay make up a unity,"(10) Brâncuşi made a confession on what he had ventured to do in The Chimera.Let us proceed with the analysis of the work: the second vertical element descending from the ring – the one occurring in amputated form in the final version of the composition – emerges in this particular instance as a stylized modality of featuring the arms, which, in their turn, fuse into a single member. Brâncuşi was to reiterate this procedure in Domnişoara Pogany, where the single arm propping the head is reminiscent of The Bird's air borne dimension. The contour of the arm in Domnişoara Pogany II and Domnişoara Pogany III is elegant beyond description, having conferred immediate notoriety to this particular plastic innovation.We have elsewhere considered the possible background whose ideas underlie the plastic solution. In traditional symbolism the right and left members are allegorical configurations of man and woman respectively. Their fusion can only signify the return to an androgynous condition.At this point, the idea contained in the sketch for The Temple of Liberation emerges with greater clarity. On the right side of The Temple, the one expressing balance an inner peace – in actual fact the equivalent of paradisiacal "liberation" – The Chimera is depicted as a creature whose call is to rise through the spirit above the earth, in order to return earthwards. Both moments are equally important. The legs assume the role of raising the circle of the body above reality, while the hands assume the responsibility of reestablishing the connection with the earth. This plastic formula gives a superbly concise expression of the human being's responsibility to "manage reality," to have dominion over the earth, as defined by Genesis 1:28, "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (KJV). On the contrary, the left side of The Temple, exposed to evil influences, needs to be reinforced and protected. We find in Brâncuşi's sketch a repetition of the warning voiced by our ancestors through the metaphor of this myth. We have previously argued that when it comes to expressing himself, Brâncuşi appears just as much at ease when he makes use of Scripture language. The Gospel of Mark contains a passage famous for its apparently impracticable radicalism. Christ warns his disciples: "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off…" (9:43, KJV). "And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off…" (9:45 KJV). The Chimeras with amputated arms on the left side of The Temple of Liberation are infallible genii, apt to defend The Temple, since their hands, through the act of amputation, become incapable to be tempted by the destructive appeals which the telluric element meditates. This theme appears complex and somehow difficult to understand if we limit ourselves solely to the analysis of The Chimera. There is a notable precedent in the work of Brâncuşi. In actual fact, the artist makes a spectacular return, through The Chimera to the previously employed compositional procedure which had inaugurated his mature career as a sculptor. In Prayer (1907), he had amputated the left arm of the composition, with the precise intention of signifying the determination of the generic woman to annihilate "the possibility of transgression". The statue, as we revealed in a study published in 1990(11), can be interpreted as integrating the Papsarian myth of the Bible to a modern discourse on the rehabilitation of woman. Not only the left arm of The Prayer, but both the left ear and eye are missing in the sculpture; such interventions in the anatomy are much too frequent to be considered random. They are, we have to say it, incongruous in a realistic composition. The viewer is necessarily guided towards acknowledging the allegoric character of The Prayer. The composition, funeral in intent, had been actually ordered by the widow of Petre Stănescu, a lawyer from Buzău as "the allegory of a woman lamenting the departed one." Brâncuşi was to decide there and then, at the very dawn of his creative career, to transpose the configuration of sorrow from the common register of individual drama to the universal plane, addressing the human condition in its entirety.Space does not allow us to reiterate here all the elements of our interpretation regarding what we have called "The Kiss triptych". The three sculptures connected to the 1907 turning point, The Prayer, The Kiss and The Diligence of the Earth allow equal reference to the legend of Genesis. They circumscribe the scenario of a triptych dedicated to Eve. An Eve successively pictured in the scene of The Kiss, in other words of the Edenic sin of the Bible (The Kiss), then "damnation" (The Diligence of the Earth), and going beyond the framework of the myth – a spectacular rehabilitation of Eve (Prayer). In Prayer, it can be argued, Eve is pictured as a holy character, whose call is not only to pray for the dead but, through invested authority, to redeem them.We have argued elsewhere that the enigmatic inscriptions CRISTE… CRSITE, identified by Sidney Geist as occurring twice on The Prayer body (on the stump of the amputated left arm and down the spine), irrefutably support the thesis that the sculpture is intended as a female replica of Christ(12). Christ is the essentially righteous man of Christian mythology, "who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." (Romans 8:34, KJV). As He is called by the Scripture "the last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45), Brâncuşi's intervention could be described as an attempt at introducing "the last Eve". Such a hypothesis, nonetheless, holds no water. The inscription carved upon the sculpture is irrefutable proof that the Eve of The Prayer is seen by Brâncuşi as identical to Christ. The sculpture merges their spirit into one body. "Eve is the Christ and the Christ is Eve," Brâncuşi appears to say. One might say that the artist has found his inspiration in the apocrypha gospels: "When two becomes one; when the interior becomes like the exterior, and the exterior like the interior; so that male and female become one; so that the male does not become male, and the female does not become female, then," according to the "gospel of Thomas," "shall the kingdom of heaven come."(13)The quotation defines the major coordinates of the discourse on androgyny in Christian philosophy. The spirit, in its evolution towards self-perfection, is granted the hope of transcending the distinction between the sexes as horizon of ultimate fulfillment. Thus, the Christ, as the last Adam, can identify with Eve, and conversely Eve, the guilty transgressor, can merge into perfection with the spirit of Christ.Brâncuşi's discourse, as revealed in The Prayer is not only an extension to mythology, but, as we are going to see, an improvement. In the obvious hieratism of The Prayer, the narration of the tragedy of death legend and the possibility of salvation is audaciously harmonized from the perspective of an updated morality apt to reformulate the discourse, on good and evil. For the current civilization, the generic indictment pronounced by tradition against woman, as well as the silent encomium man reaps mark an extreme conceptual simplification that cannot be accepted. Legends and myths of universal circulation have permanently placed the woman on the left side of man as his weaker half, subject to sin, as the left hypostasis of being.Brâncuşi, reversing the terms of the problem in The Prayer attempted reparation for a planetary injustice. This is not the place to digress by mentioning the evolution, alternately erratic and inspired of women liberation movements among today's generations. What does make the subject of our considerations is the speculation concerning the way Brâncuşi might have perceived his own plastic discourse in time as embodied in The Prayer monument.The subject is beyond the scope of these few pages. But it can be inferred that, for such a balanced spirit, the idea of correcting an exaggeration by exaggerating in the opposite extreme was sooner or later to appear fragile. The Prayer, as understood through the ethical message it proposes to convey by discoursing on The righteous man, portrays a woman. Yet substituting Eve for Christ does not change the terms of the problem. The deeper meaning of the composition is obviously elsewhere: viz. to redefine, as already stated, the human condition in its quintessence, at an even deeper level than the one posing the distinction between the sexes as truly significant.The idea of a Temple of Liberation was to fill an area of structural value in the evolution of Brâncuşi's thought. The "chimerical" emblemae on the roof were meant to evoke the perspective of a humanity at peace with itself, where "the right" and "the left" merge – not politically, as the terms are currently perceived, although, their meanings are generally perceived, although, their meanings are generally convergent – serving the need of dialogue-oriented responsibilization sensed by being. Brâncuşi's Chimera is a call to transform utopia into reality, and partake of the essence of the spirit which the myth translates as omnipresent reality within man's soul. January 13, 1997 NOTES(1) Petru Comarnescu, Sculptorul Brâncuşi şi epoca sa (Brâncuşi the sculptor and his age), Lecture given in Craiova, November 24, 1957, The Art Museum. A text previously unknown, first published in the Brâncuşi magazine, year II, No. 2(6), summer 1996, p.1, esq. p.7.(2) Cf. Sanda Miller, Constantin Brâncuşi, A Survey of his Work, Clarendon Press, 1995, p.230.(3) Cf. Radu Varia, Brâncuşi, Rizzoli Int., 1986, p.195.(4) Ibid., p.31.(5) V. G. Paleolog, Procesul sculpturii brâncuşiene, Eseuri (The Process of Brâncuşi's Sculpture, Essays), BRÂNCUŞIANA – 2, Editura Fundaţiei "Constantin Brâncuşi", 1996, p.172.(6) In the volume Brâncuşi-Simbolismul Hylesic (Brâncuşi – Hylesis Symbolism), Edinter, 1992, we have put forth some demonstrations concerning the possibility of decoding the symbolic discourse of Brâncuşi's composition almost exclusively founded upon internal elements of his work.(7) Cf. Friedrich Teja Bach, Margit Rowell, Ann Temkin, Constantin Brâncuşi, Philadelphia Museum of Art, MIT Press, Oct.-Dec. 1995, p.156.(8) In a similar case, to be further reverted to, viz. the amputation by the sculptor of the left arm of The Prayer, it was argued that the artist had resorted to this solution for reasons of compositional economy: cf. V. G. Paleolog, Tinereţea lui Brâncuşi (The Youth of Brâncuşi), Editura tineretului, 1967, p.151.(9) Constantin Zărnescu, Ibid., af. 1, p.92.(10) Ibid., af. 102, p.121.(11) Matei Stârcea-Crăciun, The Diligence of the Earth, Luceafărul, nr.13, 25 aprilie 1990, p.12; Praying, The Prayer, Luceafărul, nr. 20, 13 iunie 1990, p.12.(12) On the one hand, the closeness between the inscription and the name of Christ is too great to allow even the hint of another meaning. On the other hand, an examination of the two elements of the inscription CRISTE CRSITE, (we have transcribed in thick fonts the common letters in order to allow easier recognition), reveals their anagramatic character, as consisting of the same letters, albeit in the central section of the name, the IS group occurs in reversed order, as SI. Brâncuşi inscribed The Prayer so as to underscore his guiding idea, viz. that the incarnation of God ought to be spiritually expounded on a level deeper than the distinction between sexes. The equation IS… SI (IS may well come from ISUS – JESUS) is the expression of spiritual cross-dressing, viz. the unrecognizable representation of the "Adamic Christ" as Eve.(13) Evangile selon Thomas, Ed. Metanoia, 1974, p.22.

by Matei Stârcea-Crăciun