The Real Birds of Constantin Brancusi

Feature by Milla Maria

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Abstract art thrived in the 20th century and is known now for its departure from strict realism. Gone were depictions of faces as we see them, instead being replaced by harsh lines and vague depictions in basic shapes. For one of the most influential sculptors of his century, however, abstractionism instead was a way of depicting the undepictable. Constantin Brancusi is a pioneer of modern sculpting, revolutionising the craft from his predecessors by the abstract forms he depicts through the method of direct carving.

Brancusi’s work covers not just a movement, but a period of constant flux and inward growth. Exploration of the self and the ‘essence’ of things was an important moment in the world of the arts, giving rise to various forms of abstract art, including expressionism, cubism and, later, Dadaism. To these artists, the reality of things was not tangible, and what is tangible is artifice. This was a period of war, rapid industrialism, and war again. Art seemingly had no place in the brutalities of ‘real’ life, but in a way, it tapped into the beauty underneath the coal and rubble of the 1900s. Abstractionism, for many like Brancusi, “is, above all, realism,” as he once professed. “I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature.” That is, it is not meant to resemble or capture, but to remove the artifice from a subject and draw out – or, in Brancusi’s case, sculpt out – “the being that is within matter”.  

Sculpted and Polished

His methods also set itself apart from his peers’ and teachers’ usual techniques, as is his attitude towards realism. Albeit being an apprentice for the father of modern sculpture Auguste Rodin, Brancusi sought to break out from that mould. He engaged in direct carving, meaning that he did not rely on models or casts, instead placing chisel directly onto the material, which was primarily marble, stone, bronze, wood and metal. He had an affinity for polishing his material until they gleamed, in an attempt to create a mirror-like surface that gave the illusion of infinity.

This did not mean that he lacked the technical skill, but that he was growing and truly making his mark by his ingénue with the material he worked with.

Take, for example, his version of The Kiss (1907-08). It was not an imitation or criticism of his mentor’s work but a new way of looking at the moment itself. In Brancusi’s version, it’s an intimate new form of conversation. He depicts equal beings bound together by their own rope-like arms, and ultimately, Brancusi lets the larger audience draw their own conclusions from this enclosed moment. Another well-known sculpture was Endless Column (1918), done for the Tirgu-Jiu World War I memorial, erected in 1938 in Romania. He cites axis mundi, or the axis of the world – a concept present in belief systems that connected heaven and earth. It consists of identical rhomboid shapes, polished to point towards ideas of both cosmic and earthly infinity.  

Meaning in Art

A more (in)famous work was Bird in Space (1928). The tall, slender sculpture, made of cast bronze, marble and wood, was more expressive of the spirit of the paradox of flight. There is the quintessential form of upwards motion, launching from the ground of wood and marble, where it turns into an elegantly-twisted spirit of freedom from the pedestal. Other works in this series, beginning with Maiastra (1910) and proceeding further with Young Bird (1928) and The Cock (1928) both reduce the subject to impossible, variable meaning. He would emphasise the connection of form to its true nature and kept his strong associations with his Romanian background. His bold, non-representational art style was not met lightly, and in 1927, culminated in a US court case, which redefined the definition of art to accommodate abstract forms. In this way, Brancusi’s influence in art extended beyond his avant-garde circle, giving us the abundance and public acceptance of abstract art as art

Rien n’est beau que la vrai (Nothing is beautiful except that which is true)
— Nicolas Boileau
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Brancusi was daring in his presentation of himself as he was with his art. He avidly rejected realism but did not want to identify his work as ‘abstract’, either. Similarly, it is impossible to arrive at a single definition of his work because there isn’t meant to be one.

There can be clear inspirations but not clear interpretations, and Casper & Casper find the infinite possibility of his work both fascinating and inspiring.

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To draw your own conclusions, visit the MoMA website to view their Brancusi exhibition.

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