Constantin Brancusi

Constantin Brancusi’s Manifestation in Flight

By Demetrios Voulgarellis

At a first glance, in viewing Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space 1923 (Fig. 1), we perceive that it is a non-representational work of art.  In that it lends itself towards a symbolic manifestation to something greater, transcending through space rather than a mere representation of an individual object, or figure.  In my interpretation, Brancusi conveyed his manifestation as a pedestal for his work in his quality of technique and spirituality to take flight.

Brancusi chose to work his sculptures in a variety of materials, each material differing in texture, and ultimately achieving individual uniqueness with light and shade in his sculptures.  In a letter from Brancusi to John Quinn:[1]  “But it’s not my fault if I make wood differently than marbles, marbles differently than bronzes and so on.  It’s because I can’t say in marble what I can say in wood and in wood that I can in marble and so on with other materials.”  It comes as no surprise that two of Brancusi’s trademarks lie within his technique in carving and polishing of the materials as the basic elements of his manifest to be perceived.[2]

The Bird in Space was first carved from marble, along with six more versions, nine in polished bronze, and numerous plaster casts,[3] each offering a different experience.  Moreover, it is hard to not notice the pedestals which Brancusi incorporates into his oeuvre of Birds in Space and his other works, which can be seen as the second accent towards his ideas.  The bases were also used in different materials, offering an inter-play between negative and positive organic mass to its accompanied sculptural space (Fig. 2).  In the 1920’s he began crafting the bases for his sculptures with much care and originality as he considered them vital to the work themselves.  According to Rowell, Brancusi’s bases are constructed in layers from a number of elements such as cubes, cylinders, hemicylinders, truncated pyramids, serrated forms, and Greek cross shapes, which were then recombined at will, taken apart, and reassembled.[4]

Brancusi 23

Figure 2

I can interpret Brancusi’s Bird in Space as serving a further element, that of his soul, in the essence of his idea that culminated over time.  The symbol which Brancusi creates, its smoothness in white marble which radiates from its surface, and the projectile uplifting quality – equally offer a life of its own, condensed into one permeating mass.  It is evident that Brancusi’s first sculpture of his bird genre is the Pasărea Maiastra (Master Bird) 1907-8 (Fig. 3), which apparently inspired by a magic golden bird in Romanian folklore, noted especially for its marvelous song and which had miraculous powers.[5]  Interestingly enough, the Russian form of this same legend was the inspiration for Stravinsky’s Firebird.[6]  It comes as no surprise that the Maiastra served as an inspiration for the theme of the bird in Brancusi’s oeuvre, over and over again until reaching the refined versions culminating with Bird in Space.[7]  According to Brancusi’s own testimony, his preoccupation with the image of the bird as a plastic form began as early as 1910.[8]

Brancusi 3

Figure 3

Brancusi’s Rumanian old traditions, along with the Primordial elements which were circulating Paris, reflect a part of this spirit in his work.[9]  These were transformed in Brancusi’s work into a vehicle of universal artistic innovation, thus entering the mainstream of Parisian art.[10]  It is obvious for us to denote that Brancusi willfully and instinctively chose to opt for the form of spirituality in fulfilling his idea.

Traditionally, birds are messengers throughout history and mythology.  Whether we trace these myths through primordial elements in Africa or from his home ground of Romania, Brancusi manages to incorporate this spirituality within his birds.  In drawing an analogy from Thomas N. Huffman’s interpretation of birds, we can fathom as to the essence behind Brancusi’s spiritual element.  Huffman claims that the birds served as various symbolic forms and acted as messengers from ancestral spirits for the pristine people of the Rozwi tribe of Great Zimbabwe.  He continues with the Shona belief that life on earth began in certain deep pools and that spirit people live at the bottom of these pools, and that deep pools are entrances to the subterranean spirit world.  Since eagles travel between heaven and earth, they can also be messengers of God, who is “Great One of Sky” (Nyadenga).  An eagle known as “bird of heaven” (shiri ye denga) brings lightning, which the Shona call “the needle that stitches together heaven and earth”.[11]   Interestingly enough, Huffman reveals “The Soapstone Birds (Fig. 4,5) from Great Zimbabwe” belonging to the Shona Kings c.1450, of which eight birds, carved of soft green-gray limestone and perch on the end of a pillar, generally serving as a symbol of entry to sacred ground or as a symbol of man (monolith).  The carvings incorporate human as well as avian elements, therefore, they were not meant to be naturalistic representations, and that they too formed a combined effort in its meaning.[12]

Figure 4,5

Brancusi quoted: “All my life I have sought only the essence of flight.  Flight! what bliss!”[13]

It is evident that Brancusi condensates the form of his Maiastra to the Bird in Space even further with the dynamics of flight in its projectile form.  Margit Rowell claims that the artists’ intention was to embody a timeless and universal sense of spiritual form, organic mystery and the unification of the sacred.  The dramatically lengthened new version of his bird sculptures are characterized by a slimmer and lengthened form, and the head and beak as the slanting oval plane, which flares at the foot creating this upward force.

Aviation transmitted a defining anecdote to be mentioned by the painter Fernard Leger, who is reported to have claimed that he, together with Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi, attended a Salon of Aviation.  Marcel walked around the mechanical instruments of motors and propellers without saying a word.  Suddenly he turned to Brancusi:  “Painting has come to an end.  Who can do anything better than this propeller.  Can you?”[14]

Brancusi’s Birds in Space, whether it being the influence of Romanian Folklore or the mystical primordial elements of Africa,[15] subsequently he managed to respond as a true artist by encompassing these elements of spirit, uniting them, and transcends them into a metaphysical bird in flight.  The fact that Brancusi chose to accompany each and every sculpture with a base or pedestal, accentuates the essence of the upliftment to a higher plane in its freest form.

However, it has also been noted that the concept of the pedestals posed a problem in sculpture during the nineteenth century exhibitions, where the bases were draped in dark-colored fabrics, as it seemed awkward at the time in viewing a support for a sculpture.[16]    Keeping in mind that the meaning of art itself was changing, and the boundaries of art were being redrawn during the time of Brancusi’s artistic career in Paris.  Brancusi’s bases had caused controversy amongst scholars, as he sold them together with the sculptures, but at times even sold them separately.[17]  Rowell quotes Brancusi’s quality in a summary of his own words, where combining the base with the sculpture “we are on a sphere; we play with other spheres; we combine them, we make them sparkle.”  In Birds in Space, Brancusi attached the base with rods, the base being a cylindrical support, which is richly veined marble, which contrasts with the soap-like purity of the marble of the sculpture above.[18]

     His inventing forms begin from reality but are not subject to it, which he ultimately condensed, as we have noted from his Maiastra to his famed versions of Birds in Space.

Brancusi’s work is a synthesis of his manifestations, stitched between the heavens and earth, through his crystalline structures of organic form into matter.  He discovered the autonomous life existing in the very consistency of stone, metal and wood with the bases as platform for its pristine departure into space.  We can note that Brancusi grasped the intuitive spirit of past, present and future sculptures of his creation.

Bibliography

Bach, Friedrich Teja and others, Constantin Brancusi  1876-1957,  Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995.

Balas, Edith, “The Sculpture of Breancusi in the Light of His Rumanian Heritage.”  Art Journal 35, no. 2 (1975-1976), 94-104.  JSTOR. Amer. Coll. Of Gr. Libraries, Athens, Gr. 06 May 2010 http://www.jstor.org/search/.

Huffman, Thomas N., “Birds from Great Zimbabwe.”  African Arts 18, no. 3 (1985): 2-9.  JSTOR. Amer. Coll. Of Gr. Libraries, Athens, Gr. 06 May 2010 http://www.jstor.org/search/.

Danto, Arthur Coleman.  The Nation, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, 1996. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1- 17812063.

 

Illustrations

Figure 1.          Bird in Space, 1923, white marble, H: 128.9 cm, circumference 48.5 cm, two part base of white marble and limestone, overall height 43.2 cm.

Figure 2.          Birds in Space, yellow marble, base with white marble and wood. Bird in space. ca. 1923-24? H: 116.2cm, circumference: 36.8 cm.  Height to width ratio: 1:9.92

Figure 3.          Maiastra, 1910-12. White marble 22″ (55.9 cm) high, on three-part limestone pedestal 70″ (177.8 cm) high, of which the middle section is Double Caryatid, ca. 1908, Katherine S. Dreier Bequest

Figure 4.          Great Zimbabwe Soap Stone Bird on pedestal, ca. 11-14th Century AD

Figure 5.          Great Zimbabwe Soap Stone Bird on pedestal, ca. 11-15th Century AD

 

Footnotes:

[1]  John Quinn remained Brancusi’s most faithful and important collector until his death in 1924, see: Friedrich Teja Bach, Margit Rowell, Ann Temkin, Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995), 376.

[2]  Ibid., 376.

[3]  Friedrich Teja Bach and others, Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995), 376.

[4]  Ibid., 27.

[5]  Such as the foretelling of the future and cures the blind, a messenger of love who guided and protected Prince Charming in his search for his Princess.

[6]  Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art, 1981, 71-3.

[7]  Friedrich Teja Bach and others, Constantin Brancusi  1876-1957,  (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995), 27.

[8]  Friedrich Teja Bach and others, Constantin Brancusi  1876-1957,  (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995), 26.

[9]  Ibid., 26.

[10] Edith Balas, “The Structure of Brancusi in the Light of His Rumanian Heritage,” Art Journal 35, (1975-6): 104.

[11] Thomas N. Huffman, “The Soapstone Birds from Great Zimbabwe,” African Arts 18, UCLA, (1985): 68-70.

[12] Thomas N. Huffman, “The Soapstone Birds from Great Zimbabwe,” African Arts 18, (1985): 70.

[13] Carola Giedion-Welcker, Constantin Brancusi, trans. Maria Jolas and Anne Leroy (New York: Geprhe Braziller, 1959), 220.

[14] Danto, Arthur, The Nation, Philadelphia Museum of Art, (1996).

[15] Friedrich Teja Bach and others, Constantin Brancusi  1876-1957,  (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995), 27.

[16] Friedrich Teja Bach and others, Constantin Brancusi  1876-1957,  (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995),  27.

[17] Ibid., 28.

[18] Ibid., 28.

 

By Demetrios Voulgarellis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s