Honesty of Materials and Purity of Forms: Brancusi’s Influences
No artist arises out of a vacuum. The artist is always a link within a chain of influences. Constantin Brancusi’s influence on modern art is unmistakable. His purity of form and respect for materials has not only influenced several contemporary sculptors but also painters and writers. Brancusi’s values and craft were, in turn, influenced by the artisan tradition of his native Romania, the familiar forms of domestic objects, and the architectural elements in which he was immersed as a child. Brancusi was a skilled craftsman who combined an artisan’s honest production of utilitarian objects with a poet’s dogged pursuit of purity.
Brancusi’s Romanian heritage played a critical role in his appreciation for craft and respect for materials. He was born into an upper middle class family in the small town of Hobitza, Romania, in 1876.1 Hobitza, a remote village in the Romanian countryside, had yet to be strongly affected by the industrial revolution.2 The region was heavily wooded and had a strong tradition of carving that was expressed in functional and ceremonial objects. Both Brancusi’s father and grandfather were involved in carpentry: his father a landholder and occasional carpenter and his grandfather a builder.
Clockwise: 1) Oltenian Pilar. Folk Art Museum Bucharest. Consiliul Culturii, Bucharest, Romania. Balas 2008. 2,3) Constantin Brancusi House Museum, Hobita, Gorj, Romania. 4) Wooden Church in Hobita, Gorj. 5) Constantin Brancusi House Museum, Gate, Hobita, Gorj County, Romania.
At an early age, Brancusi left Hobitza for the provincial city of Craiova where he was first employed as a dyer.3 While working as a dyer, he became interested in sculpture. He made a violin, a challenge given him by his employer. Upon seeing the completed work, it was obvious to the employer that Brancusi had an artistic persuasion.4 Brancusi enrolled in the School for the Arts and Crafts, where he excelled. He received the education of an artisan while taking advantage of the sculptural opportunities that the school offered. This early training was extremely influential and throughout the rest of his career Brancusi preferred the title of artisan to artist or sculptor.5 After completing his studies in Craiova, he slowly made his way to Paris where he enrolled in the Academie des Beaux-Arts under acting vice president August Rodin.6
Brancusi’s early works at the Academie, mostly plaster busts, were heavily influenced by Rodin. Brancusi, however, chose not to accept an invitation to work directly for Rodin as he felt that he would not be able to freely express himself working under such a significant figure: “…nothing grows in the shadow of big trees.”7 It was around this time that Brancusi also underwent a decisive creative shift from what he considered an imitation of nature to an interest in more common utilitarian objects. He moved into his own studio in Paris and furnished it with familiar objects from Romania.8 He also began the practice of direct cutting, abandoning the technique of modeling.9 This is where the influence of Brancusi’s early childhood in Hobitza and his artisan background begin to appear.
Brancusi was not alone in his devotion to craft and his admiration for the artisan. Many artists and designers were reacting skeptically to the increase in industrialization and mechanization that was occurring at the time. Henry Van de Velde, a Belgian Architect, argued that high-quality work could only be achieved by artisans that had a direct relationship to the material at hand.10 Brancusi’s decision to use the direct cutting method allowed him to better respond to the material. He could react to any fissures or knot holes, incorporating them into the work.11 For him, the work was a collaboration with the material. As he explained, “To give matter another role than the one nature intended it to have is to kill it… Sculpture is a human expression of nature’s actions.”12 This respect for materials is a trait attributed to an artisanal tradition often described as primitive. According to art historian Robert Goldwater, in primitivism there is a desire to conserve an awareness of the materials original appearance or attributes in the finished piece.13 Eric Gill, a British sculptor and contemporary of Brancusi, was also using the direct cutting method and was an ardent opponent of industrialization. In 1913 he described two kinds of artwork:
First, those which owe part of their quality as works of art to the material of which they are made and of which the material inspires the artist and is freely accepted by him and, second, those which owe nothing of their quality except by accident to their material and indeed, of which the material is even a hindrance to the free expression of the artist, is patronized rather than beloved by him.14
Gill’s use of “accident,” “hindrance,” and “patronized” reveal his distaste for art without a direct material awareness. In contrast, he talks in more idealistic terms about artists who focus on the material, using such words as “inspire,” “free,” and “beloved.” Similarly, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, another sculptor working in France around the same time, argued that the beauty of sculpture is inseparable from its material.15
Artists’ and designers’ skepticism of the industrial processes persists to this day. In architecture there is the admiration of indigenous building methods. In “Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture,” architectural and art historian Sibyl Moholy-Nagy compares the strategies of an industrial builder to those of the indigenous or primitive builder. According to Moholy-Nagy, the industrial builder evaluates the natural attributes of his materials and site as destructive forces to be overcome, while the indigenous builder sees these natural attributes as assets to be exploited.16
Some contemporary artists have found ways to incorporate both industrial and indigenous techniques. Though heavily influenced by Brancusi and his respect for materials, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre has been able to exploit the inherent qualities in a material while also coming to terms with the current reality of industrial processes.
1) Installation by Carl Andre at Dia:Beacon. 2) Carl Andre. 1979. NYC. Bill Jacobson. 3) “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,” retrospective at Dia:Beacon, 2014–15. Tony Cenicola—The New York Times/Redux. 4) Carl Andre.
What was the raw lumber or stone for Brancusi is dimensional lumber or the masonry unit for Andre. After reading Ezra Pound’s essay on Brancusi, Andre began directly carving a larger piece of four-by-four timber. He recalls an interaction with Frank Stella, the minimalist painter, in which Stella observed the carved and uncarved portions of the timber, commenting that the uncarved portions of the piece were sculpture too. Andre came to the realization that what he was cutting into had already been cut, and “rather than cut the material, I now use the material as the cut space.”17 Andre retains a respect for the material in its natural state as well. He once said, “A good seasoned piece of oak or hard pine has a set of sculptures in it. A good sculptor winds up with one of them; a bad sculptor ends up with sawdust.”18 Andre’s radial arm sculptures are a great example of his inspiration from Brancusi, while demonstrating how the industrial process can also be exploited to achieve similar goals of honesty toward material and process.
1) Carl Andre, Radial-Arm-Saw-Carved Wood Piece, Quincy, Massachusetts, 1959, Wood (Destroyed). 2-4) Carl Andre, Radial-Arm Sculptures.
Carl Andre, Frank Stella, Ann Truitt, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and other minimalist artists were drawn not only to Brancusi’s honesty toward his medium, but also his honesty or efficient purity of form, another attribute of the primitive artisan. Like his peers, Andre was inspired by the “materialists of different media”: Brancusi, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, “who stressed the sufficiency of each block of wood, each word.”19 In his essay on Brancusi, Ezra Pound quotes T.J. Everets: “a work of art has in it no idea which is separable from the form.”20
For Brancusi, form related to use and efficiency. He drew inspiration from traditional, utilitarian tools and objects that have been simplified and refined over time to perform their desired effect in the most efficient way. Drawing directly from his Romanian heritage, Brancusi created the pure forms of Chimera (1918) or The King of Kings (1930). We see increasing refinement of form in such pieces as Cup (1920), the Endless Column (1937), and Newborn (1920). His ultimate work, which he saw as a work in progress, was a series of sculptures focusing on the meaning of flight. In Bird in Space (1924), Brancusi strives to show through this suspended, abstracted bird the meaning of flight in physical form.20 It is appropriate then to recall his challenge that “simplicity is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things.”21
Clockwise: Chimera, The King of Kings, Cup, Endless Column, Newborn, and Bird In Space, Constantin Brancusi.
Brancusi came to this realization of truth in simplicity early on in his career. For one of his first commissions, he was tasked to sculpt a woman in prayer. He modeled her with her arms crossed but, according to Brancusi, she was too cold. He cut off her arms and then understood that “realism was not essential to expression.”22
Ultimately, the aesthetics of Brancusi and his contemporaries were a response to their times. They were reacting to the increasing industrialization that was transforming their built environment. They fought against the monotony and predictability of realism through a desire to be more expressive. Many artists found this expressiveness in primitive and indigenous art. Ironically, the increase in mobility spurred by industrialization helped expose these artists and their audiences to these other, more “primitive” cultures. By the late 1800s primitive or indigenous art from around the world was accessible, although not necessarily universally appreciated.23 Having come from a strong indigenous background in Romania, Brancusi was at the vanguard of seeing the value in these traditions and emulating their respect for materials and form in his work. Through this respect, Brancusi was able to harness the uncanny truth in his sculptures. Ezra Pound said it best: When it comes to form “works of art attract by a resembling unlikeness” and when it comes to materials “[t]he beauty of form in the still stone can not be the same beauty of form as that in the living animal.”24
1. Barbu Brezianu and Sidney Geist, “The Beginnings of Brancusi” in Art Journal 25.1 (1965): 15-25.
1. Edith Balas, Brancusi and Rumanian Folk Traditions (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1987).
3. Alexander Liberman, The Artist in His Studio (New York: Viking Press, 1960).
4. Balas, Brancusi and Rumanian Folk Traditions.
5. Carola Giedon-Welcker, Constantin Brancusi (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1959).
7. Edith Balas, Brancusi and His World (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon Univeristy Press, 2008).
8. Nina Gulicher, “Constantin Brancusi and the Image of Trade: Aspects of Trade in the Realm of Modern Fine Arts” in The Journal of Modern Craft 3.3 (2010): 325-338.
11. Balas, Brancusi and Rumanian Folk Traditions.
12. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).
13. Nina, Gulicher, “Constantin Brancusi and the Image of Trade: Aspects of Trade in the Realm of Modern Fine Arts” in The Journal of Modern Craft 3.3 (2010): 325-338.
14. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1935).
15. Maholy-Nagy, Sibyl, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (New York: Horizon Press Inc., 1957).
16. Calvin Tomkins, “The Materialist Carl Andre’s eminent obscurity” in The New Yorker (2011).
17. Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton, 12 Dialogues 1962-63, Ed. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (New York: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1980).
18. James Meyer, Minimalism art and polemics in the sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
19. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1935).
23. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).