by Sidney Geist
A review of Brancusi by Radu Varia & Brancusi by Pontus Hultén, et al.
There has never been a scholarly Brancusi industry here or in Western Europe, and we seldom see an article on the sculptor other than the substantial journalistic response to public events, like exhibitions or the 1927-28 Bird in Space trial (duty-able object of manufacture or duty-free work of art?)— surely an odd state of affairs: half of Brancusi’s sculptures are in the United States, and there is the ever-growing opinion that he is the most important sculptor of the century. The situation is rather different in Rumania, where Brancusi, as a public subject, was rehabilitated only in the late Fifties—after his death in 1957—when the authorities recognized in him a great potential for favorable publicity. Rehabilitation reached a climax in the international Brancusi Colloquium held in Bucharest in 1967. The bibliography of Barbu Brezianu’s mono graph on the sculptor (1974) lists five hundred items—notes, articles, and books— touching upon Brancusi that were published in Rumania since the end of the Fifties. This is a remarkable record for a geographical area smaller than the state of Oregon. Anyone in Rumania who has an opinion on anything has one on Brancusi. He is, to be sure, a valid reason for national pride.
This pride has sometimes assumed inordinate forms. For example, this article’s light-opera title (whose small point will be apparent in a moment) was actually the title of a 1976 book by V. G. Paleolog, a prolific Brancusian whose writings on the sculptor hover on the brink of idolatry. A much more dependable critic is the art historian Petru Comarnescu, although his writing is marked, like Paleolog’s, by a distorting chauvinism that is happily absent from a later generation, represented by Brezianu and I. Pogorolovschi. Brezianu’s copious book was translated into English in 1976, but unfortunately had almost no distribution here. We must look back to 1978 for the last available full-length work in English on Brancusi, one by myself.
It is with high anticipation, then, that we turn to the two large volumes on the sculptor that have appeared in the past year, both translated from the French, both written by expatriate Rumanians, one with Swedish assistance.
The first, by Radu Varia and entitled Brancusi, is immediately recognizable as a glamorous product of the coffee-table genre. There is no reason why Brancusi shouldn’t get the glamour treatment, but we sense an extravagance on leafing to a title page com posed of two “gatefolds” that, when spread open, measure inches across—a record, I am told. Nevertheless, Varia’s adventurous text and the exertions of his prose make it clear that he means to be read, and we soon realize that the muchness of the title page is a proper prelude to verbal excess. This book has elements that seem to be recurrent in works on Brancusi, but its literary style— relentlessly overblown, numbingly flamboyant—puts it into a class by itself. Although writing in the tradition of the baroque Paleolog, Varia takes off from it by a quantum leap.
His first and most important theme is the identity of the destinies of Brancusi and Milarepa, an eleventh-century Tibetan poet-monk who achieved sainthood. Milarepa’s biography was written in the twelfth century; its French translation was Brancusi’s pillow book. Jetsun Milarepa has not gone unmentioned in the Brancusi literature: he appears in the second chapter, called “Meta physical Background,” of Carola Giedion-Welcker’s study (1959) —but Varia has raised the ante on the subject. His opening chapter, “The Light of the Eternal Moun tains,” is devoted to establishing the Tibetan connection and the sainthood of Brancusi, and he does so in over six and a half thou sand words. Now, the French translation of the Milarepa biography was published in 1925, when Brancusi was forty-nine years old. Giedion-Welcker dealt with this possi bly nettlesome fact by proposing a Brancusi finding “confirmation” in Milarepa and “reaching across the centuries.” Here is Varia on the subject: “Brancusi knew the meaning of the Jetsun Kahbum [the biography] long before he knew the book it self .... The nocturnal summons to ultimate heights, the occult nature of his trajectory, and the nameless voice that sustained him over the years were the same that had governed Milarepa’s redemptive itinerary a thousand years before . . . .Engaged in the same spiritual struggle, Milarepa and Brancusi would finally unite beyond time, beyond the idea of time, under the same tri umphal gates of victory.”
But Varia offers a fresh contribution to Brancusi scholarship in the form of the Craiova Fraternity, which we are told existed in the west Rumanian city where Brancusi studied at the School of Crafts for four years. Varia writes of masonic companions “long constituted in corporative secret societies” who were “dissimulated” in Craiova either as artisans or “among professors . . . at the School of Crafts. We can name several of the latter.” And he names five teachers who “were among [Brancusi’s] most discreet and effective protectors.” Were these five professors “dissimulated” members of the Fraternity or just five teachers? How does Varia know that they became “protectors,” that they were “discreet and effective”? He mentions “a strange figure, Visconti, the painter,” and “the William Watson manuscript found in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1890.” Not a footnote on the manuscript or the painter. “Was Constantin Brancusi admitted to Guild initiation in 1894? Did he become one of the Brothers of Craiova charged with the task of handing on ‘the light under the bushel’ ? All evidence converges in this direc tion.” Varia is constantly putting 2 and 2 together and getting 22.
Another contribution concerns an escapade of Brancusi’s boyhood, his leaving home and working briefly with a dyer on the edge of Tirgu-Jiu, some ten miles from his village. We have known of it, but not its real significance. “This apprenticeship,” says Varia, “was his first abrupt contact with the activating influences of the fraternities that surreptitiously perpetuated [sic] in Oltenia and throughout south-eastern Europe, with the elevated long-standing doctrines of the science of living colors that descended per haps from the third Egyptian dynasty and with the primordial cult of Hathor-Astarte, the goddess of the Green Stone .... Dyers by day, alchemists by night?” he asks. “They came to be known as moon-dyers.” For one initiated into their company “there have never been more than two distinct possibilities, the humid or the dry path .... Brancusi was not obliged to renounce the humid path himself, rather the path rejected him. He was not recognized as being essentially, or eventually, one of their kind.” Wet path, dry path—Mama Brancusi collected her eleven-year-old and took him home.
Thirdly there is the Celtic motif. Brancusi was born in “the heart of the wide valleys encompassed by the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube... lands redolent with Celtic mythology.” We read that “Joyce, one of Brancusi’s intimate friends, was subject by and through him to the fathomless mystery of the ancient Celtic worlds.” But twenty pages later the story undergoes a small change: “The spiral of Destiny, as envisaged by Giambattista Vico, would rally [Brancusi] to the Celtic spirit of James Joyce .... His memoryless quest through Celtic oblivion provided the horizon for his final heaven ward flight.” This is wild hagiography.
In our modern saint’s life there were “probably many women,” but two important loves. One was Eileen Lane, always referred to as Irish, never as American, which she was. At any rate, she “incarnated the bewitchment of Celtic poetry and sunlight”; not everyone is blessed with Celtic oblivion. In 1922, Brancusi took her on a “long Irish journey”—to Rumania.
Earlier the sculptor had “experienced the tremendous trial that ensued from his fear some liaison with Marie Bonaparte, ‘Princesse X.’ In her Brancusi was to plumb the depths of primordial darkness, of downward-striving telluric powers of a psychic nonspiritual order. She was a wild, unconscious, glorious being with a destructive mutilating nature. She was a creature of the earth, of the Stygian hidden ardor of the earth, out of which flow life-giving but anonymous tectonic powers, heavy with the weight of planetary, sublunar respiration. She was, in the long run, the instrument of a fathomless blinding force.” Reading such a passage requires a willing suspension of disbelief. It is about the woman who, in the long run, was the founder of the Société Psychanalytique de Paris and rescued Freud from Vienna. I have never seen any evidence of a liaison between Brancusi and Marie Bonaparte, nor does Varia offer any.
Like other works on Brancusi, this one cannot deal with its subject without constantly invoking all the great names and texts in the history of thought, as though Brancusi’s eminence were to be established by association. Balzac, the Bhagavad Gita, Blavatsky, Bloy, Buddha, the Cabala, Cal-vino, Coomaraswami, Dante ... In this book I see for the first time a poem by Huang-Chong-Ki; I am just as weak on Empedocles; and Blavatsky remains a closed book for me. But two quotations closer to my interests brought me to attention. The epigraph to Giedio-Welcker’s study of 1959 was the following: “The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant’s heart on the hillside. For them the earth is not an exploitable ground but the living mother—James Joyce, Ulysses.” This seems an apt citation. Brancusi was a shepherd as a child, watching the animals some times, doubtless, on a hillside. And Joyce knew him: they met when Harry and Caresse Crosby enlisted Brancusi to do a portrait of Joyce for a slender volume of pieces by the writer. Yet the passage (Chap. 9, lines 104-7 in the Gabler edition) doesn’t sound like Joyce, that is, like Dedalus/Joyce. And, in deed, in Ulysses it is uttered by AE (George Russell), whose agrarian views Stephen Dedalus (and Joyce) mistrusted. The citation is misleading in attributing to Joyce sentiments that were not his. This was probably an innocent attribution by the Swiss Giedion-Welcker. The passage from Ulysses is repeated, surely just as innocently, by the Rumanian Varia, and even misquoted, while acquiring a typical “great” before “move ments.” A more egregious “quotation” is one from Rimbaud, who is made to say, “Je suis un autre.” I like to imagine the poet retorting to Varia, “You’re another.”
The work of Brancusi attracts devotees, poet-philosophers, seers—it seems to create them—writers who upon looking at a sculpture are struck with instantaneous and pro found insight. Typically, they never suppose that a work may have a history (other than a relation to the primordial past) or that it had a significance for the artist when it was made. Varia is the latest member of this group, and it is instructive to observe how he deals with a pair of related works.
“In 1907,” he writes, “Constantin Brancusi carved the relatively small but enigmatic idol that he called Wisdom of the Earth. If we exclude the Ancient Figure, Wisdom of the Earth stands out in Brancusi’s work as absolutely unique, with neither ancestry or antecedents. It seems alien to his own mode of sculpture, like a providential found object[!] . . .”—and so on. We are first struck by the “but,” which implies that the work is enigmatic in spite of being small. Then there is the curious matter of being “absolutely unique” if we exclude something that spoils the case, a painful device necessitated by the rhetoric of the absolute. Then there are questions of fact (if it is relevant to raise them in this context) concerning the name, the vaunted uniqueness, and the date. Wisdom of the Earth was a name used by Brancusi only in Rumanian, as for example when the work was exhibited in Bucharest in 1910. It and Ancient Figure were called La Sagesse when Brancusi addressed French or English speakers. The former was captioned La Sagesse in 1925 in This Quarter, an American magazine published in Paris, and the latter had the same title, La Sagesse, when it was shown in London in 1916. Ancient Figure, in any case, is not Brancusi’s title, but one the work acquired when it entered the Art Institute of Chicago. (These matters are documented in an article I published in the catalogue of a Brancusi show in 1976.) As for the lack of “ancestry and antecedents,” Wisdom follows and stylistically resembles The Kiss in this work’s first appearance as two embracing half-figures; it has a clear descendant in The Kiss of Montparnasse Ceme tery, two embracing and seated full-figures. Here the pose of the woman is very like that of Wisdom, a seated figure with legs drawn up, and the work has a rigor similar to that of Ancient Figure. In fact Wisdom, or the first version of La Sagesse, as I now call it in my catalogue, is in the middle of a series of thematically and formally related works, which are followed by two others in the same style. The whole group, beginning with The Kiss, has a double ancestry in Fauve images by Matisse and a sculpture by Derain, Crouching Figure. The date gives Varia pause, not the date of Wisdom but of Ancient Figure. In an atypical note he states: “It is . . . inconceivable that after creating a masterpiece such as Wisdom of the Earth in 1907, Brancusi would have spent his time working on a trial run for this same sculpture. We can safely assume that Ancient Figure dates from the beginning of 1907.” To the beginning of 1907 belong two versions of Torment and three equally realistic busts of young boys in bronze. In April, Brancusi got the commission for which he made a life-size realistic figure in plaster, The Prayer, on which he at once set to work. There follow eight realistic carved and modeled heads that must precede The Kiss and La Sagesse, both highly stylized works. There simply is no room early—or late!—in 1907 for Ancient Figure. In This Quarter Brancusi dated La Sagesse 1908. One doesn’t have to be a connoisseur to see that Ancient Figure follows it. As I showed in my 1976 article, we know that a real woman was portrayed in La Sagesse, since Brancusi modeled a bust of her, and we know who she was. This puts a rather different light on the matter than that thrown by the smoky lamp of deep antiquity.
Yet Varia validates Wisdom of the Earth by an example from neolithic Rumania, the Thinker (so-called, of course) of c. 2500 B.C., in terra cotta. Height is given as six and one half inches, but should be four and a half inches. This object was found (!) in Cernavoda in 1956; it is a splendid primitive work that bears no resemblance to anything by Brancusi, but the claim is made that it offers “unexpected providential confirmation of the high degree of authentic inspiration that led Brancusi to carve . . . Wisdom of the Earth in 1907.” The Thinker shows a man seated on a low stool, elbows on knees, “with hands,” according to Varia, “lifted to the brow in the gesture indicative of the investiture in mankind of the flame of inspired thought.” (Actually there is a rather blank look on the rudimentary face.) But it is plain to see in the excellent photograph directly above that both his hands are jammed against his cheeks.
What, finally, are we to think of these words, attributed to Brancusi: “Wisdom of the Earth was my attempt to plumb the oceanic depths, to penetrate the furthest reaches of antiquity. My terror was immense when I lifted the veil, for Woman must never be revealed in her nakedness, unveiled. Isis must ever be hidden .... Wisdom of the Earth was for me femininity in its oceanic dimensions . . . .” They sound to me like pure, unadulterated Varia.
The other new book—by Pontus Hultén, Natalie Dumitresco, and Alexandre Istrati, and also called simply Brancusi—is as elaborate and formidable a production as the first, but is intended instead for the library table. It comprises a long introductory essay and a mass of documentary material. These are joined only by the binding, the data in the second part often belying the vague assertions in the first. The essay is provided by Pontus Hultén, a very well-known figure in the world of art: after being the first director of the Centre Georges Pompidou he became an ambassador-at-large to the arts, opening museums, co-ordinating exhibitions of Futurism, of Jean Tinguely, and writing about Brancusi. His essay is dated 1983; it is divided into sections of varying lengths. In the first, “Brancusi and the concept of sculpture,” the opening words are: “A work of sculpture was an object of a very special kind, according to the belief generally held at the beginning of the century. It still is, but meanwhile the context of that perception has changed considerably.” The first sentence has the lilt of Malraux’s first sentence in The Voices of Silence—“A Romanesque crucifix was not regarded by its contemporaries as a work of sculpture”—although it doesn’t tell us as much, and the second sentence leaves us stranded in a conceptual never-never land. Under “The Fauves” we read: . . Brancusi and Matisse are rather two of a kind. Intuitive and watchful, they kept up with their times .... They went about their work in rather a private manner, most of the time paying little attention to the other arts . . . .” The section “Brancusi and his contemporaries in the early twen tieth century” is nineteen lines long. “The corporeal values of sculpture” begins thus: “In comparing Brancusi’s oeuvre with all sculpture that had come before, a number of fundamental differences become evident. These are not always easy to define.” The Renaissance is easier to deal with: “Central to the Renaissance tradition is the concept that sculpture should be isolated from its surroundings . . . .”
Rarely does Hultén confront a specific work. When he does, as in the case of The Newborn, a much stylized head of a child, it is to say that the human skull contains “the mysterious electrochemical apparatus known as the brain,” which makes the head “the most emotionally charged form imaginable” —a statement that might be made about any sculptured head. When his comment is historical, it echoes with all that is left unexplained: “Brancusi obviously showed great interest in the work of the Fauves and cubists—we see the repercussions in the evolution of his art.” That comment can simply be false when he says, for example, “early in his career, especially when he lived in Bucharest, Brancusi’s quest was rather a lonely one”—his quest for a purpose for sculpture “other” than representation. There is not a jot of evidence on these matters, and Huiten’s statement makes one doubt that he is acquainted with the sculpture done in Bucharest, which Brancusi left at the age of twenty-seven. That work demonstrates his seriousness and an academic skill—nothing that approaches, for instance, the Father Eymard or The Man with the Broken Nose, both done by Rodin before he was twenty-four. Brancusi was a very bright young man who, after all, was educated in provincial schools where there was no sign of a destiny for sculpture apart from representation. Not even a simple matter of fact comes out right, as when Hultén states that Brancusi made thirty-nine birds in bronze and stone, an obvious miscount.
It is not surprising that Hultén occasion ally agrees with Varia. The latter says, “ultimately [life in Paris] left little mark on [Brancusi].” Hultén notes Brancusi’s “splendid isolation"—which nonetheless permit ted him to show great interest in the Fauves and Cubists. His sculpture, Hultén continues, was “always quite independent of all other sculpture.” Beginning at what point? we must ask. But history is a casualty with these writers. Both belittle the role of African sculpture in Brancusi’s development. On the other hand, there is my long article in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art (1984), whose conclusion was that African art was the most important influence in Brancusi’s career. Marvelous to relate, Hultén, like Varia, repeats Giedion-Welcker’s Joyce quotation. How are we to understand this re currence? It’s not dejà vu since we know we have seen it before; it’s not sexy enough to be Eternal Return or even repetition-compulsion. It can only be the broken record of a criticism that has nothing to offer. Hultén’s essay provides not a single insight. Given twenty-four thousand words and the laws of chance, one would not have thought such a feat possible.
The rest of the volume, five-sixths of it, is documentary, compiled from something designated as the Istrati-Dumitresco Ar chives, and strung together by this husband-and-wife team in chronological order. They include letters, odd writings of Brancusi, exhibition catalogues, pictures of sculpture, people, and places, reproductions of drawings, and important documents, such as birth certificate, identity cards, official letters, newspaper clippings, bills. There are eight gouaches reproduced in color that we have never seen before, each one designated as being in a “private collection.” All of these items are embedded in over two hundred and fifty pages of text printed in three columns of smallish type. Most of this matter should be of interest to anyone interested in Brancusi. The Istratis rarely analyze the material except to make “insightful” re marks about the sculpture: “The childlike head of Brancusi’s Prometheus is so advanced in its virtual absence of detail that its spirit seems to dance about it like a flame. The form is so elementary, so fragile, yet it is charged with the nobility of human achievement.”
Yet in spite of the mass of source material, there is nothing, I think, that changes in an important way anything we have known or thought. What this means, sadly, is that most of what we know for certain as the result of the efforts of a handful of researchers for thirty years could have been known by 1970 if the Istratis had not sat on their archives for over twenty years. Let me not give the impression that we do not benefit by them. They provide constant confirmation of much that we know. We can see that many of the stories about Brancusi, even those of an apocryphal cast, are indeed true and/or have their source in Brancusi. The Istratis never put 2 and 2 together. For instance, they have Brancusi’s statement that he would not work for Rodin because “nothing grows under the shadow of the great trees,” and also the record of his having worked for Rodin. But they never reach the conclusion that he made his famous remark when he left Rodin.
Included here are several precious letters from Margit Pogany; without explanation, one is interrupted by three dots, the sign of an excision. There are letters from Baroness Frachon, the model for Sleeping Muse. There is one from Ezra Pound excusing himself for having proposed to write a study of Brancusi, an idea the sculptor probably rejected. The 1907 contract of the com mission for a cemetery monument in Ru mania, which liberated Brancusi from Ro din’s studio, is published in all its careful detail.
In 1924, Brancusi put some driftwood together on the beach at St. Raphael, called it Temple of the Crocodile, and took some snapshots of it. Mme. Roché once lent me a set of them that I published in 1968. I thought this “temple”—a sparse, very open affair—was one of those things a sculptor might pass the time with while taking the sun. But behind the Temple of the Croco dile is a story, as Brancusi tells it, of a myth ical nature. We had known of Brancusi’s way of mythologizing the events of his life, but there has never been an example as full as this one. We had known too that his right leg was broken in 1918 —he mentioned it in a letter. Now we know how, precisely when and where, and how it was handled. The matter doesn’t seem to touch on Brancusi’s art. Yet it leaves its mark on the beautiful gouache of the studio, dated 1918, in the Museum of Modern Art: to the right of center is a heavy black line with a u-curve at the upper end, a cane. I have known this for a long time, but now we can date the gouache closely since it was done between the end of October, when Brancusi returned to Paris, and the new year. We learn that over seventy prominent people, including Mme. Curie and Picasso, signed a protest to the banning of Princess X from the Salon of 1920. But we don’t learn much concerning the trial over the status of Bird in Space.
There is little sign of what the Istratis have not chosen to include, yet they could occasionally have been more selective. Four hundred words are given to recounting how the owner of The Cock, MOMA, lost the piece—and found it again. And they could have been more careful with details: inadequate photographs of early work are published because they were taken by Brancusi; a full-page color plate of the first marble Mlle. Pogany is printed in reverse (but correctly on the facing page), as is a color plate of The Muse (correctly oriented on the same page). Because of total reliance on their archives and inattention to findings published in the periodical literature, they have caused many errors large and small to creep into their text. The bibliography in the American edition, compiled by still another hand, is just a sop to scholarship.
This is intended to be the everything book on Brancusi—the slip jacket of the French version calls it “the most complete and original.” And so it is rounded out with a catalogue. Now, a catalogue requires care, not just the copying of documents, and the Istratis are not careful. Lost works, known from photographs, are published here as elsewhere; but two, published over ten years ago, are missing, as well as two works in marble long displayed at the Musée Nation al d’Art Moderne. Extraordinarily, they publish a photograph of Prometheus in black marble. They place it in the MNAM and even give it an inventory number. The museum does not have this work; it is, for the time being, lost. The catalogue includes two pieces of furniture, a piece of driftwood and a plank with three holes in it, labeled Portrait, which Brancusi gave the Istratis. They also list the numerous metal casts they have made since his death. In the case of the Grand Coq in stainless steel, they give its width as smaller than the width of the plaster original in the MNAM. In fact the width of the steel cast is greater than that of the plaster. Since the steel cast should be smaller—as the result of shrinkage of the metal upon cooling—the “original” is a confection of some kind. At the end of the catalogue the Istratis give catalogue numbers to eight pieces of furniture carved by the sculptor and in the museum in Paris, as well as to thirty-five household objects, mostly made of tin, which they own. Caveat emptor.
A dark question hangs over these objects and the archives: How did the Istratis come by them? They do not say; and among the many documents they reproduce we do not find Brancusi’s will, a single typewritten page assigning them a sum of money, some stocks, and a deed to a parcel of land in Paris. What a sad fate for Brancusi, con summate artist and master craftsman, who never permitted any of his assistants to work on his bronzes, that his sculpture should now be cast in series by two painters who never touched his work when he was alive.
Another question arises: Why do the faults of these books appear in so much of the Brancusi literature? I can’t help thinking they are, in a sense, a compliment to the sculptor—he turns people’s heads. Some writers feel there is a “Brancusi secret”— Varia even uses these words. Others seek to explain the ineffable. Most treat Brancusi as a monolithic concept. What is missing in both books is a close study of any single sculpture—its formal character, its poetic or artistic source, or an examination of the relations between the works; they give no evidence of growth or development.
There are, of course, many ways of writ ing about an artist. Brezianu, besides cataloguing the Rumanian works, has brilliantly explored the social background of the sculptor. One would welcome a parallel poem if it had points of correspondence with the sculpture. The imagery of many of the sculptures remains unexamined. Very little has been done on the psychology of Brancusi. And it is time that we heard from a much younger generation of writers than those who have occupied the field to date. The work I would like to see would be Brancusi: Iconography and Sources.
The two volumes are Brancusi, by Radu Varia, trans lated by Mary Vaudoyer and published by Rizzoli (319 pages, $75), and Brancusi, by Pontus Huken, Natalia Dumitresco, and Alexandre Istrati, published by Abrams (336 pages, $75).