His spiritual roots
by Aidan Hart
It wasn’t easy to find Brancusi’s studio gallery at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, at least in 1985. No flashy signs. No banners. In fact I walked straight past it a few times thinking that it was a builders’ shed. But this shed it turned out to be. The door was locked, but after a ring on the bell the lone attendant opened up. Within was a paradise, a garden of Brancusi’s sculptures. And thanks to the studio’s obscurity I was alone, able to enjoy the sculptures in silence. Probably Brancusi the craftsman wouldn’t have minded his studio being mistaken for a builders’ workshop, or that people had to make an effort to see his works; he knew that the best things come through persistence and solitude.
Constantin Brancusi is commonly regarded as a founding father of modernist sculpture, with Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian being founders of abstract painting. But has subsequent modernism much in common with Brancusi’s work and vision, or has it become its very antithesis? Herbert Read wrote in his book Modern Sculpture that the “modern artist, by nature and destiny, is always an individualist.” If this is so, then the question is whether or not Brancusi was an individualist, in the sense that he aimed to break with everything that had come before. Brancusi’s own words and his stylistic influences strongly suggest that it is closest the truth to say that rather than being an individualist and among the first of a line, he was in fact a traditionalist and among the last of a line. He was among the last practitioners within mainline western art who have worked according to the principles of what can be most accurately called sacred art. As Calinic Argatu has written, “Brancusi’s amazing modern artistic message is a product of Tradition...”1 He was new because he was old. He was an individualist in breaking with Europe’s humanist tradition of the last few centuries, but a traditionalist in following the older and more universal sacred tradition.
The sculptural expression of this world view was uniquely his own - in this sense he was profoundly individual - but the world view itself was perennial - in this sense he was profoundly traditional. What critics have identified as his contributions to modernism - for example his shifting of art from imitation towards reality, or his direct carving, or his simplification of forms - are in fact his affirmations of principles common to all sacred art. To Brancusi these principles were nothing new. “I never burned my boats” he said, “nor pulled out my roots in order to roam giddily. My art profited from that.”2
So what were these roots, and what was the artistic world view they gave Brancusi? Although he wrote little apart from letters, we are fortunate enough to have collections of his aphorisms and anecdotes so that we can go a long way towards answering these questions.
Calinic Argatu ‘Peace and Rejoicing’ with Brancusi (Bucharest, 2001) p. 13. From Petre Andrea Constantin Brancusi: Reminiscences and Exegeses (Meridiane Publ., 1967). Quoted by Argatu.
Brancusi’s world view
Constantin Brancusi is best known for the extreme reduction of his sculptures to their most pure, refined and monadic forms. But what compelled Brancusi to refine so much? Abstractionism and originality have come to be equated with a departure from reality, a means of inventing forms that hitherto did not exist. But Brancusi, or indeed the other early reductionists like Kandinsky, didn’t see it this way. For Brancusi authentic abstraction was a language to express objective metaphysical fact. Originality consisted in going to the origins, to the mysterious heart of things. And so he did not see artistic variation as an aim in itself, but, at its most profound, the natural result of limited beings encountering and expressing expansive mysteries. “Reality lies in the essence of things, “ he said, “and not their...