2. Years of maturity, c 1907–34
Source: Oxford University Press
(i) Direct carvings and bronzes
Later in 1907 Brancusi produced the first version of The Kiss, a subject to which he returned as late as 1945, one of his first direct carvings and one which marked a dramatic change in his aesthetic in favour of a powerful reduction to simplified block-like form, the two figures seeming to merge into one entity. The earliest example of the series is generally thought to be a bust-length version (stone; Craiova, Mus. A.) but may have been a full-length version (Paris, Montparnasse Cemetery). There were at least six other versions (e.g. Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.; and four undocumented versions that were never exhibited or sold, e.g. Paris, Pompidou). Also dating from 1906–8 are the Wisdom of the Earth (limestone; Bucharest, Mus. A.), a strange and disturbing representation of a seated woman, and the closely related Ancient Figure (Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), which Brancusi appears to have later repudiated but which is usually considered to be by his hand.
Like many 20th-century artists Brancusi looked for inspiration to non-European cultures as a source of ‘primitive’ vitality (see Primitivism, §2) and under their impact abandoned modelling in favour of carving. Although he did not make reference to African sculpture, a major influence on avant-garde artists of the period, in 1907–8 he carved several mask-like faces in stone (untraced; see Tabart and Monod-Fontaine; e.g. Head of a Young Girl, see Geist, 1975, p. 176), that bear comparison with African-influenced works of similar date by Pablo Picasso and André Derain. Brancusi’s complete break with formulas associated with Rodin’s work cannot be convincingly explained by reference to African models, but he may have turned to the exotic repertory of Romanian masks, such as those representing animal or comic characters, traceable through ancient and Byzantine mimes to Dionysian rites and still used in Romania in performances at the close of New Year celebrations. In this dependence on forms of folk art, another aspect of his primitivist impulse, Brancusi again demonstrated his alliance with the concerns of other avant-garde artists of the late 19th century and early 20th, including Gauguin, Derain, Picasso and Matisse.
In 1909 Brancusi turned to subjects such as the Sleeping Child and the Sleeping Muse (e.g. Sleeping Muse, 1910; Paris, Pompidou), in which he boldly introduced ovoids as virtually self-sufficient objects, remaining on the threshold of abstraction through the identification of the forms with the human body. In the most extreme works of this type, such as Sculpture for the Blind (1916; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.) and the Beginning of the World (1920; Pasadena, CA, Norton Simon Mus.), the near perfection of the ovoids and the smoothing out of the protuberances have erased the facial features to such an extent that the human subject is almost unrecognizable.
The reductionist tendencies and organic softening of Brancusi’s sculpture at this time can be attributed in part to his friendship from 1909 with Amedeo Modigliani, who had sought him out because of his interest in carving, and to the far-reaching influence on him of the work of Elie Nadelman, whose sculpture and drawings were exhibited with great success at the Galerie Druet in the same year. Nadelman’s work appears to have prompted the ideas developed by Brancusi in such bronzes as the Sleeping Muse, The Muse (ex-Guggenheim, New York; see Geist, 1975, p. 83) and The Danaïde (1911; London, Tate). Mlle Pogany (plaster, 1912; Paris, Pompidou), exhibited in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York, was followed by later bronze versions (1913; Bucharest, Mus. A.; 1919; Winnetka, IL, Mr and Mrs James Alsdorf priv. col., see Geist, 1975, p. 92; 1931; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.) that vividly demonstrate Brancusi’s method of progressive reduction and simplification of form.
A similar process of abstraction was applied by Brancusi to a series of sculptures of birds, inaugurated in 1910 with the mythical Maiastra (bronze; London, Tate), further developed in the Golden Bird (1919; Chicago, IL, A. Club) and culminating in the Bird in Space series, of which the first version was made in 1923 (New York, Mrs Wolfgang Schoenborn priv. col., see Geist, 1975, p. 113). Brancusi was rare among 20th-century sculptors in his interest in portraying animals with tenderness, originality and affection, often with a touch of mischievous humour. Among such subjects were The Penguins, represented in groups of two or three (1912–14; e.g. Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), The Fish (Winnetka, IL, Mr and Mrs James Alsdorf priv. col., see Geist, 1975, p. 114), The Cock (New York, MOMA), the Little Bird (1925; New York, Marlborough Gal.), The Seal (1924–36; New York, Guggenheim) and flying and earthbound Turtles (e.g. Paris, Pompidou). The Nocturnal Beast (c. 1930; Paris, Pompidou), carved in wood, depicts a solitary creature, perhaps a hedgehog, scurrying silently in search of nourishment; the entire mystery of its nocturnal existence is evoked in the simple, humped shape.
(ii) Works in wood
Brancusi’s interest in wood extended beyond sculpture to more purely practical applications, for example as furniture for his studio or as bases or plinths for his sculptures. The earliest documented wooden sculpture, the First Step (1913; see Geist, 1975, p. 180), was exhibited in 1914 at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, in New York; although he later destroyed this work, preserving only the head by casting it in bronze as the First Cry (Lady Nika Hulton, on loan to Humlebaek, Louisiana Mus.), he soon began to produce roughly carved wooden bases for other works and to present those virtually as sculptures in their own right, perhaps prompted by the ready-mades of his friend Marcel Duchamp. In 1915 Brancusi made his first functional objects, the arch and the bench, followed by an entire array of furniture for his studio; these objects, too, suggest his awareness of the Dada movement in Paris, with which he became closely involved, especially through his friendship with another native Romanian, the poet Tristan Tzara.
The prototypes of Brancusi’s wooden columns, cups, arches and in some cases his wooden sculptures can be traced to Romanian folk art and in particular to wood carvings. Each of the constituent sections of the King of Kings (New York, Guggenheim), for example, made in the early 1930s, bears a strong formal resemblance to such objects of everyday use as chairbacks, mill screws, porch pillars and mugs; the very title of this work may have been inspired by traditional Romanian Christmas carols, in which each new verse begins with the phrase in question.
Brancusi had taken photographs while a student, but it was not until 1921, when he met Man Ray, that the form took on a particular significance. Partly due to dissatisfaction with other people’s photographs of his sculpture, he installed a darkroom in his studio and asked Man Ray’s assistance in improving his photographic technique. Brancusi’s photographs are not simply records of his sculpture; they show a concern with light and environment inherent in his sculptural works and often document the evolution of a sculpture. They fall into two categories: pictures of single sculptures isolated from their studio background, for example of the marble sculpture of 1912, Mlle Pogany, Full Face (see 1978 exh. cat., no. 16), and photographs of the studio environment, such as General View of the Studio, 8, Impasse Ronsin, Paris 15e (c. 1925; see 1978 exh. cat., no. 11). An archive of Brancusi’s photographic work is housed in the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris and contains about 1250 photographic prints and 560 original negatives, mostly glass.
From Grove Art Online