Constantin Brancusi: The Studio as Groupe Mobile

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“Why write?” Brancusi once queried. “Why not just show the photographs?” The sculptor included many great photographers among his friends—Edward Steichen was one of his early champions in the United States; in 1914 Alfred Stieglitz organized his first solo exhibition in New York; Man Ray helped him buy photographic equip- ment; Berenice Abbott studied sculpture under him; and he was on close terms with Brassaï, André Kertész, and László Moholy-Nagy. Yet he declined to have his work photographed by others, preferring instead to take, develop, and print his own pictures.

If in the real world a sculpture may belong to one arrangement only, photography enables combinations of the same piece in different configurations, positions, and orientations. Brancusi articulated the studio around groupes mobiles (mobile groups), each comprising several pieces of sculpture, bases, and pedestals. Assembling and reassembling his sculptures for the camera, Brancusi used photography as a diary of his sculptural permutations. He also developed an aesthetic antithetical to the usual photographic standards. His photos radieuses (radiant photos) are characterized by flashes of light that dematerialize the static, monolithic materiality of traditional sculpture. If, as it is often said, Brancusi “invented” modern sculpture, his use of photography belongs to a reevaluation of sculpture’s modernity.