"When we are no longer children, we are already dead." Constantin Brancusi1
During and immediately after World War II, Constantin Brancusi began to focus almost exclusively on sculpting with wood, a material that he considered full of metaphoric potential and with which he was intimately familiar from having trained as a carpenter. By 1924, he was portraying himself in photographs as a Romanian peasant woodcutter working amidst his sculptures2 (as opposed to Auguste Rodin, who was often portrayed like The Thinker, aloof from his works).
Brancusi often used found forms in his wood sculptures-the shape of a tortoise shell to represent a pelvis, the shape of a cup to represent a head. His forms were also inspired by African sculptures and carvings, Romanian woodwork, and the contemporary avant-garde's path to abstraction. These forms imbued his sculptures with additional metaphorical readings or at least associations, and he often combined them with each other, playing with them like toys in his studio and photographing them in various configurations. Many of Brancusi's sculptures remained in his studio for long periods of time-if only because he couldn't always sell them. While there, he not only rearranged them but carved and recarved, destroyed and rebuilt them constantly.3
Little French Girl, like many of the other works from this time, is carved from one single block of oak. Her pelvis resembles a tortoise's shell and her neck a collapsible telescope. The head bears the clear features of a child yelling like hell, later to become solely a head, such as in Nouveau Né or First Cry (which originated from a wood sculpture similar to the French Girl that broke apart). The sculpture is a reworked version of his first wood carving, The First Step (1913), which was inspired by African sculpture and by an infant Brancusi knew. The title can be read metaphorically as a reference to Brancusi's initial foray into wood. 4
Little French Girl was first shown in a 1917 photograph in which Brancusi arranged several sculptures together in his studio-Little French Girl, Endless Column, and Cup II-and called this arrangement The Child in the World: Mobile Group.5 Brancusi developed a metaphorical story to explain the relationship between these sculptures, saying that it portrayed the death of Socrates, in the presence of Plato and a cup of hemlock. However, it is also thought to be a portrait of Brancusi and his close friend, Erik Satie (1866-1925), an avant-garde composer whom he often called Socrates and who often called Brancusi Plato.6 The form of the cup sculpture is considered to be representative of a head or an upside down version of Satie's trademark bowler hat.7
1 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 130.
2 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, pp. 61-62.
3 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 62.
4 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 62.
5 Fondation Beyeler, Brancusi Serra Information Sheets.
6 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 65.
7 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 66.
- Look together at Little French Girl (The First Step II). Ask students to sketch the image. Then ask them to discuss in pairs what they noticed while they sketched.
- Ask students what they might title this work. Create a list of possible titles. Now, give students the title of the work and ask them how they think it relates to the sculpture. How has Brancusi abstracted his sculpture? In what ways does the title seem to fit the work? Are there ways in which it does not? Explain.
- Brancusi often used “found” forms from his everyday life as part of his sculpture. What forms do they recognize as part of the sculpture as a whole?
- Brancusi’s close friend, Erik Satie, a composer, often used everyday “found” sounds in his compositions. Found sounds could include car horns, dog barks, or samples of other music. Ask students to think about what found forms or sounds they would like to use in a sculpture or musical composition. Why might an artist or composer be interested in using found forms or sounds in their art?
- Brancusi and Satie were interested in children and the way they thought and acted. Some of the forms in Brancusi’s sculptures resemble a popular French toy-a bilboquet-and he played with his sculptures-arranging and rearranging-as if they were toys. Brancusi said, “When we are no longer children, we are already dead.” What do students think he meant by that statement?
- Brancusi often arranged his sculptures together and photographed them in different configurations. This photograph shows Little French Girl in combination with two other sculptures, Endless Column and Cup II. What do students notice about this arrangement? What story do they think it tells?
- Brancusi said the photograph referenced the death of Socrates. Ask students to research Socrates’ death in pairs and report back on the connections they see between the story and the photograph.
- Some have said that the figures could represent Socrates and Plato but also Brancusi and Satie, who called each other Plato and Socrates, respectively. Ask students to discuss this analogy. What might it imply about their friendship?
- Brancusi’s use of found forms has been compared to that of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), an associate of his and an artist who invented what he called the readymade, sculptures that consist solely of manufactured objects, often unchanged by the artist. Show students Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel and ask them to compare it to Little French Girl. What, if anything, do they have in common?
- Brancusi’s work is also said to have been influenced by African sculpture. Look as well at Adam and Eve (1921) and ask students to compare these works to African sculpture, such as these Baule figures. What elements does he seem to borrow from African wood carvings? What elements appear to be added?
Found Forms Drawing
- For this activity, students will create a figure using only found forms. To do this, they should either collect images from magazines or newspapers to make a paper collage, or collect digital images to make a collage with Photoshop or a similar program. Next, they should survey their found forms and try to identify forms that could translate into body parts. Could a vase become a nose? A baseball a head? Finally, encourage students to combine and arrange their found forms to create a figure. What kinds of forms or shapes did they associate with certain body parts? How did the process teach them about the forms of the body? They may find inspiration for how to assemble pieces to create a body in Muse (La Muse), 1912.
- Another way to explore found forms is to play a game called Exquisite Corpse, often played by Surrealist artists. For this activity, students should fold a piece of paper into three. The first student should draw on the top fold of the paper. She or he should draw a found form that can approximate the head of a figure. The second student, without looking at the first fold of the paper, should draw on the middle fold. She or he should draw a found form resembling a torso and arms. Finally, the third student, without looking at the previous two folds, should draw a found form resembling legs. In the end, all three students can look together at the unfolded paper and contemplate the figure they have drawn in collaboration.
Photographing 3D Compositions
- For this activity, students will experiment with arranging objects for photographic compositions. Brancusi often played with his sculptures like toys in his studio, arranging and rearranging them into compositions that told stories or suggested new forms. Have students collect and bring a variety of objects to class-including natural forms such as flowers, nuts, shells, and stones as well as manufactured objects such as balls and buttons.
- Combine and then distribute the objects to pairs of students, challenging them to re-arrange their objects into at least three different configurations. Ask them to discuss the configurations with each other. Which do they think tell stories or imply meaning? Which do they think use the forms in new or interesting ways? Finally, give students digital cameras with which to capture their favorite compositions. Print these photographs out and ask them to title them. As a group, discuss their works. How were the objects transformed by their juxtapositions, if at all?