Guggenheim
Introduction

Constantin Brancusi
King of Kings (Le roi des rois), 1938
Oak
300x 48.3x 46 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
© VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016
Photo: David Heald © SRGF

“When we are no longer children, we are already dead.” Constantin Brancusi[1]

Constantin Brancusi (b. Hobita, Romania, 1876; d. Paris, 1957) broke from many of the conventions of sculpture. He worked for the French master sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) for only a month in 1907 before leaving. He argued, "Nothing can grow in the shadow of a great tree." While Rodin used many assistants to help him cast or carve his sculptures, Brancusi preferred to create his with his own hands, making an intimate connection with the materials, most often through direct carving.

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 sculptures[2] (as opposed to Auguste Rodin, who was often portrayed like The Thinker, aloof from his works).

The monumental oak King of Kings (Le roi des rois, 1938) was originally intended to stand in Brancusi’s Temple of Meditation, a private sanctuary commissioned in 1933 by the Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar of Indore. Although never realized, the temple—conceived as a windowless chamber (save for a ceiling aperture) with interior reflecting pool, frescoes of birds, and an underground entrance—would have embodied the concerns most essential to Brancusi’s art: the idealization of aesthetic form; the integration of architecture, sculpture, and furniture; and the poetic evocation of spiritual thought. Brancusi’s forms in King of Kings were 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]

Wood elicited from Brancusi a tendency toward Expressionism, resulting in unique carved objects. While his sculptures executed in stone or metal represent archetypal forms, such as birds in flight and sleeping figures, individual works in wood suggest specific characters or spiritual entities. For example, King of Kings may be interpreted as Brancusi’s attempt to translate the power of Eastern religion into sculptural form. The work’s original title was Spirit of Buddha (L’esprit du Bouddha), and Brancusi is known to have been familiar with Buddhism through the writings of the Tibetan philosopher Milarepa.

Questions

Look together at King of Kings, 1938. 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

Activities

Brancusi admired and responded to Rodin’s work. For this activity, students will create an artwork that responds to the work of Brancusi. They should begin by selecting at least three works by the artist and writing a list of words to describe what they notice and/or are interested in about these works. Then, they should use these words as inspiration for a drawing. (If possible, they should also seek out sculptures by the artist in person and make observational drawings.) When students have completed their drawings, ask them to reflect on how their drawings respond to the sculptures. Ask them to write an artist’s statement describing how they were inspired by the artist who came before them. If they could make a sculpture responding to his work, what would it be like?

Brancusi wrote many aphorisms about his work and art in general. These short statements were intended to capture a basic truth. For this activity, challenge students to choose one from a collection of aphorisms, and write an essay describing their perspective on the statement. They can answer these and other questions in their essay:

Do they agree or disagree with Brancusi’s statement?
Where do they see the relevance of this statement in Brancusi’s art?
Where do they see its relevance elsewhere in the world?

Aphorisms:

“Simplicity is resolved complexity.”[4]
“Beauty is absolute balance.”
“Beauty is the harmony of opposing things.”
“Art is creating things one is unfamiliar with.”
“If we limit ourselves to exact reproduction, we halt the evolution of the spirit.”[5]
“Simplicity is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things.”[6]
“To see far, that is one thing; to go there, that is another.”
“Theories are nothing but meaningless specimens. It is only actions that count.”[7]
“There is a goal in everything. To reach it, one must liberate oneself from one’s self.”[8]

Brancusi created many of his sculptures through direct carving-an approach to making sculptures that involves less planning, more spontaneity, and does not use intermediate models or maquettes. In direct carving, the sculptor either works from memory or works while observing the subject. For this activity, give students an opportunity to explore direct carving.

Even younger students can participate in carving activities. Materials and tools suitable for younger students include blocks of soap, wax, Styrofoam, clay, plaster blocks and balsa wood. Students can either draw their design on all sides of the block of material and work on removing excess materials or they can try to recreate the shape of an object they observe while they sculpt. The surface can then be smoothed or polished using sandpaper or another material. In Brancusi’s own photographs of his studio, one sees that he also drew with chalk on wood carvings to further elaborate the direct carving.

1. Carmen Giménez and Matthew Gale (ed.), Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, exh. cat. London: Tate, 2004, p. 130.
2. Ibid., pp. 61–62.
3. Ibid., p. 62.
4. Ibid., p. 19.
5. Richard Stemp, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, Teacher and Group Leaders’ Kit. London: Tate Modern, 2004.
6. Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things. Pamphlet. London: Tate Modern, 2004.
7. Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 130.
8. Fondation Beyeler and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Brancusi–Serra, exh. cat., p. 18