"Simplicity is resolved complexity."1 Constantin Brancusi
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.
One of his best-known sculptures, The Kiss, depicts a nearly indistinguishable man and woman embracing and locked in a kiss. Exemplifying unity coupled with duality, two figures become one as they emerge from a single block of material. The figures are cut under the breastline and the fragmented bodies lie directly on the floor. In each version, the profile of the eyes of the figures merge until the halves together look like a single eye viewed straight on. He made many versions of The Kiss, beginning in 1907-08 with a plaster version. In this 1916 version in limestone, the arms are flatter, the bodies elongated, and the hair more distinctly linear than in earlier versions.2
The Kiss is an example of direct carving and of Brancusi's deep knowledge of the properties of the materials he worked with.3 None of the versions were based on a preparatory model. Rather, they respond to the intrinsic nature of the material into which they are carved.
Brancusi considered The Kiss a turning point in his artistic career. Some say it is because it was directly carved but others argue that he considered it a turning point because of the infinite quality or "seamless unity" of the work, because "the work and its image were one and the same, entirely contained within the stone block."4 Another explanation is that he believed it led him to sculpt partial figures or fragments-torsos or heads without the rest of their bodies-also a revolutionary break from sculptors such as Rodin.5
Brancusi not only achieved unity through carving from solid pieces of material, but also through bringing together disparate artistic elements. He once said, "Beauty is the harmony of opposing things,"6 and he did resolve certain art historical tensions within his work. The tensions between prehistoric and classical, modern and traditional, abstract and figurative7 can be seen in his craftsman-like approach to direct carving, combined with his use of classical lines and his more modern abstraction of form. His sculptures bring all of these elements together.
1 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 19.
2 Fondation Beyeler, Brancusi Serra.
3 Stemp, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things.
4 Alexandra Parigoris in Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 52
5 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 52.
6 Stemp, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things.
7 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 19.
- Look together at Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss (1916). Ask students what they notice about it. Ask them to describe what is happening in the sculpture. What are the two figures doing? How has Brancusi depicted figures differently than in other sculptures they have seen?
- What do they think the sculpture would feel like if they could touch it? Ask students to describe the material. Tell them that many buildings in Paris from the late 19th and early 20th century were built with limestone, but it has been used in architecture for longer than that-most notably to build the Great Pyramid in Egypt. (If possible, show the students a sample.) Although limestone was a humble material, cheap and extensively used for buildings, it had a “real” quality for Brancusi, as it was direct and rough (brut). In many of his creations he was interested in the contrast of this roughness (or archaic quality) in opposition to the sophisticated polish of the bronzes or marbles. What do students notice about the way Brancusi manipulated the limestone?
- Brancusi worked for the French master sculptor, Auguste Rodin, for a month before breaking out on his own. Compare Brancusi’s The Kiss to Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss from 1901-04. What do students think Brancusi borrowed from Rodin? What do they think he rebelled against? Challenge them to write a dialogue between the master Rodin and his student before Brancusi left to work on his own.
- Brancusi often made short statements, or aphorisms, about his art and art in general. Ask students to discuss The Kiss in terms of Brancusi’s statement: “Beauty is the harmony of opposing things.”
Responding to Artists
- Brancusi admired and responded to Rodin’s work. Richard Serra, the other sculptor whose work is represented in this exhibition, admired and responded to Brancusi’s work. For this activity, students will create an artwork that responds to the work of Brancusi or Serra or Rodin. They should begin by selecting at least three works by one of the artists 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?
“Simplicity is resolved complexity.”1
“Beauty is absolute balance.”
“There are imbeciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence of things.”
“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.”2
“Nothing grows in the shadow of a great tree.”
“Simplicity is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things.”3
“The greatest happiness is the contact between our essence and the eternal essence.”
“When we are no longer children, we are already dead.”
“To see far, that is one thing; to go there, that is another.”
“It is something to be clever, but being honest is worthwhile.”
“Theories are nothing but meaningless specimens. It is only actions that count.”4
“There is a goal in every thing. To reach it, one must liberate oneself from one’s self.”5
- 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 photograph of his studio, and particularly the work The Child in the World: Mobile Group(1917), one sees that he also drew with chalk on wood carvings to further elaborate the direct carving.
1 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 19.
2 Stemp, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things.
3 Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things pamphlet.
4 Gimenez and Gale, Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, p. 130.
5 Brancusi Serra catalogue p 14