This Spring, we’re pleased to offer the course Brancusi and the Space of Modern Sculpture with art historian Roni Feinstein. The class will include lectures, as well as a trip to the Norton Simon Museum to view their exhibition on the artist.
In case you’re not familiar with Brancusi, we asked Roni a few questions about the artist, his influence, and what students can expect from the class.
1. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, can you introduce Constantin Brancusi?
Constantin Brancusi, who was born to a family of Romanian peasants in 1876, made his way to Paris on foot in 1904. After seeing a few of his early sculptures in an exhibition, the great sculptor Auguste Rodin, best known for The Thinker and Burghers of Callais, invited the young artist to become an assistant in his studio, a position Brancusi held for only about a month. He later explained his departure by saying, “Nothing can grow in the shadow of a great tree.” Although Brancusi’s art was in some ways indebted to that of Rodin, it was in myriad ways its polar opposite. If Rodin was the quintessential sculptor of the 19th Century, Brancusi played this role for the 20th Century, his influence extending from Henry Moore to the American Minimalists of the 1960s to the artists of today. Brancusi died in 1957, but his influence lives on and it is remarkable how often artists continue to create work specifically in homage to Brancusi and his accomplishments.
2. Can you talk a bit about his influence?
Although Brancusi created a few highly important abstract sculptures, most of his subjects were drawn from the natural world. Whether the head of a child, a bird or a fish, he reduced forms to their most basic and essential shapes, a purity of form being a hallmark of Modernism. He also exploited the inherent properties of his materials, whether wood, stone or brass. With regard to wood and stone, he reinstated the ancient technique of direct carving as a tool for modern artists, employing both smooth surfaces that evoke classical traditions and rough-hewn surfaces that look back to primitive art and the folk art of his native Romania. The two types of carving were often seen within a single work in the contrast between the sculpted object and its base, Brancusi conceiving of the base not as a neutral resting place for sculpture, but as integral to the work as a whole. (Several artists have in fact made a career working in the legacy of Brancusi’s bases.) Brancusi was immensely concerned not only with the relationship of the sculpture to its support, but also to the architecture and surrounding space. His interest in presentation and display–in installation–has had a long heritage in modern and contemporary art.
3. What pieces in the Norton Simon exhibition are you looking forward to viewing with students, and why?
Brancusi’s polished bronze Bird in Space, 1931, which is installed not in the Beyond Brancusi exhibition on the museum’s lower level, but with the display of Modern Art on the museum’s first floor, is a remarkable piece. It offers not just the image of a bird, but of a bird in flight, the form of the piece charting the trajectory of its skyward movement. Positioned directly below a skylight, the gleaming bronze surface dissolves in the light from overhead in a manner the artist would have loved. Although it has a dematerizalized aspect, it will be fascinating to have students compare and contrast this work with Rodin’s mighty Balzac sculpture that stands in front of the museum, which has a similar upward-thrusting quality. It may also be noted that Brancusi’s Bird in Space is an object with an amazing history, as in 1926 the US Customs Service imposed a tax on a slightly earlier version of the sculpture on the grounds that it was an industrial object and not a work of art.
4. What do you hope students learn to appreciate in the class that they might not have without the context you’ll provide?
The Beyond Brancusi exhibition at the Norton Simon is made up of about 20 sculptures by an assortment of artists drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, but it does not make clear exactly how these works relate to Brancusi, nor does it present any actual pieces by Brancusi or offer his work in the context of the time in which it was made, which is something that the class intends to do. A more specific example might be that in the exhibition, sculptures by Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Robert Irwin all make use of the repetition of a single modular unit. These works are indebted to Endless Column, which is perhaps Brancusi’s most famous and influential sculpture, but this is not explained or examined in the Norton Simon show.
5. Why did you choose this topic and artist to address during this class?
Constantin Brancusi stands with Picasso as the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, yet his name and work are hardly known. Gaining an understanding of the nature of Brancusi’s art and influence will greatly expand each student’s knowledge and appreciation of both modern and contemporary art.
6. Do you have a favorite work by the artist?
I am torn between The Kiss, one of the first works by Brancusi to attract me when I was very young and Leda, a piece I struggled to understand, but once I “got it,” I was awed by its sensuality and brilliance. Actually, there are so many incredible works that it’s hard to choose. Brancusi’s photography, which we’ll explore in class, is remarkable as well.