In this issue:
Sculpture Exhibit: Val Castronovo reviews the Guggenheim show of the sculptor Brancusi, known as a “genius of omission” for his radical simplification of form.
Books: Julia Sneden reviews Good Grief by Lolly Winston which doesn't lack depth, poignancy, or truth. JS recommends an older read, Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award
Real SimpleThe Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue plays host to Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, the first major retrospective exhibit of the Romanian sculptor’s work in New York since 1969
Constantin Brancusi, a leading 20th-century avant-garde artist who set up shop exactly 100 years ago in Paris, believed in cutting to the chase. But as he once said about his highly reductive sculptural forms, “They 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.”
On view through September 19, 2004, the show is the Guggenheim's third Brancusi retrospective since the 1950s. Museum-goers can wend their way down the spiral ramps of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda and marvel at more than thirty of these essential ideas hand-wrought and brought to life by the artist himself from marble, limestone, bronze and wood. The exhibit is notable for its selectivity and emphasis on materials and recurring themes and motifs such as the kiss, the torso, the head and the bird. But it has proven especially newsworthy for its showcase of the never-before-exhibited Sleeping Muse lll/lV? (ca. 1917-18, right), an ovoid, disembodied marble head recently discovered in a private collection in New York. Believed to be either the third or fourth such carving of the artist’s friend, Baroness Renee Frachon, its spare delineation of features and omission of eyes is a paean to Modernist ideals of purity, refinement and simplicity.
Born in 1876 in the foothills of the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, Brancusi studied sculpture in Craiova and Bucharest before heading to Paris when he was 28, reputedly on foot. From his homeland he took with him an appreciation of craft that would inform his work, especially his woodcarvings. In Paris, he quickly became a part of the Montparnasse avant-garde art scene, befriending Duchamp, Leger, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Rousseau. He worked briefly in Auguste Rodin’s studio but soon realized that realism was not for him.
Brancusi broke new sculptural ground, literally, by insisting on doing his own carving and engaging directly with his materials, a practice known as “direct carving.” Since the late 16th century, sculptors like Rodin created clay models and handed them over to skilled craftsmen to enlarge in marble. As Curator Matthew Gale explains, “sculptors were neither trained nor generally aspired to work as carvers; all academic marbles were cut by craftsmen. It is in this context that the ideology of direct carving was established as a modernist response to the decayed practices of the Academy and the official Salon.”
In 1925 Brancusi put it this way: “Direct cutting is the true road to sculpture.” Two years later he brought in Isamu Noguchi as a studio assistant and taught him to carve wood and stone. Interestingly, Noguchi remarked of his mentor, "Wherever he was, everything had to be all white. He wore white, his beard was then already white. He had two white dogs that he fed with lettuce floating in milk. My memory of Brancusi is always of whiteness and of his bright and smiling eyes.”
The master’s pioneering forms and method were influenced by primitive art from Africa and ancient Europe, the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean Sea in particular. In fact, as the exhibit catalogue makes clear, he is credited with "introduc[ing] abstraction and primitivism to modern sculpture.” The show at the Guggenheim presents sequences of related pieces that show the evolution from representational, naturalistic forms to pure abstraction. Beginning of the World (ca. 1920) is the penultimate piece in a series on heads. It’s a smooth, lustrous, white marble egg, devoid of any facial markers. Perched sideways on a mirrored plate that rests on a steel and limestone base, Beginning of the World connotes primal experience and the mysterious origins of life.
Though the majority of the works on display at the Guggenheim are stone and marble carvings, the artist’s wooden sculptures are also well represented and include such major works as King of Kings (ca. 1938, right) and Adam and Eve (1921), both of which are part of the museum’s permanent collection (the Guggenheim owns 11 Brancusis in all). As the curators note, “The wooden works demonstrate a different trajectory in Brancusi’s carving. Rather than focusing on the progression from realism to abstraction, the wooden pieces evoke the totemic and tribal and reference Brancusi’s response to African and Romanian folk cultures.”
Brancusi, who died in 1957 when he was 81, has been called a “genius of omission” for his radical simplification of form. He stripped away the nonessential in order to get at “the essence of things.” But he strove for clarity above all. "Don’t look for mysteries,” he remarked about his oeuvre. “I give you pure joy.”
Val Castronovo covers exhibitions and arts-related stories for the UN Chronicle and Secretariat News at the United Nations. She is a former reporter for TIME Magazine, where she worked for 21 years. A native New Yorker and Vassar grad, she lives in Manhattan with her husband and their daughter, Olivia.