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Constantin Brâncuși: The Rebellion of Simplicity

What does abstraction look like? Without the work of Constantin Brâncuși it would be very different than the forms we know today. The sculptor created an entirely new aesthetic of reduced forms, drawing on ancient sources and modern technology. Design, architecture and art as we know it today would not exist without his radical approach to the creative form. When he emerged over a century ago, however, simplicity was rebellion.



Born in 1876 in Romania, Brâncuși moved to Paris in 1904 joining the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, after studying in Romania and Bucharest. He secured a position as an assistant at Auguste Rodin’s studio in 1907. At first the fragmentation of Rodin’s figures, which would emerge and disappear as if moving, inspired him but increasingly he became frustrated with Rodin’s conventional techniques of molding in clay and casting the results. When he left the studio it gave him the impetus to find his own path. Brâncuși returned to the source - directly carving in stone. In 1908, this was radical.

‘Sleeping Muse’ (1910) is a perfect example of the work that grew out of this shift. The portrait of artist Margit Pogany is reduced to a head lying on its side. Her facial features are depicted in egg-like simplicity. The stone artwork, later cast in gleaming smooth bronze, redefined the concept beauty. The seeming primitivism of his ‘The Kiss’ was equally revolutionary. Here two crudely carved figures embrace in a single block of stone, looking almost pre-human. It was a million miles from Rodin’s lush representational figures and equally as emotional. His ultra-polished bronze objects were also sexy. The work was ovoid, androgynous, geometric. He didn’t care about representing something as a human eye would see it, instead searching instead for his subject’s inner essence. Brâncuși often quoted the French poet Nicolas Boileau phrase to support his approach: “rien n’est beau que la vrai”—nothing is beautiful except that which is true.”


Brâncuși’s take on animals was also unlike anything people had seen. He created between 34 and 43 sculptures of birds, as well as some seals, penguins, fish and tortoises. Here creatures were transformed into slim curved metal forms, often reaching for the sky. His bird sculptures transformed his career, thanks to a historic trial with the American Customs authorities in 1926. They refused to allow his works into the country duty free, describing them as ‘utilitarian implements’. Brâncuși won the case defending works including ‘Bird in Space‘ as art in 1928. The scandal made him and established him in America, as the artist noted during his Guggenheim retrospective in 1955 "Without the Americans, I would not have been able to produce all this or even to have existed."

Brâncuși’s aesthetic was unique. Architectural, idealized, poetic, spiritual. He believed that art and life were the same, drawing on his personal take on the simplicity and ideas of ancient Greece and later Eastern philosophy. The artist led a solitary life, though he loved to entertain and was notoriously hedonistic in his studio. Brâncuși positioned himself as an outsider, playing on the seeming exoticism of Romania. A loner, nonetheless his friends were some of the greatest innovators of the 20th century including Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Éric Satie and Henri Rousseau.


His atelier in Paris was his ultimate work of art. Over time it grew to a five studio complex in Montparnasse. Man Ray once described visiting the space; “I was overwhelmed with its whiteness and lightness. Here and there emphasized by a rough-hewn piece of oak or the golden metallic gleam of a polished dynamic form on a pedestal.” There was no furniture. Instead Brâncuși made a table from white plaster, and used hollow logs covered with pillows as seats. Centre stage was his ever changing clusters of his sculptures. He wore only white clothes to match his environment and work. At the time this DIY simplicity, where art infused every aspect of his space, was revolutionary. The iconic collector and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim – an admirer, lover and later client - described studio as “the place closest to Paradise on Earth”. When he died he gave the collection of his work to the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, on condition they rebuilt the studio containing his pieces identically.


The way Brâncuși displayed his sculptures demonstrates a fascination with light. His objects were polished by the artist’s hand to an obsessive level. They would appear in flux, shifting, fluid. There is something timeless about his works – drawing from history and looking to the future. He was fascinated by aviation and used rotating electric motors so his bronze works would catch the light and appear to move. He also began experimenting with photography in 1905, documenting his sculptures as early as 1905. His archives contain 560 negatives and 1250 prints. 

Constantin Brâncuși died in 1957. His cultural legacy on the past century is enormous. The Japanese artist and designer Isamu Noguchi worked as Brâncuși’s studio assistant in 1927. Louise Bourgeois and Elsworth Kelly visited his studio. Modernist, minimalist and conceptual artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Carl Andre, and Dan Flavin all owe a huge debt to his work. He formed the foundation of what modernity looks like. 

Text: Francesca Gavin


Images (Top to Bottom): Atelier Brancusi - Constantin Brancusi © Adagp, Paris | Photo © Centre Pompidou (1) - Constantin Brancusi, Femme Se Regardant Dans Un Miroir, c.1909, Vintage silver gelatin print, 39.8 x 29.8cm, Image © Albion Barn 2020 (2) - Atelier Brancusi - Constantin Brancusi © Adagp, Paris | Photo © Centre Pompidou (3) - Constantin Brancusi, Mlle Pogany, cue de face*, 1914/20, Vintage silver gelatin print, 30 x 22cm, Image © Albion Barn 2020 (4) - Constantin Brancusi, Lily (1933) Silver gelatin print, 24 x 18cm, Image © Albion Barn 2020 (5) - Atelier Brancusi - Constantin Brancusi © Adagp, Paris | Photo © Centre Pompidou (6) - Atelier Brancusi - Constantin Brancusi © Adagp, Paris (7) | Photo © Centre Pompidou (8)