PHILADELPHIA — Constantin Brancusi made a fetish of art. Whatever else the great Modern sculptor's work might be about, his carvings and castings inescapably embody an irrational devotion to the inexplicable mystery of artistic creation while betraying a wholesale belief in its magic.
For the 20th Century, Brancusi's sculpture crystallized an essential current of an era. His birth in Romania in 1876 had roughly coincided with a moment of unprecedented artistic upheaval in Europe. His death in Paris in 1957 turned out to immediately precede the sweeping transformation in the United States of European Modernism's triumphant legacy.
The exquisite and important Brancusi retrospective now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its only American venue, amply demonstrates the extent of the artist's fetishism, with its intense fixation on fusing libidinal forms with basic sculptural elements. The trajectory of his astonishing career is beautifully laid out in 89 sculptures and 30 drawings.
Before this show, I had never thought of Brancusi's famous, pivotal 1916 sculpture "The Kiss" in quite the way I will from here on out. "The Kiss" is a small, vertical block of limestone, just two feet high and a little more than 13 inches wide and 10 inches deep. It is bluntly carved.
Two geometric figures, one sketchily male and the other similarly female, tightly embrace. Their outstretched arms wrap around each other's blocky torsos. The point where their lips touch--the kiss--is formed by a subtle break in the vertical line carved between them.
Brancusi's playful, schematic rendition of lovers kissing couldn't be more different from the monumentalized, naturalistic eroticism that his elder, Auguste Rodin, put into an 1898 sculpture of the same subject. (Brancusi worked for a month in Rodin's studio in the spring of 1907, but he soon had to flee the master's formidable and spreading shadow.) The life-size Rodin goes after emotional dreaminess, his sinuously intertwined stone lovers lost in an ethereal, Symbolist reverie, as inert matter visually dissolves into a subjective swirl.
Brancusi's sculpture is a small lump. Descriptive naturalism has been banished, emotional subjectivity is nowhere in sight. It looks instead like a little stone package.
The magic lies elsewhere. Its coupling of male and female here results in a kind of birth--in the creation of a third, autonomous sculptural entity related to but different from its parent-forms. "Art" is its offspring.
The miracle is accomplished through emphasis on a concise point of contact--through emphasis on the kiss --made between alien elements. That kiss, that electrifying point of contact between distinct realms, is what turned my head around in understanding Brancusi's art. The exhibition makes plain how it became a central subject of his work, one that manifested itself throughout his career in new and surprising ways.
He could, as artists have always done, employ a classical narrative theme to describe the subject. For instance, in 1911 he made three sculptures of the mythological Greek Titan, Prometheus, who "kissed" the lowly Earth with fire, which he had stolen from the heavens.
More important than telling stories, though, was the actual point of contact between art and the world. It became a sculptural focus of Brancusi's work, in a most unusual way: He brought the sculpture's pedestal into the dialogue.
In Brancusi's art a pedestal is not just the practical means for lifting a sculpture off the ground so that one can see it. Nor does it merely perform elevating duties of a moral kind. Instead, a sculpture's base is also recognized to be the critical point of contact between the reality of the world, where mortals like you and I live, and the ideality of art, where imagination reigns.
A pedestal conceived in this way is a highly charged and mysterious place, and Brancusi lavished his attention on it.
The magnificent "Maiastra" (1910-12) is his first sculpture to incorporate an elaborated base. The subject is a mythological Romanian bird, carved in sleek marble, which stands atop a three-part limestone base. Four feet tall, the base is composed of a cube placed atop a roughly carved caryatid, featuring two rudimentary figures that also recall ancient bones; the caryatid is placed atop a rectangular plinth.
Think of it this way: To send his bird aloft in space, Brancusi began with an ordinary pedestal, added an architectural feature that recalled figurative columns used to hold up the roof in an ancient Greek temple, put a second pedestal on top of that and, finally, placed the sculpture at the pinnacle.