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Constantin Brancusi was a Romanian-born sculptor who made his career in France. As a child he displayed an aptitude for carving wooden farm tools. Formal studies took him first to Bucharest, then to Munich, then to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His abstract style emphasizes clean geometrical lines that balance forms inherent in his materials with the symbolic allusions of representational art. Famous Brâncusi works include the Sleeping Muse (1908), The Kiss (1908), Prometheus (1911), Mademoiselle Pogany (1913), The Newborn (1915), Bird in Space (1919) and The Column of the Infinite (Coloana infinitului), popularly known as The Endless Column (1938). Brancusi is considered a pioneer of modernism.
Brancusi grew up in the village of Hobita Romania, Gorj, near Targu Jiu, close to Romania's Carpathian Mountains, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly woodcarving. Geometric patterns of the region are seen in his later works.
His parents Nicolae and Maria Brancusi were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labor; from the age of seven, Constantin herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood, and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers.
At the age of nine, Brancusi left the village to work in the nearest large town. At 11 he went into the service of a grocer in Slatina; and then he became a domestic in a public house in Craiova where he remained for several years. When he was 18, impressed by Brancusi's talent for carving, an industrialist entered him in the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts (Scoala de meserii), where he pursued his love for woodworking, graduating with honors in 1898.
He then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received academic training in sculpture. He worked hard, and quickly distinguished himself as talented. One of his earliest surviving works, under the guidance of his anatomy teacher, Dimitrie Gerota, is a masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) which was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.
In 1903 Brancusi traveled to Munich, and from there to Paris. In Paris, he was welcomed by the community of artists and intellectuals brimming with new ideas. He worked for two years in the workshop of Antonin Mercié of the École des Beaux-Arts, and was invited to enter the workshop of Auguste Rodin. Even though he admired the eminent Rodin he left the Rodin studio after only two months, saying, "Nothing can grow under big trees."
After leaving Rodin's workshop, Brâncusi began developing the revolutionary style for which he is known. His first commissioned work, The Prayer, was part of a gravestone memorial. It depicts a young woman crossing herself as she kneels, and marks the first step toward abstracted, non-literal representation, and shows his drive to depict "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." He also began doing more carving, rather than the method popular with his contemporaries, that of modeling in clay or plaster which would be cast in metal, and by 1908 he worked almost exclusively by carving.
In the following few years he made many versions of Sleeping Muse and The Kiss, further simplifying forms to geometrical and sparse objects.
His works became popular in France, Romania and the United States. Collectors, notably John Quinn, bought his pieces, and reviewers praised his works. In 1913 Brâncusi's work was displayed at both the Salon des Indépendants and the first exhibition in the U.S. of modern art, the Armory Show.
In 1920 he developed a notorious reputation with the entry of Princess X in the Salon. The phallic shape of the piece scandalized the Salon, and despite Brâncusi's explanation that it was an anonymous portrait, removed it from the exhibition. Princess X was revealed to be Princess Marie Bonaparte, direct descendant of the younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. Brâncusi represented or caricatured her life as a large gleaming bronze phallus. This phallus symbolizes the model's obsession with the penis and her lifelong quest to achieve vaginal orgasm, with the help of Sigmund Freud.
Around this time he began crafting the bases for his sculptures with much care and originality because he considered them important to the works themselves.
He began working on the group of sculptures that are known as Bird in Space" — simple shapes representing a bird in flight. The works are based on his earlier "Maiastra" series. In Romanian folklore the Maiastra is a beautiful golden bird who foretells the future and cures the blind. Over the following 20 years, Brâncusi would make 20-some versions of Bird in Space out of marble or bronze. Photographer Edward Steichen purchased one of the "birds" in 1926 and shipped it to the United States. However, the customs officers did not accept the "bird" as a work of art and placed a duty upon its import as an industrial item. They charged the high tax placed upon raw metals instead of the no tax on art. A trial the next year overturned the assessment.
Athena Tacha Spear's book, Brâncusi's Birds, (CAA monographs XXI, NYU Press, New York, 1969), first sorted out the 36 versions and their development, from the early Maiastra, to the Golden Bird of the late teens, to the Bird in Space, which emerged in the early '20s and which Brâncusi perfected throughout his life.
His work became popular in the U.S., however, and he visited several times during his life. Worldwide fame in 1933 brought him the commission of building a meditation temple in India for Maharajah of Indore, but when Brâncusi went to India in 1937 to complete the plans and begin construction, the Mahrajah was away and lost interest in the project when he returned.
In 1938, Brancusi finished the World War I monument in Târgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. Table of Silence, The Gate of the Kiss, and Endless Column commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanian civilians who in 1916 fought off a German invasion. The restoration of this ensemble was spearheaded by the World Monuments Fund and was completed in 2004.
The Târgu Jiu ensemble marks the apex of his artistic career. In his remaining 19 years he created less than 15 pieces, mostly reworking earlier themes, and while his fame grew he withdrew. In 1956 Life magazine reported, "Wearing white pajamas and a yellow gnomelike cap, Brâncusi today hobbles about his studio tenderly caring for and communing with the silent host of fish birds, heads, and endless columns which he created."
Brâncusi was cared for in his later years by a Romanian refugee couple. He became a French citizen in 1952 in order to make the caregivers his heirs, and to bequeath his studio and its contents to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.
Brâncusi always dressed in the simple ways the Romanian peasants did. His studio was reminiscent of the houses of the peasants from his native region: there was a big slab of rock as a table and a primitive fireplace, similar to those found in traditional houses in his native Oltenia, while the rest of the furniture was made by him out of wood. Brâncu?i would cook his own food, traditional Romanian dishes, with which he would treat his guests.
Brâncusi held a large spectrum of interests, from science to music. He was a good violinist and he would sing old Romanian folk songs, often expressing by them his feelings of homesickness. Nevertheless, he never considered moving back to his native Romania, but he did visit it eight times.
His circle of friends included artists and intellectuals in Paris such as Ezra Pound, Henri Pierre Roché, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, and Fernand Léger. He was an old friend of Romany Marie, who was also Romanian, and referred Isamu Noguchi to her café in Greenwich Village. Although surrounded by the Parisian avant-garde, Brâncu?i never lost the contact with Romania and had friends from the community of Romanian artists and intellectuals living in Paris, including Benjamin Fondane, George Enescu, Theodor Pallady, Camil Ressu, Nicolae Darascu, Panait Istrati, Traian Vuia, Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran and Paul Celan.
Brâncusi held a particular interest in mythology, especially Romanian mythology, folk tales, and traditional art (which also had a strong influence on his works), but he became interested in African and Mediterranean art as well.
A talented handyman, he built his own phonograph, and made most of his furniture, utensils, and doorways. His worldview valued "differentiating the essential from the ephemeral," with Plato, Lao-Tzu, and Milarepa as influences. He was a saint-like idealist and near ascetic, turning his workshop into a place where visitors noted the deep spiritual atmosphere. However, particularly through the 1910s and 1920s, he was known as a pleasure seeker and merrymaker in his bohemian circle. He enjoyed cigarettes, good wine, and the company of women. He had one child, John Moore, whom he never acknowledged.
He died on March 16, 1957 at the age of 81 leaving 1200 photographs and 215 sculptures. He was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Also located in that cemetery are statues carved by Brâncusi for several fellow artists who died; the best-known of these is Le Baiser (The Kiss).
His works are housed in the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the National Museum of Art of Romania (Bucharest), and the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), as well as in other major museums around the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has the largest collection of Brâncusi sculptures in the United States.
A reconstruction of Brâncusi's onetime studio in Paris is open to the public. It is close to the Pompidou Centre, in the rue Rambuteau. After being refused by the Romanian Communist government, he bequeathed part of his collection to the French state on condition that his workshop be rebuilt as it was on the day he died.
Brâncusi was elected posthumously to the Romanian Academy in 1990. ?In 2011, Google commemorated his 135th birthday with a tribute on their main page.
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