How Constantin Brancusi Brazenly Redefined Sculpture

Kaitlin Macholz
Jul 20, 2018 4:04PM
Man Ray
Portrait of Constantin Brancusi, ca. 1930

Modern art is discussed, admired, renowned, and sometimes reviled for many different reasons, but there’s one defining quality that usually stands out as a point of fascination or contention: It doesn’t look like anything “real.”

And it’s true—a lot of modern art from the 20th century doesn’t bear a wholly physical resemblance to its subjects. But according to sculptor Constantin Brancusi, the concept of “being real” is about a lot more than looking like nature. This idea was central to his work and is what made him so controversial in his time, and so pivotal to the evolution of sculpture.

Brancusi was born in 1876 in rural Romania. His father was a peasant, and Brancusi grew up distinctly outside of the traditional Western European narrative in which many of his peers were entrenched. Throughout his entire life, he embraced an outsider’s position—from the sandals he wore to the way he styled his hair and the folk music he listened to. Similarly, his artwork didn’t follow the style of his Western predecessors. It broke with the academic tradition, and helped shape the principles of radically reductive and non-representational modernism that are both celebrated and scorned today.

Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1928. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Mlle Pogany, version I, 1913. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


In Brancusi’s time, conventional art critique prioritized a physical likeness to life. Brancusi bucked convention by creating unexpected shapes that almost comically defied the forms that their titles suggested. Works like Bird in Space (1923) and Princess X (1916) hardly look like any bird or princess that you’ve ever seen. But, according to Brancusi, that was exactly the point, and what made his sculptures more honest. “What is real is not the external form,” he said, “but the essence of things.”

For people who measured skill by how well one could render muscle rippling in marble, this was surprising, and even slightly ridiculous. But ultimately, Brancusi challenged the art world to reconsider what sculpture really was and what it did. And this changed the way future generations would make and view art.

Today, Brancusi is one of the 20th century’s most famous sculptors, firmly established in the canon. This past May, Christie’s sold La Jeune Fille Sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) (1928/1932) for a record-breaking $71 million. His work resides at the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A series of 11 important sculptures by the artist are also the centerpiece of a new exhibition, on view at the Museum of Modern Art from July 22nd through February 18th.

Constantin Brancusi, The Cock, 1924. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But audiences didn’t always embrace Brancusi’s approach to sculpture. In 1920, the organizers of the Salon des Indepéndants in Paris forced Brancusi to remove his sculpture Princess X because it was too overtly phallic. And in 1927, a customs official famously refused to recognize Bird in Space as a work of art, and instead tried to impose the 40 percent customs duty typically applied to things like kitchen utensils. According to the U.S. tax law, sculptures were defined as “reproductions by carving or casting, imitations of natural objects, chiefly the human form.” Brancusi went on to launch a formal legal complaint which lead the court—and the public—to reconsider its definition of art.

It’s true that the definition of sculpture had quite literally been set in stone before Brancusi. The world wasn’t prepared for his work because it looked nothing like sculpture had for the last several hundred years. Artists like Michelangelo had amazed the world with their technical skill by striving to recreate the human form as closely as possible. “I saw the angel in the marble,” Michelangelo remarked, “and I carved until I set him free.”

Brancusi’s sculptures were less angelic, and perhaps seemed less impressive because they didn’t show off the same technical chops. But this wasn’t because Brancusi didn’t have the skills. He briefly apprenticed under French sculptor Auguste Rodin, and early in his career, he was praised for his portrayals of human anatomy. Brancusi’s early écorchés, or musculature studies, were so masterful that they were exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903.

Constantin Brancusi, Endless Column, version I, 1918. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Thomas Griesel. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The artist’s decision to create non-representational sculptures was a deliberate and bold artistic choice. And unlike many other sculptors before him, Brancusi didn’t rely on making casts. He shaped every sculpture individually with his own hands and tools, meaning that even works bearing the same name or exploring the same motif are unique.

Margit Pogany, who inspired the defiantly anti-realist sculpture Mademoiselle Pogany (1912), talked about the experience of sitting for the artist. “Each time he began and finished a new bust in clay,” she wrote. “Each of these was beautiful and a wonderful likeliness, and each time he only laughed and threw it back into the boxful of clay.” The finished sculpture, instead, was a curious sort of portrait: a large ovoid with disembodied arms and otherworldly, resting eyelids, just scarcely echoing the basic features of a woman’s head.

“A thing which would pretend to reproduce nature would only be a copy,” Brancusi said. “I am trying to get a spiritual effect.” He didn’t see the beauty of sculpture as lying in the recreation of the physical form, but rather in the revealing of something previously invisible. He believed there was more than one way to represent the truth in things.

Constantin Brancusi, Fish, 1930. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This idea is particularly striking when viewing and physically walking around works like Fish (1926), on view at MoMA. “It behaves more like a fish than it looks like one,” noted Paulina Pobocha, who curated the exhibition. Because of the color and striation of the marble, the shape of the flat oval, and the highly polished finish, Brancusi’s sculpture literally is ungraspable, shifting in and out of focus like a minnow darting through water.

Some of Brancusi’s favorite ideas to explore were actually incredibly abstract themselves—for instance, his Endless Column (1918), with its jagged and angular geometry, hints at the possibility of infinite repetition. But looking at the sculpture in person, you get the sense that Brancusi has made the abstract more immediately digestible.

“Something happened when we brought this piece into the gallery space,” Pobocha said. “The lighting makes it possible to see the surface qualities of the oak, and to see how articulate and deliberate the striations are.” Using material and surface as an expressive form was so important to Brancusi, even when trying to communicate intangible ideas. The details always mattered.

Constantin Brancusi
View of the Studio : Mlle Pogany 11, ca. 1923
Grob Gallery

One of the best examples of this is seen in his 1916 sculpture The Kiss, a block-like form depicting two lovers embracing. The sculpture bears the same title as an 1882 piece by Rodin, which is so lifelike that the stone looks soft. But there’s hardly a way to compare the two sculptures otherwise; they look like they hail from different worlds entirely.

Tom Lubbock, the late chief art critic of The Independent, wrote about exactly how the two works, considered in tandem, exposed the flaws in trying to define “good” sculpture, or to pin down a single representation of an idea: “Beside the Rodin, the Brancusi looks absurd; absurdly crude and inarticulate. And beside the Brancusi, the Rodin looks absurd; absurdly grandiose and explicit. Which is sublime, and which is ridiculous, is a matter of taste.”

With his version of The Kiss, Brancusi wasn’t trying to outdo Rodin’s technique or say that his sculpture looked more like two lovers kissing. Instead, he forced people to have a conversation about a block of marble and what it meant for a viewer to understand two forms joined together. Brancusi didn’t impress with technical realism—he hinted that there was something else that we weren’t seeing, and left us to mull over what that might be.

Brancusi loved to quote the French poet Nicolas Boileau in saying “rien n’est beau que la vrai”—nothing is beautiful except that which is true. What his works show again and again is that it’s unfair, or maybe even impossible, to pin down one definition of what is beautiful or true. And slowly, Brancusi’s sculpture started to communicate this message to others.

When Judge J. Waite ruled on whether the artist’s Bird in Space was really “art,” he wrote: “There has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than intimate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas…we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art worlds as recognized by the courts must be considered.”

The judge put a fine point on it—whether or not a viewer can get behind Brancusi’s version of reality or representation, the artist opens up a dialogue that multiple subjective viewpoints exist and are worth our consideration. That recognition in itself can be a beautiful thing.

Kaitlin Macholz

An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Paulina Pobocha co-curated MoMA’s Brancusi exhibition, when in fact she is the show’s curator.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019