Brâncuşi, Centre Pompidou review — effortless magic from the first modern sculptor

“White magic, black magic” was how historian of cubism John Golding characterised the twin founders of Modernist art, Constantin Brâncuşi and Pablo Picasso. Both broke down and reassembled subjects in abstract form, but their defining radical gestures in Paris in 1907 were already starkly different. In “The Kiss”, Brâncuşi schematised embracing lovers as a cubic limestone block, faces pressed together, two eyes shaping a single oval eye, and hairlines as a continuous arch. In “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, Picasso fragmented figures into shards with mask faces. The sculptor sought harmony and serenity, art as healing; the painter expressed violence and tragedy.

From first to last, white magic suffuses the Centre Pompidou’s exquisite, enchanted, transfixing retrospective. Three gleaming geometry-as-comedy plaster versions of “The Cock” soar at the entrance: roosters simplified into cocksure, towering zigzags, shrieking at dawn, declaring art’s fresh start. One room in, the rounded translucent onyx “Torso of a Young Girl” shines alongside its inspiration, the Louvre’s Cycladic “Head of Keros”; “Sleep”, Brâncuşi’s rendering of a face emerging, glistening, from unhewn white marble, is displayed with the Rodin piece it imitates.

By 1910, the sleeper was abbreviated into a reclining head on its side, with slight markings suggesting hair, nose, lips, closed eyes: the sleek, curvilinear bronze “Sleeping Muse”. As with the cuboid “The Kiss”, Brâncuşi took an iconic Rodin subject and replaced the 19th-century master’s detail and drama with smooth contours and forms reduced to what he called “the essence of things”.

Bronze sculpture of a sleeping head
‘Sleeping Muse’ (1910) by Constantin Brâncuși at the Pompidou Centre © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP
Sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi sitting in his studio in 1934
Sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi in his studio in 1934 © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP
Sculpture of two people kissing in a limestone block
‘The Kiss’ (1907) © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP

Arriving in Paris from Romania (legend has it, on foot) in 1904, Brâncuşi quickly assimilated everything around him — antique models, African tribal art, Rodin’s virtuosity with surface as a sculptural skin. But instead of Rodin’s emotive, intricate modelling, Brancusi favoured direct carving. With it, he forged a modern idiom of streamlined simplicity, emphasising continuity, not fracture. The Pompidou offers a dizzying immersion into this minimalist purity which combines heart, wit and formal perfection.

Groups of finely chiselled marble, plaster and bronze depictions of his friends Baroness Franchon and Margit Pogany are gathered together, showing how from 1908 through the 1920s Brâncuşi distilled portraits into near-flawless ovals while retaining a likeness in the stylised features — as in “Mlle Pogany”’s large almond eyes dominating the oval head, her distinctive chignon at the nape of a sinuous neck.

“Such a pity to have to spoil a beautiful material by hollowing out little holes for eyes, hair and ears,” Brâncuşi quipped. One insistent sitter, sex-obsessed Princess Marie Bonaparte, is portrayed as an erect phallus in “Princesse X”. In “Leda”, Brâncuşi imagines not Zeus but the heroine herself transforming into an elegant swan, “ceaselessly creating a new life, a new rhythm” as she swivels on a plinth of ball bearings.

Sculpture likened to an erect phallus
‘Princess X’ (1915) © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP

You sense the subject is artistic metamorphosis itself, and indeed all Brâncuşi’s animals are fabulous renditions of movement. “The Fish”, for example, from Philadelphia, is represented as we might see it dart past in a stream, an elongated ovoid; its white marble veins recall rippling water, reflected in its circular mirror base, or “pond”.

In the show’s tour de force, a flock of marble and bronze “Bird in Space” sculptures, begun in 1923, swarm against the gallery windows looking out on the Paris skyline, as if about to take off. Brâncuşi dispensed with wings and feathers, stretched out the body, and merely implied the head in the slanting oval plane.

Also visiting, perched on a high limestone plinth, is his first bird, “Maiastra” (1911), a Romanian folkloric creature that sings miracles and is based on rustic decorations. The miracle here is Brâncuşi’s journey, in a decade, from Romanian craft tradition to modern emblems of speed and flight anticipating Concorde.

Sculpture of a head with large almond-shaped eyes
‘Danaïde’ (1913) © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP
Simple structure with three curves
‘Shyness’ (1917) © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP

Finally come the utopian monuments: the lozenge-shapes rising to create “Endless Column”, which Brâncuşi saw as a way “to sustain the vault of heaven”; “Boundary Marker”, where “The Kiss” has evolved into a columnar limestone stele, the couple motif repeated several times, incised in the chalky surface. Among his final works, this symbol of unity was conceived in 1945 as Romania’s borders were reconfigured under Soviet influence.

On the walls, Brâncuşi’s own photographs underline his works’ self-contained, self-referential otherness. Luminous and shadowy effects emphasise or dissolve contours, demonstrating patterns or contrasts — marble’s milky mass absorbing light, bronze’s glittery sheen. Even drawings, such as the ovoid with a furrow of a brow, an egg becoming a head, in the study for “The New-Born”, sparkle in white gouache.

Sounding across all the galleries is Brâncuşi’s favourite music — Romanian folk songs, American jazz, Django Reinhardt, Eric Satie. Altogether, the exhibition evokes the heady atmosphere recalled by visitors to the studio on the impasse Ronsin where Brâncuşi, with white hair and beard, dressed like a Romanian peasant in white overalls, accompanied by a white dog or white rooster, worked, lived, exhibited, arranged and rearranged his sculptures, replacing those sold with plaster versions to maintain his meticulous ensembles.

“The first time I went to see Brâncuşi in his studio I was more impressed than in any cathedral,” Man Ray wrote. “I was overwhelmed with its whiteness and lightness. Coming into Brâncuşi’s studio was like entering another world.”

Abstract bronze sculpture of a swan
‘Leda’ (1926) © Succession Brâncuşi/ADAGP
Five marble column-like sculptures
‘Bird in Space’ (1923) © Audrey Laurans

Only the Pompidou could conjure this world so splendidly. Brâncuşi bequeathed his atelier, full of fragile, hard-to-transport works as well as drawings, photographs, gramophone records, hand-carved tools and wooden furniture, to the French state. In 1997 an exact reconstruction, housing the collection, was built on the piazza opposite the Pompidou. For this show it has all moved to the expansive, glassy top-floor galleries, joined by significant international loans: 120 sculptures, sensitively displayed to dovetail motif, theme, chronology. At the centre is the reconstructed studio, open on three sides, allowing changing juxtapositions of the surrounding sculptures; the fourth side is a large screen showing films of Brâncuşi at work.

As a summation of Brâncuşi’s career, and a continuing exploration of it, the Pompidou has struck gold. Barbara Hepworth’s response on visiting Brâncuşi’s studio in 1933, riveted by “the humanism which seemed intrinsic in all the forms”, appears to me still one powerful explanation for his enduring appeal, but each visitor will take their own path through an oeuvre at once crystalline and mysterious, bathetic and sublime, rooted in physical making yet conceptual.

Brâncuşi, close friend of spirits as diverse as Marcel Duchamp, Modigliani and Edward Steichen, similarly unites varied audiences. He would quote Plato one moment — “What is real is not the appearance, but the idea” — and the next assert that making a work of art was like planning the perfect crime. Playing detective, you could spend all day at this terrific show.

To July 1, centrepompidou.fr

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