Geometric Smiles

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Review of ’Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things‘, Tate Modern, London

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1958) was the greatest sculptor of the first half of the 20th century, and is often compared to Picasso as an innovator of new styles. In particular Brancusi was the first great sculptor to approach abstraction in his work, and the exhibition dramatically shows his movement in this direction. He thus laid the foundation of the avant garde and ’modernism‘. At the same time he always sought meaning beyond the ephemeral. As he said, ’What is real is not the external form but the essence of things,‘ and this too comes across and is strongly felt. In his view ’one always wants to understand. But there is nothing to understand. Everything you see here has a single merit - it has been lived.‘

Brancusi was born in Romania but moved to Paris in 1904, and briefly worked with Rodin. He left within weeks, however, to plough his own furrow, which mainly meant carving directly into stone or wood instead of the modelling and bronzing techniques used by Rodin and most previous sculptors.

His specific sculptural language can be reduced to four basic elements or motifs that appear as pure geometrical forms - the ovoid, the cube, the cylinder and the truncated pyramid. The last makes up his ’endless column‘ in Targu-Jiu in Romania, and is shown only in Brancusi‘s photographs.

The cube is more popularly represented by The Kiss, two sculptures of which are represented here, and in a photograph of its apotheosis in The Gate of the Kiss in Targu-Jiu.

The most emotionally moving and evocative rooms contain the ovoids - egg or face shaped sculptures which are quite overwhelming in their mimimalist perfection. They start with a captivating, realistic Head of Sleeping Child (1908). One can then follow over the years Brancusi‘s paring down of the features of the head, till by 1920 Sculpture for the Blind is completely featureless, a pure ovoid, stunning in its emotional effect. This is repeated in The Beginning of the World, which has a room to itself. Here the pure ovoid is supported by exhibition pedestals or ’thrones‘ to highlight and exalt the work, to which Brancusi paid significant attention. The other room inspiring strong emotion is the one containing his soaring birds, and these too achieve their apex in a room devoted to just one sculpture, Bird in Space (1932), made using polished bronze, a piece that transfixes you as your eye follows its body soaring into space.

Tate Modern‘s presentation of the sculptures adds considerably to the pleasure of viewing them. Each sculpture has plenty of space to be appreciated from all sides - a great asset with Brancusi, for whom the different and additional aspects on all sides make up the complete sculpture. In addition most of the larger works are not cut off from the viewer by intrusive tapes, but are placed on large round white circles, mimicking the millstones Brancusi worked on in his studio. This is the most moving exhibition of sculpture I have seen for a long time. Everyone interested in art - that is, all of us - should not miss it.