Brancusi’s spine

Soon after Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), who grew up in Romania, came to Paris in 1904, he was offered the opportunity to work with Rodin in his atelier. Rodin then probably was the most famous living sculptor. To work under the guiding hands of this established genius really was a piece of luck. Of course Brancusi knew this, but nevertheless he decided to leave Rodin’s studio after having worked there for barely two months. He is reported to have said, in explaining his remarkable step: “Nothing can grow under big trees.” He wasn’t being disrespectful, it was just his natural self-confidence coming to the surface. He knew it was his own talent he wanted to develop. Thus a pattern was established: Brancusi would go his own way, relying on the creative wisdom of his bare hands.

He would have his own studio at Montparnasse, in the Impasse Ronsin, first at no. 8, and from 1927 onward at no. 11. He would stall in his studio, as in an open depot of creativity, the sculptures he made, be they in stone, marble, bronze, or wood. This way he made sure he was permanently surrounded by his own work, in all its diversity. There would always be sleeping muses, birds in space, kissing goblins or high totems wherever he rested his eyes.

The studio had a glass roof, so in the daytime the sun shone on his creations, while at night the moon, when it was bright and full, would light the dark workshop with is milk-white magic, giving the bronzes a mysterious golden glow. Instructed by Man Ray, he often photographed and filmed the ensemble of his sculptures. He never tired rearranging them. Many of his avant-garde friends came to see him here, drawn as they were by this modest, workman-like, sacral place.
The American photographer Edward Steichen came to Brancusi’s studio in 1920 to have his camera capture some of its majesty. Although the studio certainly could not be called small, it represented Brancusi’s intimate world, where the creations he carved and moulded with his robust hands lived together, en famille, like happy children who, even after growing up, don’t ever think of leaving the parental house.

In 1997 the Atelier Brancusi was reconstructed in a separate little building just outside the gigantic Centre Pompidou in Paris. A whole collection of Brancusi’s works is grouped there, so the visitor can leave with a fair impression of the original studio. Still, like most reconstructed studios this one too somehow seems to be drenched in the sadness of futility. In general the workshops of artists long deceased only express desertedness: an empty cocoon with the butterfly long gone.

The most noticeable sculpture Brancusi created is far away from the crowded intimacy of old Montparnasse, or the lifeless reconstruction outside the Centre Pompidou. It is the tallest thing he ever made, the Endless Column, and it is reaching for the open Romanian sky, almost 30 meters high. It was erected in 1938 in Targu-Jiu, in the vicinity of Brancusi’s birthplace. The Endless Column (or ‘Column of the Infinite’ as it is also called) is, in fact, a war memorial. It celebrates the infinite sacrifice of the Romanian soldiers who defended their fatherland during the battle on the Jiu river.

Constantin Brancusi Endless Column InfinityThe Communist government, favoring social realism and thinking that Brancusi’s work represented bourgeois cosmopolitanism, for some time thought of simply destroying it, but instead chose to neglect it, and was most succesfull in doing so. It was only at great costs that the majestic column (made of cast iron and steel) could be restored, around the year 2000. It is, in fact, a stack of 17 heavy modules, held together by an invisible metal ‘spine’ on the inside, a spine within a spine. Although Brancusi supplemented the column with two other sculptures nearby – the ‘Table of Silence’ (a circular stone table symbolizing time) and ‘The Gate of the Kiss’, as a symbol to unity – it is the tall column that matters.

But what, apart from its ‘memorial’ quality, does it stand for? It certainly is not a stairway to the Romanian heavens, since the somewhat bulky segments will not allow one to climb it. Whereas his famous Bird in Space is streamlining the air and even cutting into it, the Endless Column slowly penetrates the air, step by step, putting one segment on top of the other. In this it resembles a cathedral, whose ancient builders went on piling stones until heaven was in sight. And like the cathedral’s tower it seems to rise from the earth, making dirt and ether meet. As a result it is cubist and organic at the same time.The regularity of its elementary form gives it the character of a lament, or a prayer, following in slow rhythm the plump beads of an enormous rosary.