Brancusi’s earthly delight

Next door to one of Paris’s biggest galleries is one of its smallest – Brancusi’s workshop

Christopher Reid | May/June 2012

It must have been in 1980 that my wife, Lucinda, and I made our first visit to Paris, a delayed honeymoon, the two nights in Brighton’s Royal Crescent Hotel immediately after our wedding being something of a stop-gap measure, all we could then afford. We were drawn to Paris by a combination of things. Lucinda was a wholehearted Francophile, a consumer of French novels, and a fearless, if not faultless, French speaker. As an actress, she had taken a course at Jacques Lecoq’s Ecole Internationale de Théâtre. She knew where to find inexpensive but perfectly acceptable oysters and champagne. So she led the way. 

What attracted me was the promise of setting my eyes on the works of Manet, Degas, Cézanne and Bonnard, and exploring the great museums and galleries, newest of which was the Pompidou. Its revolutionary exoskeletal—or should that be extravisceral?—structure had been celebrated in all the Sunday colour supplements. So we had to go there. And we did—delighting more, it must be said, in what it revealed of the city’s gorgeous, variegatedly grey roofscape, visible from its upper storeys, than in the provocations and titillations of its own design. If the colour supplements had mentioned the Atelier Brancusi it had escaped us; but we soon noticed the incongruous little building, stepped into it, and were amazed. 

Until then, Constantin Brancusi had been barely known to me. I now revere him as a wholly original genius, in sculpture and drawing, and as a key figure in that paradoxically non-parochial movement, the Ecole de Paris. If he had been only a minor associate of the movement, of questionable artistic stature, there would still have been an aura of legend about him. The feats of his youth alone would have singled him out. 

Born in rural Romania in 1876, Brancusi left home at the age of ten or 11, on an impulse that seems almost to have been a prophetic calling. He was not heard of for the next six years. In his gadabout teens, challenged to make a violin, he did just that, examining another instrument, puzzling out how to align the grain of the wood to achieve a classical richness of tone. After several years of menial employment, he enrolled at art school, and as a graduate student modelled a life-size, écorché human figure sufficiently accurate to be of use to medical students. In his early 20s, he set off on foot for Paris, with his flute for company. 

He reached the capital city of art in 1904, for a while contemplated apprenticing himself to the great Auguste Rodin, but at last decided against it on the grounds that “nothing of significance grows under the shade of a large tree.” A fund of folksy wisdom, reinforced by steely independence of purpose, seems to have been part of his natural equipment. Rodin, he opined, sculpted “in beefsteak”—that is, in the decadent Renaissance manner, lavishing undue care on the virtuoso treatment of musculature and flesh. He himself was on a quest for something purer, truer, stronger; both of the earth and spiritually fulfilling.

Precisely where that quest was to lead would have been impossible to say at the threshold of his career. Even with hindsight it would be hard to trace a clear path of development. One of Brancusi’s greatest works, “Le Baiser”, looks in its refinement and strength like a summation, but in fact bears the early date of 1909. Emphatically oblong, sturdy as a mooring post, it recalls, in its simplified depiction of a naked male and female clamped in eternal embrace, Aristophanes’s fable of “the desire and pursuit of the whole”, as recounted by Plato in his “Symposium”. Brancusi carved the piece to stand by the grave of a young female suicide in a corner of the Cimetière du Montparnasse, and there it still is; but a later treatment of the same motif can be seen at the Atelier, simplified further, but not in a way that necessarily advances the formal exploration.

As for the Atelier itself, you will find it in its present and now, no doubt, permanent position, at the north-west corner of the Place Beaubourg, separate from but overshadowed by the Centre Pompidou. To my mind, it bears the same relationship to the Centre as a baptistery or chapel to a major cathedral, and not just in terms of relative size; for while the job of a cathedral is to embody a city’s sum total of aspirations, civic as much as spiritual, a chapel may dedicate itself to the contemplation of a single saint. The religious analogy seems apt here because, for all its clutter—at first sight you could mistake it for a light-filled lumber room or a dream junk shop—what acquaintance discloses is a high-minded devotion to the pursuit of ideals that were probably beyond any artist’s scope to attain. There is a hidden order. To understand it, some background is needed.

The original of the studio stood at 11 Impasse Ronsin, off Rue de Vaugirard, to the west of the Gare Montparnasse. In structure, it was not a single space, but a series of adjoining studios, accumulated by the sculptor over the last 30 years of his life. Brancusi both worked and lived there. Photographs of the exterior suggest a setting of not especially picturesque ramshackledom, the Impasse being then a semi-rustic appendix to one of the city centre’s busiest approach roads. Nowhere special, in other words. Nonetheless this is where, if Brancusi’s own wishes had been fulfilled, the Atelier Brancusi would now be. 

In 1952, however, with five years to live, he had a run-in with the urban authority known as the Assistance Publique, which announced that the whole huddle of buildings in the Impasse was unfit for habitation and must be demolished. By this time he was 76 and had all but ceased to make new pieces, though he was still trying out different bases and pedestals for the existing ones and moving them around the studio in pursuit of an ideal grouping. His situation was unusual, in that he had retained so much of his life’s work, in either finished or plaster-model form. The game of arranging and rearranging is one many artists enjoy, and it seems the perfect occupation for an elderly sculp-tor with decades of innovative achievement behind him. Brancusi had become his own live-in curator.

This was the idyll that the Assistance Publique threatened to disturb. Luckily, good sense intervened and an agreement was reached whereby Brancusi would give his collection to the French nation in exchange for the right to remain where he was, in the bosom of his family of sculptures, until he died. His additional demand that the work be kept exactly as it stood on the day of his death was, in view of the studio’s dilapidation, problematic. Again, reason and imagination prevailed, and in 1977 a replica of the studio, with the contents scrupulously replaced in their old positions, opened to the public on the Beaubourg site.

I have likened the Atelier to a chapel, but this needs qualification, as the work it displays is robustly pagan in its vocabulary and without taint of churchy piety. Brancusi also avoids pious attitudes towards the traditions and clichés of European art, both in his choice of subjects and his interpretation of them. Among the heads and busts, his “Prométhée” is the deliberate opposite of the tortured hero of Classical Greek and early-Romantic conception. A reposeful oval, the head lies on its side, not screaming but dreaming. You want to pick it up and nurse it tenderly in your hands, for all its air of self-containment. Proudly and defiantly, it refuses to be seen to suffer in the old, outworn, melodramatic manner. That would have been pure beefsteak.

In depicting women, Brancusi flouts convention with equal daring. “La Négresse blonde” reduces the head in question to a smooth, elongated, lychee-stone shape, with big, jutting lips, a twisty topknot, and nothing more: a characterisation which could well have got him into trouble in more politically correct times. Yet the effect is of exquisite poise and nobility.

A work that did get him into trouble was “Princesse X”, where head, neck and breasts have metamorphosed unmistakably into glans, penile shaft and scrotum. When he submitted this to the Salon des Indépendants for their exhibition of 1920, it was withdrawn as “liable to cause incidents” by order of the police. I can’t say that this uncharacteristically grotesque piece is a favourite of mine, but I applaud Brancusi’s unflappable refusal to acknowledge anything amiss. 

Animal life is another area in which Brancusi took abstraction to radical extremes, while keeping the creatureliness of his subjects steadily in view. The Atelier is full of his fish and birds. Outstanding among these are “Maiastra”, a mystical bird from Romanian folk literature; versions in various sizes of “Le Grand Coq”, its jagged profile a synaesthetic rendering of the sound of a cockerel greeting the dawn; and several takes on “Oiseau dans l’éspace”, in which stationariness and verticality pull against each other in the attempt to show a bird in flight. But the eye does not fall exclusively on major pieces. More quietly claiming sculptural status are numerous items of wooden furniture—bench, armchair, stools—fashioned by Brancusi himself, again in a spirit of radical reinterpretation and less for personal comfort, one feels, than in homage to the quiddity of the material; and the saws, chisels, rasps and so on that he must have cherished as much for their beautiful shapes as for their usefulness.

The present housing of the studio differs from the one Lucinda and I ventured into so long ago. I went back recently, for the first time in almost 30 years. After several visits in the early 1980s, we had forsaken Paris for an exploration of the rest of France. Our holidays grew longer, now that we had more money and owned a car, and we plotted leisurely routes from one Romanesque church to another, where the architecture and carving often seemed to bear more than a hint of resemblance to Brancusi’s work. Then Lucinda died and all our escapades ended.

When I returned, therefore, it may have been with expectations unrealistically enhanced. The first obvious change was to the exterior. The old replica had proved inadequate protection, and so Renzo Piano, with Richard Rogers, was commissioned to design a new building. 

It is bland, lacking the artisan qualities that auth-enticated the old structure, but I suppose this can be overlooked and I don’t doubt it serves its purpose well. Inside, however, there is further protection, in the form of sheets of glazing that present an impassable and unignorable barrier between visitor and exhibits. Again, one understands the purpose, and it’s no use invoking the ghost of the sculptor himself in order to lament the loss of intimate connection. Stubborn enough not to realise that his vision of an eternally preserved studio, standing forever in the same place, would be immediately denied, he could hardly have seen into a future when curatorship was to become a branch of science, microscopically cautious in all its calculations and strategies. 

No serious quibbles, then. I’d rather celebrate the fact that we’re lucky to have what we have, in the condition in which we have it. Some of the braver experiments and most truly achieved masterpieces of 20th-century sculpture are assembled here for us to marvel at. Little of importance seems to be missing, apart from the white-overalled, cigarette-sucking former occupant, and the layer of chippings and sawdust that must once have covered the floor. In fact, despite the custom of referring to Brancusi as a hermit and ascetic—a contemporary novel based on his life is called “The Saint of Montparnasse”—the four-room tableau looks more like evidence of a life lived in full earthly delight. The home-made kitchen utensils, the bag of golf clubs, the guitar and the violin tell a story of work, domestic routine and play in exemplary harmony. 

Atelier Brancusi is open Wednesday to Monday, 2pm – 6pm, closed Tuesdays;

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