The 19th of February is Constantin Brancusi Day in Romania. As a man and as an artist, he’s remembered for his staggering will to follow his path wherever it may lead – and it led to an equally staggering simplicity, a transcendent, unflinching, and unparalleled look into the heart of things.
Born in 1878 into a well-off, but abusive rural family, his first sculptures were wood carvings to while away the hours as he watched over his father’s sheep in the plains below the Carpathians. He was only nine (and illiterate) when he left home. He later taught himself to read and write before pursuing an arts education in Bucharest and Paris.
In the capital, he was awarded a fine arts scholarship. He completed the five-year program a year early with top marks, but was so unhappy with the reception of one of his commissions – a bust of the illustrious Dr. Carol (Carlo) Davila, the illegitimate fourth son of composer Franz Liszt and Countess Marie D’Agoult – that he left in disgust without accepting the rest of his pay, much to the horror of his mentor, Dimitrie Gerota. Years later, in Paris, he would speak of the moment as floodgates bursting; no longer could he prostitute his art for easy money. He was compelled to move on.
And so the legend of Brancusi begins: with the 2,000 km walk from Bucharest to Paris. Had the Davila bust (which has been on display in front of the Military Hospital in Bucharest since 1912) been well-received and paid in full, Brancusi’s plan was to take the train. In fact, he did travel by rail for the very last leg of the journey – but only after contracting pneumonia in northern France. Along the way he’d stopped in Vienna, where he first saw and found inspiration in Egyptian sculptures, and Munich, where he spent six months. He slept in transient shelters, and at one point he was forced to sell his clothes, but “[he] knew that what needed to happen would happen.”
His first year in Paris was nightmarish. Half starved and creatively blocked, he got by with dishwashing jobs. In 1905 he was awarded a fine arts scholarship under the direction of Antonin Mercier. The following year, he had his first exhibitions at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Salon d’Automne, but he was dissatisfied with his critically lauded work. In 1907, Rodin offered him an apprenticeship, but as Brancusi put it, “nothing grows in the shadow of great trees.” He refused, the way he’d refused the money he needed for the passage to Paris.
His home and studio at 54 Rue de Montparnasse quickly became a node in the Parisian art community. His circle included Matisse, composer Erik Satie, Modigliani, and Guillaume Apollinaire, whose death hit him particularly hard.
The art world was forever changed by Brancusi’s direct technique, which he had learned as a child, watching the master woodcarvers in rural Romania. Although he remained in France, his native country was never far from his mind – it was inspiration, it was the dor he explained in an article in 1944: “Patria mea este pământul care se-nvârteşte, briza vântului, norii care trec.” (“My country is the earth that turns, the breeze, the passing clouds.” – tr. mine)
Although Brancusi personally loathed the Renaissance and referred to Michelangelo as a butcher, what better summary for Brancusi’s life is there but this: beauty is the purgation of superfluities. How simple that is, and how difficult.