Our World

Constantin Brancusi

Art & Design

In October 1926, ‘Bird in Space’, along with an additional 19 sculptures created by Constantin Brancusi, arrived in New York. Customs officials refused to accept that it was ‘a piece of art’ and imposed a 40% tariff, classifying it as a ‘banal object’ under the category of a kitchen tool. The decision came to the attention of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an avid art collector and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. A court case, Brancusi versus USA, began in 1927 to debate the question – ‘What qualifies as an original piece of art?’ Brancusi’s reputation was widely discussed.

Brancusi had grown up on a Romanian farm and from the age of seven worked as a herdsman. At nine he left home and taught himself to read and write. After working for a grocer and as a waiter, he saved enough money to enroll in the National School of Fine Art in Romania where he became a skilled wood carver. At age 30, he left Bucharest for Munich to further his career in art. After three years in Munich, he decided that his next step was to go to Paris, the heart of the modern art world. It is said that Brancusi walked to Paris, a distance of almost 800 kilometres that on foot would be around 160 hours. He apparently sold his watch so that he could take a boat across Lake Constance. Brancusi enrolled in the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Art for two years before becoming an assistant to Auguste Rodin. After two months he left, claiming, “Nothing grows under the shadow of big trees”. Brancusi continued to explore representational art by simplifying lines, geometric forms, and surfaces. Interestingly, he did not see his work as ‘abstract’. “They are imbeciles who call my work abstract. That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things.”

Brancusi vs. United States: The Historic Trial, 1928. Hardcover

In 1928 when the court case decided if Brancusi’s ‘Bird in Space’ should be classified as ‘art’, he had sculptures in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, The Tate Gallery in London, and many other well established art galleries around the world. When the accomplished sculptor was asked to defend his bird as a piece of art, Brancusi replied, “Well it pleases my sense of beauty, gives me a feeling of pleasure. Made by a sculptor, it has to me a great many elements, but consists in itself a beautiful object. To me, it is a work of art. It communicates the notion of flight itself rather than describing the appearance of a particular bird". Judge Waite accepted that a ‘non-representational sculpture’ qualified as an original piece of art and in doing so a new definition of art included abstract forms. He wrote, “There has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas and the schools which represent them, we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art worlds as recognized by the courts must be considered". His ruling helped to transform the art movement in New York which contributed to the growth and acceptance of modern art.

How They Know It’s ‘A Bird’ and Are Sure It is ‘Art’, detail of press clipping on the Bird in Space court case America 13 March 1927

Constantin Brancusi. Bird in Space. 1928. Bronze, 54 x 8 1/2 x 6 1/2″ (137.2 x 21.6 x 16.5 cm).

Constantin Brancusi became one of the most important sculptors of the twentieth century, influencing the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and many more. In his will, he left his entire studio to the French State on the condition that an exact replica of it the day he died was kept intact. His studio, the Atelier Brancusi Musee, opposite the Centre Pompidou in Paris, houses a collection of 137 sculptures, 87 bases, drawings, and original prints. Brancusi died in 1957 and his studio was faithfully restored in 1977. His studio is a work of art in its own right. In his later years he stopped making sculptures so that he could concentrate on reorganizing his pieces to achieve a unity through their relationships to each other. If he sold a piece, he would replace it with a plaster replica.

When I entered Brancusi’s studio I was immediately taken aback at how understated, calm, quiet, and serene it felt. I was immersed in a room that had a ‘sacredness’, a purity that is rare and special. It is one of the most beautiful installations of art and sculpture in the world.

Brancusi studio 1

Brancusi studio 2

Brancusi studio 3

Brancusi studio 4

Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space’ is considered by many as the best abstract representation of flight created. On May 6, 2005, one of Brancusi’s abstract birds set a world record as the most expensive free-standing sculpture auctioned at $27.5 million USD. On December 17th, 2018, Brancusi’s “La Jeune Fille Sophistiquée (1928/32) sold for a record breaking $71 million.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), conceived in 1928 and cast in 1932

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), La muse endormie, original marble version carved in 1909-1910; this bronze version cast by 1913. Length 10 ½ in (26.7 cm)