(Unit: Art and Architecture)
In 1927, Constantin Brancusi made a bronze sculpture to capture the essence of birds in flight. The sculpture aptly known as Bird in Space was subject to alterations that Brancusi made to go further and not merely do them differently. Although he did not label himself a modernist, his works embody the principles that have come to be associated with the modernist era.
Modernism is thought to be the philosophy, a style and ideology of modern art. Artists of this period sought to create a new world, their version of the world, a new conception rather than an imitation of the previous eras. The problem, however, was between the artists’ execution and the viewers’ interpretation. The peoples’ expectation of art was conservative. It was based on continuance of traditions that arts purpose was to help restore law, liberty and equality all whilst spreading the philosophy, reason and progress of the human spirit; it should be a contribution to public instruction.
In contrast; the persuading argument for artists’ was to, defy the norms and critically examine the concepts, subjects, materials and qualities of their works. Modernism was an era that had established art boundaries being broken, by artists who wanted to represent the changing world they lived in without the traditional concerns about the subject matter or techniques. Many artists avoided being labelled with any specific schools of thought and this resulted in a collection of modern schools of thought and styles.
While impressionists sought to capture fleeting moments through light, landscapes and daily life, postimpressionists wanted to represent modern life via the psychological and emotional aspect. Expressionism applied a more personal expression of the artist emotions.
Abstract art was defined by lines, shape and colour with no specific subject; in contrast, minimalism severed the concept of form and required the observer’s bias in making an interpretation. Surrealism explored the unconscious, representing the world through dreams while the dada movement relied on irrational and deliberate rejection of the traditionally aesthetic values. Futurism tried to capture speed and dynamism of the mechanization or industrial era.
Brancusi’s sculpture is an exploration of concept and sculptural media. He critically examines abstraction that is based on a daily occurrence, birds flying. In his work, the sculpture arch’s’ gracefully to capture the essence of flight, rather that copy the natural phenomenon.
He liked to say that in art, one achieves simplicity unintentionally, not for aiming at it. He moved from representational sculpture to abstract purified lines that would go on to become his signature. Some critiques thought that his art left a lot to the imagination and thus did not qualify as art in the traditional sense, the irony being that Brancusi was moving away from the traditional definition.
He aimed to create pieces that capitalized their aesthetic appeal and required an open mind to imagine or interpret his intent. His works did not to any particular affiliation since their simplicity and sheer sleekness were beyond the expectations of observers. His works were therefore not considered to fit into the futurist school of thought.
In his abstract works, he often used a theme and explored its variations through a series of works based on the same subject. Bird in space took on a progressive series where he used bronze, marble, stone and wood to sculpture flight.
The bird’s proportions form and sense of balance embodied beautiful and a detail oriented workmanship. He moved from the sculpting birds with beaks and feet and refined the form into a sleek bird without wings or any defined bird-like feature. He altered the artworks in height and proportion in his pursuit to create art that should defy categorization.
The concern about the bird’s originality and qualification as an art form saw his works undergo judicial scrutiny. The court, however, ruled in his favour because though it was a bird in the traditional sense, its symmetrical outline and beautiful finishing made it highly ornamental and pleasant to look at, this ornamental aspect steers him toward the modernist school of thought.
This ruling was a win for the avant-garde (modernists) artists of the time because it gave them the creative freedom to explore new ideas rather than imitate objects as they occur in their natural state. Thus his artistic victory paved the way for sculptured that were not limited to figurative attributes. The court case against the bid sculpture showed that the ignorance and prejudice of classicalist or old school art lovers and critiques was not a hindrance to modernists. Art in its definition is biased, but the skill it take to get the delicate balance and grace between an abstract concept and the final piece, relies on solely on the imagination of the artist.
Modernist were of the thought that art should possess its own meaning and purpose, not to be made for just a utilitarian function. They agitated for the artists’ freedom from both the academic qualifications of art but also from the publics’ expectations.
Art should be both truthful and aesthetic quality would determine its relevance (socially and politically) depending on its texture, visual effects and finishing. Art can be a variety of things but its true meaning is what defines it, also for it to be an effective tool of spreading progress it needs to be understood by the public Artists’ in search for the truth believed that colours, shapes and lines can exist without any connection in a visual expression.
This new approach to form and content gave birth to abstraction as a form of art that seeks to go beyond the material view, an approach that strips away the distractions to allow the observer an insight into the truth. This made abstract art unconventional, evocative and more expressive, revolutionary even.
Brancusi therefore embodies the modern artist. He carved various forms of the bird from bronze and black, white and yellow marble each composition a deviation from the previous. His wooden sculptures were made of blocks from wood such as maple, oak and walnut. He often made sculptures that could be disassembled and reassembled into new pieces. His bronze sculptures had a reflective surface that he polished and created a unique golden finish such that the reflective surface at the base of the sculpture appeared to be endless. He often manipulated the light when the work was on display to portray a sculpture that was unbound its form or surroundings. He understood the relationship between that base and sculpture and made supports for all his pieces.
In doing so, Brancusi created an invention unlike any seen by his contemporaries. He created a series that showed his truth, his search for the essence of flight. A concept that took him close to twenty years, seventeen sculptures later, he found satisfaction in his brilliant radicalism.
Elizabeth Mackey and Rachel Bernstein.Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
St&ecutephanie Giry. An Odd Bird: Legal Affairs. The magazine at the intersection of Law and Life: issue September – October. 2002
Romania, 1876–1957, active France
Bird in Space, 1927
Polished bronze, height: 73 in.; diameter: 8 in.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
© Constantin Brancusi Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Photo © 2009 Museum Associates/LACMA