Art of the Day

28 Mar

Newborn. by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). Marble, 1915. Currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Notes from philamuseum.org:

Brancusi’s long sequence of sculptures on the theme of an infant’s head began with the realistic portrayals such as Head of a Sleeping Child (Private Collection) and became more conceptual with Prometheus (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-5). With the wooden Head of a Child (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou) the head itself became the object, and all traces of the neck below or hair above were eliminated. The curving central ridge of the Newborn echoes that of the wooden Head of a Child, but the mouth is much more radically stylized: the ovoid is sharply sliced off into a flat oval plane. Only a small curl of marble remains at the bottom to suggest a chin. The oversized opening indicates a baby’s wide-open mouth emitting a noisy wail, thus lending affectionate wit to the elegant form.

With it’s evocation of either an egg or a cell, Newborn is a metaphor for birth as well as a portrayal of an infant’s head. The theme also points to the newborn quality of Brancusi’s art and this particularly bold sculpture. The sculptor’s obsession with the moment of origin reveals his aspirations toward originality, perhaps the preeminent claim to merit among the modernist vanguard. The serial motifs that characterize Brancusi’s work prove his originality by testing it: the seeming repetitiveness of his sculptures only demonstrates more compellingly the individual distinction of each.

Brancusi cast one bronze version of this work, in slightly modified form, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Additional notes on Brancusi from theartstory.org:

Constantin Brancusi is often regarded as the most important sculptor of the twentieth century. His visionary sculptures often exemplify ideal and archetypal representations of their subject matter. Bearing laconic titles such as Fish, Princess X, and Bird in Space, his sculptures are deceptively simple, with their reduced forms aiming to reveal hidden truths. Unlike the towering figure of Auguste Rodin, for whom Brancusi briefly assisted early in his career, Brancusi worked directly with his materials, pioneering the technique of direct carving, rather than working with intermediaries such as plaster or clay models.

Explaining that “The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter,” Brancusi sought to create sculptures that conveyed the true essence of his subjects, be they animals, people, or objects by concentrating on highly simplified forms free from ornamentation. While many regarded his art as abstract, the artist disagreed; he insisted on the representational nature of his works, asserting that they disclosed a fundamental, often concealed, reality.
Brancusi’s work was largely fueled by myths, folklore,  and “primitive” cultures. These traditional, old-world sources of inspiration formed a unique contrast to the often sleek appearance of his works, resulting in a distinctive blend of modernity and timelessness.
The materials Brancusi used – primarily marble, stone, bronze, wood, and metal – guided the specific forms he produced. He paid close attention to his mediums, meticulously polishing pieces for days to achieve a gleam that suggested infinite continuity into the surrounding space – “as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”
My comments:
First of all, I find it fascinating and super cool that Brancusi briefly worked under Rodin; I had no idea that they had any connection with each other and it’s interesting that they did work together, considering how different their styles are. But anyway, Brancusi is one of my favorite sculptors because his sculptures aren’t abstract for the sake of being abstract and defying convention and maximizing shock value. He doesn’t even like to call his art abstract, as it says above in the notes I provided. Since Brancusi sought to identify the fundamental reality of the subjects of his sculptures, it’s interesting to consider what he suggests is the essence of newborns as he conveyed in this sculpture. When we talked about this sculpture in my Modern Art class today, our professor told us that Brancusi had specifically stipulated that this sculpture not be placed on a base or pedestal of some sort, apparently liking the quality of vulnerability that the lack of a supporting base would provide. The almost perfect egg shape of the sculpture, plus its pure white color, add to the sense of innocence and purity that the object conveys, which are characteristics that could be applied to newborns as well. Yet with the carving out of the wide mouth and the arc that implies a furrowed brow as the newborn wails, it reminds us that newborns are far from perfect angels. But this aspect of the newborn is strongly tempered by the other more pure and pristine elements that I mentioned, creating a kind of paradox with a newborn that is usually an object of flowing adoration even as it has some quite unpleasant behaviors. But that kind of mimics the way people treat babies in general: everyone who isn’t already a parent wants to have one and has this idealized image of the beautiful and perfect baby, willfully ignoring the nuisance that babies can be at the same time.
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