Art of the Day

6 May

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Bird in Space and Fish. both by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). Bird in Space was made of polished bronze with a black marble base in 1924, and Fish was made of veined marble with a two-part mirror and oak base in 1922. Both on are view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Notes from philamuseum.org:

Unlike other motifs, the Fish occupied Brancusi’s interest for less than a decade. The series began with this sculpture, continued with five casts in bronze, and ended in 1930 with a much larger version in blue-gray marble (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). While the horizontal orientation of Fish is opposite that of the bird sculptures, the two motifs share a sense of barely contained motion and a would-be defiance of gravity. Fish, because it cannot remain upright without support, exemplifies the symbiosis between base and sculpture that characterizes so much of Brancusi’s work. The mirror-and-wood form in this version provides an environment outside of which the sculpted shape on top cannot function. Removed from its base, this sculpture cannot stand, but must be lain on its side, where it appears abstract and lifeless. When assembled, however, the mirror below the Fish surrounds and supports it and allows it to float weightlessly. The marble’s veining is set into rippling motion as the viewer walks around the sculpture, and at the correct angle the creature suddenly vanishes into a sliver of reflected light. Because the Fish begins to move only as the viewer does, change, not fixity, becomes the determinant of the sculpture’s identity. In 1927, less than three moths after Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché completed their purchase of John Quinn’s collection of Brancusi sculptures, Katherine Dreier singled out this Fish along with Yellow Bird to add to her collection (see Dreier to Duchamp, January 10, 1927, Dreier Collection, YCAL). Fish was sold in 1942 to Peggy Guggenheim, who owned the work briefly before it entered the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg in 1948.

This is Brancusi’s first and smallest polished bronze Bird in Space. Its dimensions suggest that it derives from a plaster cast of the first marble Bird in Space (1923). However, the footing was changed, presumably benefiting from the innovations of the second marble Bird in Space (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-19). The lower section of this new footing flares out like a skirt, a stylization unique among these works. The bottom of this element, like those of all versions of Bird in Space, is longer than it is wide; it traces an egg-shaped outline on the cylinder below. Sidney Geist has identified this work as the subject of a famous photograph by Edward Steichen, taken at the Brummer Gallery in New York in 1926. The photograph was formerly assumed to portray Steichen’s own bronze Bird in Space because it appears on the base that now supports that sculpture (Geist, Sidney. “The Birds.” Review of Brancusi’s Birds, by Athena T. Spear. Artforum {New York}, vol. 9, no. 3 {November 1970}, p. 80). Apparently the Arensbergs purchased this bronze Bird in Space with only the black marble cylinder for a support. Photographs of their house reveal that the Arensbergs later displayed this work on the wooden base Brancusi sent them with Mademoiselle Pogany [III] (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-21) in the early 1930s. When the two sculptures were acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1950, the wooden based was shown beneath Bird in Space, but it was restored to Mademoiselle Pogany [III] in the 1970s.

My comments:

I had to write an essay comparing these two sculptures for my Modern Art class, so below is that essay:

The Devil is in the Details: Brancusi’s Manifesto for the Beauty of the Straightforward

As the adage “missing the forest for the trees” implies, sometimes it is all too easy to get lost in the details of a concept to the point where the essential idea is lost. Taking this cautionary phrase to heart, Constantin Brancusi aims to create sculptures such as his Fish and Bird in Space that, in his own words, “pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature.”[1] He accomplishes this goal by eliminating the naturalistic details of the subjects in his sculptures and paring the figure down to simple, geometric forms. With this modus operandi, Brancusi is not trying to make an art object that physically resembles a bird or a fish. Instead, he aims to express the fundamental qualities of the bird and the fish that make them unique creatures. In doing so, he also reveals what he associates with these animals, what he finds to be beautiful about them and where he thinks beauty comes from: the simple, the elegant, and the true.

Brancusi’s deliberate efforts to minimally use the materials at his disposal result in a depiction of fish and birds that reduces them to their intangible characteristics. While Brancusi is not simplifying these animals’ forms merely for the sake of simplicity, he admits that in simplicity one often finds the truest reality: “Simplicity is not an end in art, but we usually arrive at simplicity as we approach the true sense of things.”[2] For Fish and Bird in Space, Brancusi carved veined marble and polished bronze respectively to create incredibly simple shapes. These shapes do not physically resemble a fish or a bird: they do not have eyes, scales, feathers, or any other anatomical details that we observe of fish and birds in the natural world. The shapes that Brancusi sculpts to depict the fish and the bird are not even realistic silhouettes of these animals, and yet they are able to effectively express the spirit of the fish and the bird.

He achieves such as expression through an economy of detail, maximizing the potential of the veined marble and polished bronze to communicate the concept of the fish and the concept of the bird without having to resort to additional materials and accoutrements. For Fish, Brancusi utilized the veined marble pattern to resemble scales on a fish’s body. The cold smoothness of the marble also lends itself to the fish form, since cold and smooth are two common qualities of fish. The straightforward shape of the marble—an oval that tapers to an acute sharp angle—does not literally mimic the shape of a fish, but it does resemble the iconic image of the fish as we know it from the Christian symbol, and thus it is easily recognizable as a fish. It is also most likely what the average person would draw if he or she were asked to draw a fish in the simplest way possible.   This resemblance reveals that Brancusi is attracted to a reductive approach to making art, eschewing decadence and excessive ornamentation as elements of true beauty. Where Brancusi could have articulated all the veins and the literal shape of a fish’s tale or carved in every individual scale with technical accuracy, instead he simply carves a pointed angle for a tale and lets the veins of the marble naturally imply scales.

Brancusi adopted the same method for Bird in Space. The sphere at the top of the sculpture that tapers to a fine point does not look like an actual bird, and yet it is still easy to see that Brancusi is depicting a bird. This recognition comes from the fact that what Brancusi’s Bird in Space does literally communicate is the vertical motion of a bird in flight as well as the natural swelled chest and thin legs that are a part of its corporeal composition. Although bronze is actually a quite heavy material, Brancusi has effectively made the Bird in Space appear weightless by virtue of the sculpting of the material: the bird has the densest part of its body located at the top of the sculpture, which rest on a relatively much thinner base. It provokes the illusion that if a base so thin can support a top that appears so dense, the sculpture must actually be of very little weight at all. As a result, it possesses a grace that large yet elegant birds such as the bald eagle exude. The golden tone of the polished bronze is reminiscent of the sun, and along with the shape of the sculpture it expresses the idea of a bird flying up into the air soaked in radiant light.

The display of Fish and Bird in Space is crucial to their expressive effects and both continue the theme of simplicity. For the base of Fish the circular mirror with a blue-green band that traces its edge over which the fish figure hovers serves as a metaphor for the glassy surface of the ocean, which often has a reflective quality. The dark wooden base that supports the mirror and the fish symbolizes the opacity that one reaches at certain depths in the ocean when one can no longer see into the black abyss. The short, black marble cylinder and limestone base upon which the Bird in Space stands similarly imitates the natural surroundings of birds: it is reminiscent of a perch on a branch of a giant tree from which the bird is about to take flight.

While Brancusi’s manipulation of the formal elements of his sculptures expresses the intrinsic qualities of the bird and the fish with as little superfluousness as possible, these qualities do not apply to all species of birds or fish. Consequently, Brancusi reveals what he associates with these animals and also what he finds to be beautiful about them. His Fish does not exhibit the characteristics that one would probably associate with sharks, such as power, dominance over the ocean, and even danger. It’s not colorful, has an almost paper-thin body, and seems pretty stereotypical in its form—it doesn’t have an unusual tail or body shape that some fish possess. Brancusi’s Fish instead seems much more related to a small, speedy, almost unnoticeable minnow. Similarly, the bird that Bird in Space evokes is a certain kind of bird. It is most like a majestic eagle due to its large size and swelled chest. It communicates the paradoxical nature of a bird that is above average in size compared with other birds and yet appears to have little mass due to its ability to float on the air.

Brancusi’s choice of species of fish and birds that serve more or less as archetypes for the rest of their animal’s class underscores the observation that Brancusi is not concerned with depicting particular fish or birds themselves, but rather with revealing the abstract qualities that he associates with them. For Fish this includes its constant horizontal motion, its flatness, and its diminutive imperceptibility. His depiction of birds according to Bird in Space indicates his association of them with the tendency towards upward travel and density juxtaposed with airy buoyancy. These well-defined and clear-cut associations open a window onto the artist’s values of unambiguity and consistency. While some artists thrive in the grey, murky areas of life, Brancusi shines in his embrace of the black and white.


[1] “Constantin Brancusi,” The Art Story, last modified 2012, accessed April 21, 2013, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-brancusi-constantin.htm.

[2] Ibid.

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