What can you make of this work by Constantin Brancusi?
The Newborn by Constantin Brancusi ( bronze version in the Museum of Modern Art, New York)
The American sculptor and teacher Louis Slobodkin figured it out this way:
“This Newborn [figure] may be explained thus to anyone who resists it: Here is the egg or the embryo beginning to break up and stir. It stops being a perfect egg shape and stirs into life. It flattens out at one side and seems to open up like a baby crying to be fed.”
Louis Slobodkin, Sculpture, Principles and Practice, Dover Publications, Inc., 1949
Slobodkin’s interpretation is catchy. It complements the figure. Would it have occurred to you?
Sculpture started out as idols or as illustrations of known stories or myths. This is the other way around: the artist hands you his work and gives you a few clues but then you solve the puzzle or make up your own story. Is that just as good?
“His philosophy of simplifying a shape to its very essence has affected all our contemporary thought on shape, ” says Slobodkin.
What is this about simplifying shape to its very essence? Is that the same as “abstract” art?
Brancusi in 1922 by Edward Steichen (public domain photo)
Brancusi flared up whenever he heard anyone say “abstract”.
“The people who call my work ‘abstract’ are imbecils; what they call ‘abstract’ is in fact the purest realism, the reality of which is not represented by external form but by the idea behind it, the essence of the work.”
The “reality of “realism”? “The ‘idea’ behind the external form”?
“What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things,” he says. “It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.”
“Essentially real?” This is getting terribly fuzzy. “The essence of things”? How do you get at the ESSENCE of things? Plato said what we saw here below were only the shadows of imitations of things. He said we would see the things themselves undistorted only in the next life. Is Brancusi jumping the gun? Aren’t the concepts of “essence” and “surface” and “real” making a stew in Brancusi’s mind—or a sort of nail soup?
Slobodkin saw the figure and went off on a kind of story about the egg breaking and the baby crying. But he feels apologetic: “But that is not the esthetic reason for this work. It is an interpretation, a defense, an answer to one who asks, Let him make shapes, any kind of shapes, but why give them a name?”
Seeing Brancusi’s figure you might recall the story of the Spartan king who was asked if he would like to hear a man imitate a nightingale. “No,” he said. “I have heard the nightingale.” [See more examples of Spartan wit here.]
Following Erika’s suggestion, I am adding pictures of more of Brancusi’s works.
Bird in Space (public domain photo)
The Gate of the Kiss (Creative Commons Atribution- Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)
Wikipedia says this:
In 1938, Brancusi finished the World War I monument in Tîrgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. “Table of Silence”, “Gate of the Kiss”, and “Endless Column” commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanian civilians who in 1916 fought off a German invasion.