Brancusi’s Essential Egg

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)

Sleeping Muse (fair use photo)

Endless Column  (Romaniaphotos)

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.


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Brancusi, great artists, sculpture, stone carving. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Brancusi’s Essential Egg

  1. ivdanu says:

    The fact you mention Plato proves you fully understood (and your questions are just for us, rethorical…) what Brancusi said…

    Things were a lot more purer and simpler for him. He was not an intelectual (neither am I) and that’s why art talking and “abstract” talking was getting on his nerves (and mines)…

    His works are simply beautiful and one should (I think) take them as naturally as a sunset or a great landscape or a nice smell of burned leaves in autumn…

    You know, of course, he was Romanian – and of peasant origin at that; his origins could explain some things about him…the no-nonsense attitude, for instance) Very interesting post, swallows. thanks.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Interesting Swallows that you picked Newborn, not one of his best known works. I woulnd’t read too much into the egg shape and embryo. Sounds catchy indeed.

    If I read carefully what he says about the essence of his art, “purest realism, the reality of which is not represented by external form but by the idea behind it”, my presumption is that a newborn is a crying machine. Or maybe “the idea behind it” is in fact referring to emotion? In this light maybe The Newborn has to do more with pain and vulnerability. But it’s all speculation.

    I’m not surprised he was so angry when they called his art abstract. His realism has to do with the Venus of Willendorf, and even more so with traditional Romanian woodcarving, where generations of skilled artisans boiled down form to simple but perfect geometric motifs.

  3. 100swallows says:

    Erika: thanks for reminding me of Brancusi’s background as a wood carver. That does seem to help understand him. And for sending me to have another look at the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Danu: Yes, I knew he was Romanian and I wondered what you would have to say about him. Perhaps knowing about his background as a poor peasant and a wood carver is the key to a better understanding of his work. I agree with you that the artist needn’t be a philosopher–it’s probably an impediment if he is; that he must ultimately trust in his instinct, not his intellect.

  5. wrjones says:

    The essence of Slobodkin is meaningless whiffledust.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Bill: No “whiffledust” entry in my dictionary, but it’s a nice word. Just take those works of Brancusi as quaint objects and don’t call them art if you don’t want to–at least don’t compare them with John Constable’s landscapes. Danu and Erika reminded me that the guy was a whittler. So let him whittle. I bet you like a drugstore Indian, no? Brancusi does totem poles and any kind of curious thing that occurs to him. Just blow off the whiffledust and take the work as a feelie–a mental as well as tactual feelie.

  7. rich says:

    Reminded me of an egg I came across – it was made out of plaster and used to be placed in a hen’s empty nest for animation.

    Was that a piece of art? I think it was, at least one could write an elaborate treatise to prove it was.

    Never mind – Englisch für Fortgeschrittene:
    whiffledust…to whittle…
    Thanks for the lesson.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    Most likely what was meant was “whittler’s sawdust transmogrified into the essence” of an egg, or a bird in its purest form…….

    I’m kidding in case it’s not obvious. It would be interesting to compare Brancusi to Pollock at about the time he created his first drip paintings. I’m much more familiar with, and appreciative of, Pollock than Brancusi so I may misspeak about Brancusi. But what always struck me about Pollock is that he was trying to say something honest while at the same time avoiding cliche. In my own experience that is one of the driving forces of artmaking. It sometimes requires breaking the mold of current art.

    This reminds me of the first time I saw Bob Dylan live, probably around 1976 or so. He hadn’t performed live in years. But when he did he took his old songs and radically transformed them, much for the worse in the opinion of the people who attended those concerts. To me though it served as an example of an artist getting bored with what he had done in the past and needing to say it again in a new way.

    My feeling, and thought, is that Brancusi, Pollock, Dylan and many artists may come up with reasons for what they do. Sometimes they have high-flown explanations and at other times much more mundane. But underneath it all three is oftne just a need to do things somewhat differently than they have been done before.

    As I said I’m really not all that familiar with Brancusi. He always seemed a bit too pure for my tastes. But I do wonder if part of his motivation wasn’t like that of most artists: the desire to create something in a new way, not necessarily a purer one, just a new one.

    I guess all in all what I’m saying is that I expect that taste, even if it is very high-level taste, is a much greater factor in art than many of the intellectual reasons that often accompany it.

  9. erikatakacs says:

    Maybe to interpret Brancusi we have to go back to Brancusi. His explanation is crystal clear:

    “When you see a fish you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water… If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit.”

    Those “imbeciles” still categorize him the pioneer of abstraction. How ironic. It’s not the artist who write art history.

    And another quote: “Don’t look for obscure formulas or mystery in my work. It is pure joy that I offer you. Look at my sculptures until you see them.”

    Swallows, maybe you should add more pics?

  10. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Ever since I see Brancusi as a wood-carver I understand his work better. But I wish he wouldn’t (and some critics wouldn’t) talk about it. I don’t know about that flash of the spirit of the fish but I like a good feelie sculpture. Nothing wrong with streamlined objects–they can be really decorative and pretty and suggestive.
    Did you see? I put in more pictures.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Rich: I bet all the art of that plaster egg (painted?) was lost on the hen.

  12. ivdanu says:

    Thanks for this post, swallows. And Thanks, erika, for the citations (I didn’t knew them).

    There is an austery, an economy of everything, a laconism in a real peasants life ( I’ve worked a few years in a mountain village). Brancusi had it. He also had the silent intelligence and most of all the intuition and the a sculptor’s genius for simple, essential forms.

    He also had, just like Picasso, the abhorence for “theories” and “literature” about their art. (Not to compare myself with them but I have that abhorence too… For me, an art critic is a parasite and rarely useful…not useful at all for me) So, again, thanks Erika for those citations (I would love to know your source…)

  13. ivdanu says:

    Of course, it’s “austerity”…

  14. rich says:

    The more I look at that egg, the more it starts to wobble in its whiteness, it becomes alive and the design is of excellent quality and taste…I’ve got to scrap that plaster egg.

  15. erikatakacs says:

    Thanks for the pics Swallows. I’m glad you look at him and his work in a different light. I guess he had to speak up when he thought critics were interpreting his art completely wrong. Thanks to your post I looked up a lot of his works and info, and I consider myself a fan of his art now.

    Danu, I just googled Brancusi quotes.

    Also I found a picture of him in his studio.

    And lots of early works, that show clearly the gradual reduction of his forms, from rodinesque realism to “essence”:

  16. 100swallows says:

    Ken: I never understood how performers (singers) could go around singing the same song in exactly the same way time after time without getting fed up with their job (and their public). Of course the public wants to hear the song exactly as it is on the record–that’s the way they have come to love it. Dylan disappointed all his career by changing the songs in live performances but he kept entertaining himself. Yes, artists have to do things differently each time, each work.

  17. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    Well this post certainly has brought up a lot to think about regarding both Brancusi and art in general. My list of artists that I need to revisit keeps growing! I’ve known for years that I wanted to revisit Constable but now, with all of this writing about Brancusi, I think I should pay more attention to him as well………….

    It’s funny. I’m not a proponent of art always needing to be new. And yet I think for most artists the art has to seem ‘new’ to them or it becomes boring. That is part of its excitement of art to most artists I think. Every piece should seem new and fresh. Sometimes the newness may seem horribly complex and messy, as in Pollock, and other times it may seem spare and austere, as in Brancusi.

    I still remember that Dylan concert. Everything seemed wrong. He sang way too fast, way too loud, almost angrily. And yet a few years later that was his style and it no longer seemed wrong at all……..

  18. ivdanu says:

    If one look a Pollock painting just like a flower bed (I’ve heard Ed Harris – Pollock saying that – probably after the real Pollock…) it shouldn’t look so complex and messy…

  19. cantueso says:

    It is something to see readers look deep into the meaning of a Brancusi, much more than, for instance, into the meaning of a Michelangelo where, on the contrary, you’d see them talking about the distribution of shapes.

    Maybe, given the fact that art is now not appreciated by “the people”, it has become a coward ?

    Also, remember that banks and lawyers and CEOs and also the mayors of small towns, those who finance the Brancusis, don’t like to have meaningful art on premises that are open to the public.


  20. cantueso says:

    I think that Brancusi egg is mislinked.

  21. cantueso says:

    More like horsefeathers than whittledust.

    And what about the idea that you have to look into an artist’s background to understand his art? It is depressing, and at the same time it is beyond strange that when art becomes poorish, its critics become enigmatic, and every vernissage turns into a masquerade party.

  22. Alexandru Boris Cosciug says:

    Did you know that, based on Eve mtDNA hypothesis, during In Vitro Fertilisation technologies the geneticists eliminate Adam mtDNA. Because this, the newborn boy’s sperm did not have the specific shape, movement and function of natural sperm, caused by missing Adam mtDNA.
    Practically at puberty, the IVF newborn boys become infertile.
    We can say that Brancusi foreseen the future.
    In this situation, why The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2010 was awarded to Robert G. Edwards “for the development of in vitro fertilization”?

  23. shaniskinny says:

    check out this review on Constantin Brancusi’s 135th Birthday

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