The following essay, originally published in the April 1961 edition of The London Magazine, recounts the time by spent by Eugene Ionesco, one of the 20th century’s greatest avant-garde theatre writers, with the Romanian sculptor and painter Constantin Brâncuși, widely thought to be one of the founding fathers of modernist art.
Original translation by John Russell, April, 1961.
It was in the very last years of Brâncuși’s life that I came to know him in the studio of the painter Istrati, which stood just across the way from Brâncuși’s, in the Impasse Ronsin. The passage-way between the two was barely a yard wide.
‘Who is this Ionesco who writes plays?’ Brâncuși had said to Istrati: ‘Bring him along one evening. I’d like to know him.’
Of course I’d admired Brâncuși’s work for a long time. I’d also heard people talk of the man himself. I knew that he was a cantankerous old person, not easy to deal with, always grousing, a sort of wild man, almost. Dealers or collectors who came to call in the hope of buying one of his sculptures would be insulted and driven from the door, it seemed. But as Brâncuși could not live entirely alone there were just a few privileged friends, women as well as men, whom he would welcome and make much of. They it was who were invited to share in his at once primitive and fastidious meals- meals at which the menu might well include an extraordinary yoghourt prepared by Brâncuși himself, some cabbage (raw, and bitter to the taste), some salted cucumbers, polenta, and champagne. Sometimes, after the dessert, if he was in a particularly good humour, Brâncuși would give a demonstration of the danse du ventre, while his lady-guests sipped their Turkish coffee.
I have a difficult character and, doubtless for that reason, I detest those of whom the same could be said. For a long time I hesitated to go and see Broncusi: it was enough for me to look long and closely at his work, more especially as I knew the basic theories which he was very fond of expounding to his guests, and which they were no less fond of expounding to others. I knew how he hated and despised what he called ‘beefsteak’ sculptures – figurative sculpture, as it would now be called: more or less everything that has been done in sculpture from the time of the Greeks to the present day. I knew that this was a favourite gambit of his, and one which few visitors were spared. Nor did his eccentricities much attract me: he refused, for instance, to shake hands with Max Ernst, claiming that Ernst had the evil eye and had caused him, with one hate-filled glance, to fall down and break his ankle. Nor could he bear Picasso: ‘Picasso is not a painter at all, but a black magician’.
One winter’s evening I went to call on Istrati. We were sitting quietly talking around the stove when the door opened. Brâncuși came in: a little old man of eighty, with a big stick in his hand, dressed in white with a tall cap of white fur on his head, a patriarchal white beard and, of course, ‘eyes sparkling with malice’, as the formula so aptly has it. He sat down on a stool, and I was introduced. He pretended not to have heard my name, and it was repeated to him twice, perhaps three times. And then, pointing his stick at me, he said:
‘What does he do for a living?’
‘He’s a dramatist!’ said Istrati, who had already explained this more than once to Brâncuși.
‘He’s what?’ said the Master.
‘He writes for the theare…plays, you know!’
‘Plays!’ Brâncuși was dumbfounded.
And then, turning towards me in triumph and looking me full in the face:
‘Well, I detest the theatre. I don’t need the theatre. I abominate the theatre!’
‘I detest it, too. Detest it and abominate it. That’s the only reason why I write plays- to make a monkey of the theatre.’
Astonished and disbelieving, Brâncuși looked at me with his sly old peasant’s eye. For the moment he couldn’t think of anything sufficiently offensive to say in reply; but, five minutes later, he came back to the charge.
‘What did you think of Hitler?’ he asked.
I replied quite frankly that that was a subject on which I had no opinion.
‘He was a capital fellow!’ Brâncuși burst out, as if to challenge me. ‘A hero, a man misunderstood, a victim!’
And he went off into an extraordinary, confused, metaphysical eulogy of ‘Aryanism’.
Istrati and his wife were horror-struck, but I didn’t turn a hair, for I knew that Brâncuși liked to disconcert whomever he was with by saying the exact opposite to what he supposed them to believe. In this way he had been known to launch full-scale attacks successively on the Nazi party, democracy, anti-communism, science, modernism, anti-modernism…
In the end he gave up: whether because he took me for an ingenuous admirer who would take his every word as gospel, or because he realised that he would never manage to touch me on the raw, I cannot say. He made the great anti-beefsteak oration for which hearsay had prepared me. He told us stories of his past- how, for instance, he had once walked most of the way from the banks of the Danube to Paris. He spoke of the ‘ions’, those space-traversing principles of cosmic energy which he could see with his naked eye, so he told us, in the rays of the sun. He turned to my wife and reproached her severely for not wearing her hair longer. And then he suddenly seemed to run out of aggressivity. A childlike joy came over him, his face relaxed in smiles, he got up, went out of the room leaning on his stick, left the door open to the cold, and came back after a minute or two with a bottle of champagne in his hand. He wasn’t against us anymore: he was beginning to like us.
I was fortunate enough to see Brâncuși four or five times again before he died. After he had been in a clinic to have his fractured leg looked after, he never left his studio. He had the latest model of vacuum cleaner, but whenever a woman was among his visitors he asked her to sweep the studio with a real broom. He had the telephone, on the table beside his bed, and he had a bagful of pebbles. When he got too bored and wanted to talk to his neighbour he took a handful of the pebbles, opened the door and threw them, by way of summons, at Istrati’s front door. It never entered his head to telephone.
He was very near his end when my wife and my daughter, who was then eleven, went to see him. He was in bed, with his fur cap on his head and his big stick within reach . My wife is still deeply moved when she thinks of this last interview. When Brâncuși saw my daughter he fell into a state of great emotion and made her, half seriously and half in make-belief, a declaration of love. How right she was to wear her hair long! What beautiful eyes she had! The white-bearded Ancient took her by the hand and said with great tenderness: ‘My dear little betrothed, my fiancee, I have been waiting for you all my life. I am happy that you have come. As you see, I am very close to our good Lord now- I need only stretch out my hand to catch hold of Him.’
Then he opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate the betrothal.
Brâncuși might have been mistaken for an unsubtle, instinctive, country-bumpkinish artist. But his work, which was at once fastidious and of a complete simplicity, was the expression of thought-structures, where art and philosophy were concerned, which were in the highest degree lucid, elaborated and profound. The creative vision which underlies his art was highly intellectualised. And yet it was creative, above all things. Brâncuși had nothing of what is called ‘culture’ and stood well clear of that soi-distant ‘intellectual life of the day’, which is no more than journalism (or journalism between hard covers). But in other ways he was infinitely more cultivated than the men of letters, the ‘thinkers’, the nonentities who claim for themselves the title of simple or complicated, that they take for the truth, or the production of their own unaided minds. Brâncuși could out-master any Master of Arts. He knew entire history of sculpture, mastered it, gone beyond it, rejected it, come back to it, purified it, reinvented it. He had got down to its essence.
As everyone knows, this century has seen the rediscovery of the essence of painting. This was achieved, perhaps, by successive approximations, by the elimination, one after another, of impurities and non-pictorial elements. The painters responsible for all this were, at the same time, critics who scrutinised the paintings of others and attained to purity by erasion and abstraction. What they never quite did was to seize the quintessence of painting as Brâncuși seized the quintessence of sculpture. For painting, in any case, the road was long and strewn with errors: discoveries were made by accident, in the heat of the chase, as the painter darted now in one direction, now in another. Above all, a great many painters contributed to it; two or three generations were involved, some going straight to the target, others falling apart.
There was no falling short, no fumbling, in Brâncuși’s case; his work proceeded in entire security. It was within himself, and in complete isolation, that he came upon his own models, his sculptural archetypes. In his case the concentration, the purification, operated inwardly. When he looked outside himself, as he did on occasion, it was not at paintings or statues, but at trees, children, birds on the wing, water and the sky.
He managed to seize hold of the idea of movement by avoiding the realism of detail and aiming rather at a universal reality. His art is an art of truth- something that cannot always be said of realism; its truth is, in any case, a lesser truth. Brâncuși went to school with his own thoughts, his private experience, and not in the studio of an established master; no one helped him. He must have a good deal of contempt for others.
Brâncuși has been described as one of the creators of non-figurative sculpture. Brâncuși claimed that his work was not non-figurative. In this he was quite right. His work is concerned with essential figures, ideas made palpable, and a universal reality which is, in effect, anti-abstract. Nothing could be more concrete than his bird in flight; dynamism made palpable in a form which is itself dynamic. Rodin contrived to express movement by giving the body in question attitudes suggestive of displacement in space. In this, he was still in bondage to the particular. Brâncuși got clear away from the particular in all its aspects- clear, too, of all psychologising- and thus broke through to concrete essences. An important element in non-figurative painting is the extent to which the painter’s own temperament can be discerned: his individuality, his sense of pathos, his private response to the world. Once canvas can be distinguished from another in terms of the painter’s individual anguish: that anguish has, indeed, become his very language. But with Brâncuși, sculptural ideas and sculptural forms are his only concern. We know that the poems of ideas and sculptural forms are his only concern. We know that the poems of Mallarme, and those of Valery, were a form of reflection upon the nature of sculpture- and, at the same time, a purely sculptural method of calling the world to mind and translating it into living forms and lines of force.
Brâncuși’s art is anti=psychological, absolute in its objectivity; and the facts which it makes manifest are ineluctable, statements in sculpture which exist on the far side of allegory.
Almost immediately it was clear that he was determined never to yield to the temptation of sentimentality; ‘interpretive’ or ‘story-telling’ sculpture was likewise abhorrent to him. I well understand that he could not like theatre. In his very first works, the head of Laocoon for instance, he is preoccupied rather with getting the details exactly right than with giving the head a look of suffering. (The suffering is there, clearly enough, but it makes itself felt indirectly.) In the study of the naked male body which he made for the competition for the final diploma at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts he goes so far in his realism that the sculpture ends by looking ‘inhuman’, such was his indifference to its psychological aspect. As much could be said of his ‘Anatomy’ in which he sought only to know the body as intimately as possible and pursued that knowledge with a sort of objective cruelty into which irony entered hardly at all. By 1997, the year of his ‘Prayer’, the last remnants of affectivity disappear, thanks to the slightly Byzantine stylisation which transposes and integrates the element of sentimentality. At first sight the ‘Egg’ could be taken for a new-born baby in its swaddling-clothes. From 1910 onward the ‘Magic Bird’ far outstrips, in the department of the marvellous, any realistic, non-miraculous bird. ‘The Egg’ can still be seen to have started from a new-born child, if we follow its simplifications, stage by stage; the different stylizations of ‘Madmoiselle Pogany’ can also be put in order, one by one, till we arrive at the last, audacious, magical transformation. But quite soon, and in so far as ‘style’ is anecdote, in spite of everything, Brâncuși will have gone beyond stylization and arrived at a language beyond language, beyond style itself. All this will have welled up from the deepest recesses of his nature as an unbroken series of revelations outside of consciousness: to grasp them called for a lucidity, a self-awareness, a power and precision of mind, which make of Brâncuși the antithesis of a Douanier Rousseau. When we look at the ‘Bird in Space’ in all its purity, we are amazed at the acuity of his sculptural vision; we are amazed too, at its simplicity, and amazed that we could not see what was ‘there for all to see’.
Brâncuși’s syntheses are astonishing, unbelievable almost: that he should have evolved a folklore which owes nothing to the picturesque, and a reality that is anti-realistic; that his figures should stand on the far side of the figuration; that he should be both a scientist and a man of mystery; that he should reconcile the dynamic and the petrified, make ideas palpable to the touch and quintessences visible to all, and have intuitions that stretch back, across our museums and academies and notions of culture, to the beginning of all things.
For more on Constantin Brâncuși, visit Tate.
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