When I was studying art history, I remember feeling a weird need to lower my voice and signal some obvious awe when Brancusi was being discussed. Projected onto him was something akin to saintliness. Various cultish stories were in circulation about his behaviour. It was said that Brancusi reached Paris from his native Romania in 1904 by walking all the way. His sayings were collected and repeated as if they were the wisdoms of Confucius, when, actually, they are rather banal. “Beauty is absolute balance,” he said. “To see far is one thing; to go there is another,” he is also said to have said.
Brancusi himself used all his considerable Balkan nous to pile on the saintliness. He grew a prophetic beard and wore only white clothes, with clogs on his feet. When people came to his studio, they were not allowed to touch the sculpture in case they disturbed its purity. Dove-white marble became his material of choice. Longtime readers of this column will know that I am loath to accuse any artist of pretension because all great art has to dare to be serious. But in Brancusi’s case, let us make an exception: he was pretentious. And his work, like his aphorisms, does not survive a decent scrutiny.
Tate Modern has played along with the legend, as it were, by focusing on Brancusi’s carving. It needs to do this because Brancusi did not die until 1957, and in his later years in Paris, a huge tonnage of dodgy, expensive and inauthentic bronze reproduction flowed out of his studio. Take away this tonnage of repro and you have a modest output for a 60-year career. Thus, by focusing on what Brancusi actually carved, the things he made with his bare hands, the Tate is having a stab at returning to what one might call the authentic Brancusi. It’s a decent ambition. But it has resulted in a strikingly spare show, whose pious white atmospheres reminded me of one or two Italian living rooms I have been into, outside which you were expected to remove your shoes.
When Brancusi arrived in Paris in 1904 — the story about him walking all the way from Romania is now discredited (his parents were reasonably well-off landowners, and Brancusi was bequeathed some land, which he sold to pay for his studies) — he sought initially to become a sculptor of plush national monuments. His first Parisian training was a Beaux Arts training. But in 1906, he spent a famous month working as an assistant in Rodin’s studio, and see how much he learnt in that famous month (and I don’t just mean learning to peddle countless bronze casts of your work, as Rodin so successfully did).
The first work you encounter dates from 1908, and is entitled The Kiss, would you believe? Hacked out of tough, medieval-looking rock rather than any of the perfectly polished white stones that lie ahead, it shows two rectangular sheela-na-gigs, a him and a her, wedged together like a pair of hugging bricks: Fred loves Wilma. The two rough-hewn lovers appear to share a single cyclopic eye that stares at us. It’s a lively piece, and rather charming. But it is also an act of brazen theft.
Had Brancusi really walked from Romania to Paris, he might have passed hundreds of romanesque churches on the way whose corbels were decorated with interlocking rough-hewn lovers of exactly this heft and stance. The clasping lovers was one of the stand-bys of romanesque church decoration, representing Adam and Eve and warning of the dangers of lust.
Of course, Brancusi is not alone among the early-20th- century pioneers in attempting to steal the fire of primitive art. They were all at it. So-called primitive art, be it from Africa or Romania, or the church around the corner, offered a short cut to deeper, more authentic artistic feeling. What is unusual about Brancusi — his abiding fault — is that he stole from primitive art to achieve such inauthentic feeling.
The show’s second room is devoted to white marble ovals, all of which have something of the egg about them, and most of which are actually carved heads, lying on their side and peeping out at you, sideways. There’s a famous Man Ray photograph of Kiki of Montparnasse, matching her dark beauty with one of these delicate recumbent egg-heads, though, in Kiki’s case, it is a churned-out Brancusi-style souvenir, not a carved original, that is being rhymed with her.
Let’s say you forgive these giant paperweights the portentous banality of their central idea, which is that the head equals an egg, and that the egg is the beginning of everything. Doh.
What you cannot forgive is the banality of the carving. When Brancusi carved a woman’s face, or a baby’s, he did it exactly as a Japanese manga artist might do it today: he made it oval, gave it a pert nose, a tiny mouth, and eyes as big as a bug’s. It’s a cute approximation stolen directly from Cycladic art, which had just become all the rage. These arch stylisations turn the human head into something as elegantly vapid as an art deco lamp. Indeed, his influence on art deco was enormous, which in itself is enough to make us suspicious of him. Later on, in his Bird in Flight era, when a brass upright shaped like a streamlined banana is supposed to evoke the complex notion of avian uplift, he exerted the same kind of regrettable influence on the manufacturers of businessmen’s gewgaws that combine brass with alabaster. When you stop believing in Brancusi, his emptiness is deafening.
The show makes much of the fact that it focuses on his carving. But with most of the early exhibits, it isn’t really carving that has gone into their making but a process of rubbing down, finishing, polishing. He’s more of a smoother than a carver. There’s a piece called Prometheus, a circular white marble on which you can still just about make out the residue of a child’s face. But only just. Its features have almost been worn away. Prometheus, of course, was the Titan who stole fire from the gods, but this insipid piece ought, to my mind, to be called Sisyphus, after the unfortunate mythological king whose punishment for crossing the Olympians was to spend eternity rolling a rock up a hill, a process that would eventually, on this evidence, have resulted in a Brancusi sculpture.
Further into the show, he discovered the chess piece, and began assembling towers of ill-fitting sculptural bits: a rough wooden base, a carved stone middle, topped by a streamlined bronze bird, say. Again, the influences working on him are primitive and obvious. Again, they lead to portentous vagary. What cannot be denied, however, and what the show provides recurring evidence of, as it tiptoes from room to room, is Brancusi’s influence. He may have been a thief, but he was the modern age’s first such thief, and everyone else stole from him.
We’ve already mentioned the art deco women and the office gewgaws. But look how much Picasso took from him, too. Picasso’s greatest sculptures, his giant blobular heads of Marie-Thérèse, are clearly derived from a 1908 Brancusi called, pretentiously, Danaide. Brancusi made the pun between a penis and a woman’s head before Picasso as well. And in 1914, he carved a thin and funny evocation of a little French girl taking her first step that was surely the model for Picasso’s brilliant assemblage of Paloma skipping. So Brancusi stole from the primitives. And Picasso stole from Brancusi. The difference was that Picasso improved upon the originals.