A MAN FOR FOUR SEASONS
Throughout his lifetime, Brancusi appealed to the sophisticate, who thought his work so finely alembicated that it was obviously beamed at them exclusively. Hence the artist’s bitterness, grown all the more intense in old age, at this brutal misconception. If any man worked minus a thought of pleasing an elite, it was him. His opposite was Picasso, the extrovert, who, when in Rome, walking to and fro on the stage before an unpainted backdrop meant for a ballet, suddenly seizing a pail of paint and a housepainter brush, transformed in minutes the canvas into a palace, duly bowing, as would any magician, to the applause of ballet master and ballerinas. Brancusi worked in solitude or, more exactly, engaged in a lonely dialogue with his material, a dialogue between animate man and inanimate matter wherein metal, wood, or stone always were allowed the last word.
The following remarks make no pretense at probing unknown corners of Brancusi’s vast Ōuvre. Rather they are meant as chronological entries that record my successive contacts with his works. These contacts, scattered in time over sixty years, should hopefully show a growth of understanding on my part if wisdom, as popularly believed, is a concomitant of age. Should that test fail, there still remains an unusual feature: the contrasting lands and cultures against which these same sculptures changed meaning as I changed residence.
A first contact with Brancusi was in my native Paris, Paris as I knew it before the First World War. The works exhibited or reproduced were already classical Brancusis, having left behind them the sign of his apprenticeship, that signature of a spatulate thumb pressed deep into the clay, learned as a youth from Rodin. I was an adolescent rapin, flushed with pride, as we all were, with the esoteric propositions of Cubism and the trumpeted discovery of “Art NŹgre.” Brancusi tended rather to favor the sphere, and I would console myself in my naēve search for the expected cubic shapes by hugging that other dilemma: Cézanne, hailed as their patron by Cubist masters, revolved his visual universe around an apple as its sun. “Art NŹgre” was easier to detect in Brancusi’s wood carvings, rough with tool marks and primal shapes, an approach since then more logically tied to Rumanian folk ways.
After a stint as an artillery man in that war, I went to live in Mexico, my other “patria.” The last flux and reflux of the Revolution started a decade before still raked the land. Peace amidst turmoil I found deep into the pit of time. Archeological digs gave me a soothing anchor in a pre-Hispanic culture that stirred what percentage of Indian blood I owed to an Aztec great-grandmother. I reveled among the aggressive army of sculptured masks and fangs, blood basins and crested plumed snakes, hacked out of black lava stone, its grain porous as a sponge, its hardness that of jade. I held in my hand the long lost key to a closed gallery of ancestor portraits, and this comforted me strangely.
These were unusual bedfellows to lay alongside the memory of the Brancusis I had brushed against in Paris. In France, I had admired the Brancusis for their boldness, for their uniqueness. I admired them just as much, but with the fading away of the buzzing of café discussions on style, I now had to strain to see a basic difference between the marble Pogany and a good antique fragment of torso or ankle. From the tiptop of the Chich’en Itza pyramid, European culture, both in space and time, became a unit wherein, patiently polishing to flesh softness the close‑grained marble, Brancusi held hands with Scopas.
In the late twenties, there happened another change of pace: New York and the Art Students League where I taught. Fond of folkways, those of North America dazzled me. All along Fifth Avenue I craned my neck, marveling at the folly of the skyscrapers, and admired, notwithstanding what my stomach had to say, the robot-like purity of the automats. I awkwardly attempted to relate to this new and eminently picturesque milieu, to the point of taking off my hat to its contemporaneous god, the machine. Soon after my arrival, a Brancusi show was thrust at me by the Guggenheims. This was in the early days when, on the site now occupied by the Frank Lloyd Wright circular circus, a private hotel offered to succeeding shows its old-fashioned hospitality, its floors and walls set to plumb, its rooms mildly enclosing cubic spaces. Now it was fashionable to relate Brancusi to the machine. The metal cast of the Bird in Flight had just made scandalous headlines, having been taxed on arrival as customs agents, denying it as art, allowed it in as a piece of pipe. Highbrows laughed at the obtuseness of lowbrows and vice versa. It made me feel middlebrow, but deep in my heart, I believed the customs were in the right. The beauty of the machine, of which so much was made at that time, had indeed nothing to do with function. The Bird in Flight was a superb piece of pipe, useless for any other use than worship. On my visits to the show, I concentrated on the metal sculptures, specifically on the torso of a male adolescent, three pieces of copper “pipe” so beautifully fitted as to deny the blunt saying of Shakespeare, “Man, poor forked creature.” The “machines” of Brancusi, until then not specially singled out by me, helped to reconcile my displaced self to the strange ideals of the new milieu.
For the past quarter of a century I have lived in Hawai`i, traveled and worked in SČmoa and Fiji. Here as before, I first looked for roots. In Hawai`i, the stone age is not a metaphor, but only our yesterday. It was at its peak at the very same time that, in France, Boucher brushed rococo shepherds courting shepherdesses amidst chinoiserie decors, and ends or at least tapers off when Captain Cook, in 1778, anchored in Kealakekua Bay. Observed in the context of Hawaiian culture, Brancusi raised for me problems not touched upon until then. I have mentioned that his craft was a lonely type of work, a dialogue with wood or stone in which, courteously enough, he let the material have a last say. The Hawaiian sculptor, more thoroughly than did Brancusi, recognized the supremacy of his material, be it stone or wood. Surely, with his simple tools, he could hardly have had the upper hand. But his subservience had deeper roots than technical limitations. His was not, when at work, a dialogue between animate man and inanimate matter, but a convocation. Other beings, be they well or ill inclined, observed unseen the artist at his work. Faith perched a potential god in the crotch of each trunk. Man felt a hesitant humility at forcing his way into the belly of a rock wherein, possibly, a godling had chosen residence. Propitiatory prayers, observance of signs and omens, preceded art making. One is reminded of the polite formula that the Melanesian barber to this day, scissors poised at the ready, murmurs before giving one a haircut: “May I descend upon your head.” Not an incautious formula for, not so long ago, he who would have forgotten his manners was fated to be cooked and eaten.
By these Oceanian standards, Brancusi would have proved overbold. It was, in fact, safer to leave the sacred stone, once pointed at by the priest, intact. Without human meddling, the rock became an image fit for the cult, a metamorphosis underlined by wrapping its “waist” with an apron of bark paper, dyed a sacred shade of purple not unlike that reserved for Roman emperors. If the craftsman felt bold enough, a rock could be carved to a shy minimum, just enough to open a spiritual door towards inner recesses and incite the god to seek shelter therein.
Hawaiian stone, spewed hot by the volcanoes, cooled and polished by the implacable caress of the surrounding ocean, makes one feel sorry for those masters, be they Michelangelo or Brancusi, that worked on stones wrapped and delivered from Carrara quarries, not unlike a bag of groceries. From giant mountain to pebbles on the beach, Hawaiian rocks have been wrought to rough or polished perfection, and it is somewhat irrelevant to deny the beauty of these works on the pretext that it was not done by human hands. Towards the end of his life, Brancusi, who had not been averse to tackling tough craft problems, came closer to the Hawaiian point of view. A Hollywood collector I knew displayed proudly on a cushion one of Brancusi’s marble heads, cut straight at the neck, a muse perhaps or an Orpheus. It was an egg shape wherein, with infinite patience and delicacy, the master had reserved the relief of a nose, its nostrils thinned to transparency. One of the housemaids dropped the invaluable egg, and its nose forthwith broke into powder. Duly insured and cocooned in cotton, the mutilated chef d’Ōuvre was sent to the sculptor for repair, money no object. Brancusi observed the damage and returned the package c.o.d. with a polite note, “The accident had, indeed, greatly increased the beauty of the work.” I believe that the aging master, in all sincerity, was edging closer to the logic of nature and the respect for it shown by the Hawaiian sculptor. Exquisitely wrought as had been this make-believe head, dating from his middle years, the unadulterated pebble shape had at last reclaimed its rights.