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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ioan Cuciurca: Brancusi as a Photographer

Brancusi Photographer is an essay written by Ioan Cuciurca in 1974. It was originally published in Steaua, a prestigious Romanian cultural magazine. Says Ioana Vlasiu, Cuciurca wrote about Brancusi as a photographer in 1974, before the advent of reference studies on this subject.

(Ioan Cuciurca: Brancusi fotograf, revista Steaua nr.3/120, ian. 1974)

(click here for the Romanian version)

(Ioan Cuciurca: Brancusi fotograf, revista Steaua nr.3/120, ian. 1974)

There is a field in Brancusi’s activity which, paradoxically, was overlooked by both public’s attention and those who, either biographers, or critics, have closely approached his life and oeuvre – namely, the photos achieved by the Romanian sculptor.

At the beginning, Brancusi used photographic image as an instrument of work. The photos helped him carve a number of portraits – P. Stanescu's, Zaharia Zamfirescu's, etc.

Portrait of P. Stanescu
(image: Florin Dragu)
(Mircea Deac: Constantin Brancusi, Ed. Meridiane, 1966)

Portrait of Zaharia Zamfirescu
(image: Florin Dragu)
(Mircea Deac: Constantin Brancusi, Ed. Meridiane, 1966)

In July 1937 he shot several images of the site where Coloana infinitului was going to be raised. One of them (photo 1) became the original background of The Endless Column, drawn by the master’s own hand [1].

photo 1 (on which Brancusi drew The Endless Column)
(Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan: The Genesis of the Column without End, Revue Roumaine d’histoire de l’art, nr. 2, 1964, pp. 179‒293)

Certainly, this seems a less important aspect of Brancusi’s activity, since the idea of photographing his own sculptures is much more interesting. In this case, photography is not a mimesis of the real image, but an instrument able to acquire intrinsic artistic value.

Just look at my sculptures until you can see them, the artist used to say, and by these photos he really helped us to see his oeuvre.

As a young man, Brancusi’s financial condition forced him to accept commitments, so he used to keep the photos of the works he separated from. He took photos of his works since their first sketches, even if, at first, the photographer was somebody else.

At the beginning of his Parisian period, Brancusi used to photograph his works in post-card format; he ordered several copies, wrote down on each copy the title, the date and the place where the work had been exhibited, and sent them to his friends. He preserved the habit, in spite of the fact that, later on, he himself used to process the photographic plate and paper in a professional laboratory.

Nowadays, these photos are priceless visual materials, as we can approach, through them, the steps of the sculptor’s creation and get acquainted with some of his lost works. Besides, the images have a particular artistic value. These photos, transpositions of the Brancusian universe, could rival the similar creations of first-rank photographers specialized in reproducing works of art.

Brancusi met one of them, Edward Steichen while he was an apprentice in Rodin’s studio. In 1908, Steichen took the photo of Rodin’s Balzac by moonlight; the images moved Rodin, who exclaimed: These photos will make the world understand my Balzac!!

Brancusi’s concern for photography, for taking photos of his own works, is not accidental. Space and light, elements proper to photography as well, play here a primordial role: they are not only the elements an oeuvre is integrated in, but also sculpture’s constitutive factors.

In his works, Brancusi compels the space to take notice of an irradiative center of energy inside it, which is the oeuvre offering plastic echoes and light [2]. An interferential oeuvre-nature relationship is thus established together with a both visual and spiritual emotion of space [3], which, uncaught on the photographic plate, has no chance to speak about Brancusi’s sculpture or about its universe and spirit.

For Brancusi, a photo was not a neuter replica of a sculpture, but a way to remake it through other means. According to Man Ray: ... what [Brancusi] had been really interested in would have been some good photos of his works; the couple of copies he had seen had disappointed him. He showed me a photo taken on the occasion of the New York exhibition. It was a marble sculpture; it looked perfect in point of light and material. The photo, he said, is beautiful, but does not represent his oeuvre. He alone knew how to shoot it. Could I help him get the required materials and give him some advice? Certainly, I replied. The following day I bought a camera and a tripod. I suggested Brancusi to develop and copy his photos at a professional studio, but his aim was to make all the operations himself.

Thus, Brancusi tried to get the ideal photo of a work, a photo able to render as close as possible the work’s essence. Consulting the portfolio, including several images of the same sculpture, we reached the conclusion that the author used to photograph his works from different angles and under various lights, until he got the image which showed them in the most favourable hypostases. In his photos, the artist applied the method he used in sculpture: he resumed the theme again and again, until he achieved perfection.

But before analysing his photos, before approaching their relationship with the oeuvre and the way these images render the works’ spirit, let’s make some remarks…

Photography is a translation from a language into another – more precisely, the visual image is transferred from a real, three-dimensional relationship to a real two-dimensional relationship. If, by its specific, the photo loses the third dimension, it recovers this dimension through suggestion. The transfer from a visual language to a differently-structured language requires an adequate usage of the means and procedures proper to the new language as far as the subject is concerned.

Therefore, there are two basic elements: the oeuvre as such, and the space this oeuvre is placed in. The photographic, two-dimensional image renders the third dimension through suggestion: the linear, aerial perspective, the black-and-white contrast, the focus in depth and illumination.

The relationship between the photographic image of the work and the photographic image of the space “housing” the work, the place occupied by the sculpture in the photographic image (page layout), work’s illumination, station point and focus in depth are the means of photographic expression which, once approached, explain the way Brancusi used to look at his oeuvre and to propose it to the onlooker.

Let’s study some of the photos Brancusi took after his own works and try to decipher the way he organized the photographic image, the means of expression and the methods he used according to significance of the sculpture and of the photographic image. We notice that the photographic image of the work succeeds to convey what the artist wished to render in his sculptures.

Let’s consider the photos printed in Carola Giedion-Welcker’s album, Constantin Brancusi, 1879‒1957, Éditions du Griffon, Neuchatel-Suisse, , as well as those that Dr. Nicolae Maior from Oradea, offered to the Library of Ion Andreescu Institute of Fine Arts in Cluj-Napoca.

The photo of The Bird

photo a: The Bird, 1940, polished bronze, Brancusi studio
(photo made by Brancusi)
Carola Giedion-Welcker: Constantin Brancusi 1876-1956, Edition du Griffon, Neuchátel-Suisse)

All the elements of this photo, as well as the means and methods Brancusi used in image organization have in view the bird’s movement and the idea of a breaking through space. Illumination of the work through the studio window, which let but one fascicle of light enter the room, makes the sculpture’s image appear distinct on the white screen (the projection of the window opening) and direct the shadow on this screen. Due to the illumination angle and to the screen placed near the sculpture, work’s clear shadow is also projected vertically, but much lower than the sculpture’s image.

The vertical movement is emphasized by translating the work’s image onto the upper margin of the photo and by introducing in the lower section a rather great part of the pedestal, by the difference of height between sculpture’s image and its shade, as well as by the descending direction of the screen on which the work and its shade are projected. Where the fascicle touches the highly polished surface of the work, the light is reflected in a diffusion circle which haloes the area (the upper third of the work). A dematerialization of the sculpture’s image takes place in this area. The reflected beams break space’s image, halo the work and induce the sensation of penetration.

The images of the Bird in Space (photo b), printed in page 131 of the monograph, are not taken by Brancusi. They are docile photos which, besides displaying the formal elements and oeuvre’s materiality, lack a proper aim. The dark background – in the image, a compact black, possibly added during editing – makes the work seem detached, isolated in space. The photo, though a valid document, has few artistic attributes.

photo b: The Bird, 1940, polished bronze, H 150cm, Peggy Guggenheim collection
(Carola Giedion-Welcker: Constantin Brancusi 1876-1956, Edition du Griffon, Neuchátel-Suisse)

photo 2: The Beginning of the World, 1924, marble 15,2 x 30,5cm. Brancusi studio
(photo made by Brancusi)
(Carola Giedion-Welcker: Constantin Brancusi 1876-1956, Edition du Griffon, Neuchátel-Suisse)

The sculpture’s image, placed in the centre of the photo, is surrounded by the image of space. The source of light, a powerful reflector put in the background of the image, is not wholly included in the photo. The light, placed behind the work, a bit above the sculpture, makes the sculpture seem very spatial and project its shade in the foreground. The contour of the background source of light is an increased resumption of the sculpture, while the shade of the work, a somehow diminished resumption of the same shape.

The sculpture appears between the shade’s image and the reflector’s image; taken together, they display a succession of the same shape developing from the foreground to the background of the photo, but in a reverse angle: they achieve the transition from the shade’s a-spatial image to the highly irradiative spatial image. The image of the sculpture lies between the two points – the first, wholly included in the plane of the image, and the second, merely surprised in the plane of the photo –, joining the extremes and becoming a site of transformation. The three elements of the image are not inscribed on a pure vertical, but on a highly ascending curb.

This method of using the means of expression compels the onlooker to examine the photographic image by keeping a certain direction, a certain trajectory, and to observe the sense in which the elements of the image are revealed, one after the other, in the area of significances.

Carola Giedion-Welker’s words are more than relevant: The Beginning of the World conveys an atmosphere which seems to issue from the depth of Genesis and participate in the primordial shapes.

The photos we have just analyzed above were achieved in Brancusi’s studio. Their working out and the comparatively small dimensions of the works allowed the sculptor to intervene in the arrangement of the ensemble, which could be photographically transposed due to the great range of means and methods.

The next photo under analysis was taken en plein air. This time, the sculptor had no longer the possibility to interfere in the relationship established between elements: he selected the means of expression, restricted as such by the extant light, a light which he could no longer guide, but strictly select.

The photo of The Kiss (photo c)

photo c: The Kiss, 1908, stone, h 125cm, Montparnasse cmetery, Paris
(photo made by Brancusi)
(Carola Giedion-Welcker:
Constantin Brancusi 1876-1956, Edition du Griffon, Neuchátel-Suisse)

It is a crucial work in Brancusi’s creation: it is the first step on a long way, along which the artist detached himself from any outer relationship in order to approach essences.

While talking with Bohdan Urbanowicz about this work, Brancusi said that, by The Kiss, he had had in view to remind [the world] not only this unique couple, but also all the couples who loved. In Peter Neagoe's book, the artist says: ... I have stripped the essential shape of all the features which could tell about a certain epoch.

The sculpture, photographed in an almost vertical light, was able to induce a strong contrast between the work and the changing, simili-impressionistic atmosphere of the space containing it, by outlining the inner shapes. A first contrast appears between the stone sculpture and the changing vegetal space, a contrast emphasized by the great differences of luminosity.

This way of rendering the space and the specific atmosphere was achieved by diminishing the focus in depth. The black-and-white contrast Brancusi acquired by the difference of luminosity between the sculpture’s image and the space’s image, to which the difference of focus is added, increases spatial perception.

By moving the sculpture’s image to the upper margin of the photo, by leaving a great surface to the space’s image, by frontal shooting, by choosing a lower horizontal line, while placing the work’s image on the axis of symmetry, he increases the verticality of the sculpture. The descending, dynamic and somehow impressionistic line of the fence from the far-off plane emphasizes, by contrast, the work’s spatiality, verticality and stability.

Any relationship between the sculpture’s image and the space housing turns the sculpture’s image into a vertical, dominant and continuous presence in a transitory, ephemeral world. This is the significance of the work Brancusi was speaking of.

Let’s analyze comparatively Sidney Geist's photo (photo d) of the same work, as it appears in Brancusi ‒ A Study of the Sculpture. Technically speaking, it is a perfect image, but it succeeds to catch only the formal expressive elements of the work. If, in the photo Brancusi took, the sculpture’s image dominates space’s image, in Geist’s photo, the sculpture’s image fills the space’s image, almost leaving the space out. The limited frame makes the work seem suffocated. The high horizon line decreases the monumentality of the work. The space’s image, whose value is close to the sculpture’s, diminishes the spatial effect, competes the sculpture’s image and thus, by flattening the image, makes the ensemble seem decorative. The photo renders but one of work’s images, neither its significance, nor the atmosphere. It is interesting merely as a document.

photo d: The Kiss
(made by Sidney Geist)
(Sidney Geist:
Brancusi ‒ A Study of the Sculpture, 1968)

Brancusi’s photos propose us to read his works in a perspective which succeeds to surprise and suggest the defining elements within an image turned into a revealing metaphor, the way Lucian Blaga would call it.

This reading helps us understand the meanings and the message the sculpture’s image conveys. It is a way in which Brancusi spoke, without words, about himself.

  • [1] Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan, The Genesis of the Column without End, Revue Roumaine d’histoire de l’art, nr. 2, 1964, pp. 179‒293.
  • [2] Ion Frunzetti, Viziunea folclorica a omologiei cosmice la Brancusi, in Colocviul Brancusi, Editura Meridiane, Bucuresti, 1968, p. 83.
  • [3] Barbu Brezianu, Artizanul, in Colocviul Brancusi, ed. cit., pp. 94‒100.


The  author expresses here his thanks to his friends Maria Negru, Traian Vedinas, and Teofil Rachiteanu, and last but not least to his professor Gheorghe Bus; they all have encouraged him in writing this study and publishing it in Steaua magazine, in 1974.

(Ioan Cuciurca)

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