Unreal Nature

July 19, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… It purges the sculptural form of individual naturalistic detail, but it holds fast to the principle of individuation, the basic quality that makes every living entity unmistakably unique.

This is from the essay ‘Brancusi: The Reality of Sculpture’ by Friedrich Teja Bach in Constantin Brancusi (1995):

… Constantin Brancusi’s work is overwhelmingly about life and aliveness. But how can aliveness become real in sculpture? The traditional (and especially the nineteenth-century) answer is roughly this: through the imitation of nature, through the mimesis of living form — as exemplified by the legend of Pygmalion, the sculptor who carves a female figure so life-like that Venus takes pity on him and causes her to take the one last tiny step from perfect imitation of nature to living nature itself.

[line break added] Brought to life, the figure steps down from the pedestal of her objecthood. It is one of the central insights of modernism that this last tiny step actually constitutes an unbridgeable gap, and that in art this kind of mimetic representation does not lead toward aliveness but away from it. Visual art — and sculpture in particular, in which the temptation of bodily mimesis is so acute — must pursue the goal of aliveness in a direction far removed from the traditional imitation of nature.

… what emerges is not so much a purified ideal as a complex interplay between pure formal creation and enlivening irregularity, between symmetry and aberrant emphasis. Examples of this interplay include Wisdom of the Earth (no.10), with its nonmatching breasts and asymmetrical face; the bird form Maiastra (no. 20), in which the “left corner of the squarish beak projects more than the right, the opening of the beak is further recessed on the right side and the hole of the right eye is larger than that of the left”; Flying Turtle (no. 107) and Leda (no. 88), in which the two volumetric forms are not in a single plane, and the upper curves of body and head are at an angle to each other.

[line break added] These asymmetries delineate the aliveness that is essential to the theme of animal life, and they are thus intrinsic to Brancusi’s idea of sculptural perfection. Once their significance has been recognized, such aberrations undermine the whole notion of formal reduction as the basis of Brancusi’s sculptural language.


Brancusi defined the simplicity of his essential form by saying: “Simplicity is complexity resolved.” Simplicity is thus the outcome of the artist’s effort to resolve the complexity of natural forms. But there is more to resolution than mere elimination: it is also the preservation, even the generation, of form. Brancusi’s words need to be read in the light of another saying traditionally attributed to him: “Simplicity is complexity itself.” Essential form in Brancusi is not reductive but productive. It is defined not by the precision of geometry but by the (in every sense) pregnant concision of life. “I never,” said Brancusi, “seek to make what they call a pure or abstract form.”

… It purges the sculptural form of individual naturalistic detail, but it holds fast to the principle of individuation, the basic quality that makes every living entity unmistakably unique. A sculpture “must be named,” at least if it is part of a life’s work which, as Brancusi once said, ultimately stands for “taking sides with nature.”

[ … ]

… The definition of modernism as a progressive linear, reductive process is obviously now in crisis. This gives rise to skepticism as to Brancusi’s automatic place in any modernistic process of reduction, dematerialization, and pristine, self-complacent abstraction; and the result is a keener perception of the heterogeneity, the aberrance, the tensions within his work.

[line break added] Brancusi’s work bypasses binary oppositions of representational and nonrepresentational, rational and intuitive, sensuous and nonsensuous, technological and organic. It breaks through the reductionist paradigm of modernist criticism and points the way to a necessary widening of the definition of modernity.




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