Fragments from “The Romanian”, a memoir by Bruce Benderson


Unable to sleep, I turn on the light and from my bag take the large monograph on the Romanian sculptor Brancusi I’d brought with me to read. I thumb through the pages haphazardly, looking at the smooth ovoid shapes. His sculptures strike me as puzzles. There’s a stillness and passivity to them, just like the faces of the peasants I saw; yet enigmatically, they hint of living, uninterrupted pulses deep inside. All of his figures—bodies, heads and birds—are purposely incomplete, cryptic synedoches for entities and natural processes.

Constantin Brâncuşi, Bird in space, 1923

The streamlined pieces in reflective bronze or marble draw my eyes to them again and again, looking for signs of life. Their allure is too much like what I’ve been enduring: drawn over and over toward a beautiful blank form, which I suspected held some warm, embracing vitality deep inside.

The most elliptically shaped remind me of something else, too. They produce the same effect as that new trance that came over me in the countryside before Sibiu, similar to but even better than the opioids. What was it? A hypnotic fascination on seeing those light-shredding firs; the ancient, indifferent rock formations; but most of all the sun-streaked meadows and peasants’ faces caught in conflict-free congress with Nature…

Brancusi himself, I learn, was one of these poor peasants, from the hamlet of Hobiţa in the region of Oltenia. At the age of seven, in the late nineteenth century, he climbed the hills of the Carpathians with shepherd staff in hand; and according to the author, Ionel Jianou, never lost his cosmic connection to natural processes, even when he moved to Paris, reached by a marathon hike almost all the way from Romania.

Constantin Brâncuşi

Like his sculptures, his biography only reveals a tantalizing surface. It has been shaped into an aesthetic gesture shrouded in mystery, which lets sensual elements peek out coyly. True, there’s a worldly, decadent period near the turn of the twentieth century when he’s young, experimenting with café society and hashish and women and orgies with his friend, the relentlessly degenerate Modigliani; but a traumatic love affair with a very perverse heiress, an American—possibly Peggy Guggenheim—turns sour, setting him on a path of renunciation that leads to an interest in Eastern philosophy and primitive art.

Later in life, Milarepa’s Tibetan Book of the Dead becomes his bible, and he becomes a virtual hermit, hidden in his studio in Montparnasse, executing the same forms over and over. Alienated from anything that seems contrived, he uses direct carving, like a peasant, instead of models, believing that each piece of stone holds some spirit he must release.

His studio in Montparnasse is a shrine in which the precise arrangement of sculptures takes on occult value. As he grows older, he makes an eccentric white-bearded figure on the streets of Paris, dressed in the all-white costume of the Romanian peasant.

White: for purity and mourning. With shepherd’s flute tucked into his waistband, he leads a white dog to cafés and movies and even glittering social events. In his studio covered in white dust from his work with marble, he cooks the organs of animals in a clay oven he built himself, serves his white dog milk from a washbasin and makes everything by hand, even setting his own leg in white plaster when he breaks it at an isolated country retreat.

Noguchi became his apprentice in 1927. Brancusi told him that the saw he used had to cut only with its own weight, no matter how long it took, that the marks left by the axe blade had to remain as tangible signs of the contact between man and matter. All this contributes to Ionel Jianou’s theory that Brancusi succeeded in expressing the simple, spiritual, yet strangely cryptic world of the Romanian peasant, a pagan, mystical world, intimately linked to the earth.

Constantin Brâncuşi - The Kiss Gate

Constantin Brâncuşi - The Kiss, 1912

The story chips away at my brain like a mason’s tool hollowing an aperture in a sealed room—especially when I begin to study the many incarnations of “The Kiss.” Pictures and reproductions of this work have been so well distributed that it has the banal familiarity of a Mona Lisa. Earlier versions depict an embracing couple as a single block of stone, fused eternally in hermetic union. It’s obvious that, like me, Brancusi was obsessed with love and its place in the order of things. The bodies of the two lovers in “The Kiss” are fused together. I can hardly make out the woman’s boyish breast because it fits so well into the concave curve of the man’s chest. It’s as if the two were one androgynous object, which makes me think of that Tweedledee-Tweedledum state I’ve mocked in certain long-term gay relationships because each member of the couple becomes neutered by the other, losing more and more individual characteristics.

In all these sculptures the lovers are eye to eye, fixated on each other; but they’re so close that they’re beyond the focus of their eyes. They can’t see each other and don’t need to. In some, their eyes are even fused together, forming one obscene, bulging cleft circle, like a fertilized ovule, or even a female pubis and its slit.

Love is stone. Is that the message—that in deep love there’s no psychology, only unity, design?

Reading on about Brancusi’s life, I begin to see the sculptures as indicative of his bachelor state. The last half of his life was spent in nearly total isolation. The kiss may be a remembered one that represented a missed opportunity and led to forty years of artistic creation. His fantasies of union in stone seem pre-oedipal and infantile, attempts to reproduce the undifferentiated bliss of the child and the breast. Eyes, ears and noses have all but disappeared, buried in their closeness or perhaps not even yet born from the stone. The moment of the kiss is eternal, like suspension in the womb. Time is lost. So static has the moment become, that it represents what we all must miss—security, pleasure. Even so, I can guess the truth: his life is a story of disillusionment with the Other and with love.

The book confuses me so I put it down. The lack of psychological content in these forms, the elimination of a nose in some of them… the blankness of the eyes… seem to portray what I’m feeling, a loss of differentiation and identity… all damaged by the foolish expense of desire. In Brancusi, at least, the lovers are equal and eternal, and in fact, one of these sculptures was made as the headstone for a tomb. But what about me? My kiss would be embracing thin air.

There is, however, another feature: his spiritualization of matter. He may have failed in human love, but he found vitality and comfort in some hidden life force, which was rooted in Romania. According to the critic Jean Cassou, who wrote the introduction to the book as recently as the 1960s, Romania “still maintains an essentially prehistoric appearance. It remains at the stage of the primitive herdsman, of gods and fables.” At such a stage, “the spirit retains its natural quality. It is an elemental spirit, a spirit of the mountains, rivers and forests, a rural consciousness, the verb of all creation.” Brancusi may have been irrevocably disappointed in love, but perhaps he was able to relocate desire on the cosmic plane.


In this eruption of Nature, I think of Brancusi. His spiritual journey has, perhaps, something to tell me. Early versions of “The Kiss” show the lovers bound together in an infantile fantasy in stone—the rest of the world pushed into another realm. But between 1935 and 1938, “The Kiss” expands into a memorial for those who died in World War I. It takes the form of a gate, an enormous archway that is part of an ensemble celebrating love, in a park in the town of Tirgu Jiu. To transform “The Kiss” into “The Gate of the Kiss,” the two lovers had to be moved far apart in a gesture of objectivity, forming an arch, which created an entrance that let in the whole world. Brancusi described the “Gate of the Kiss” as a “fragment of a temple of love,” and Critic Sidney Geist said the gate was “love and community, upheld by sexual energy.” He didn’t see the fact that Brancusi created variations of this image over and over during a forty-year period as obsessional, merely as “reverie” that attains the cosmic, something “outside of chronological time.”

It took forty years for Brancusi’s kiss to invite us inside. But when it did, it opened itself up to the universe. The cleft circle of its two joined eyes, once blind, now gazed out to us. By some miracle, Brancusi had turned obsessive love into agape, a love of life’s energies.


Later the French writer Benoît Duteurtre, looking at pictures I took, will claim to me that the gates of Maramureş look African; and scholars of Brancusi, such as the astute Edith Balas, will maintain that Brancusi’s influence comes both from Africa and the Romanian peasant, and that both these cultures preserved an essential relationship to matter by escaping the merchandising influence of Mediterranean civilization. This is, then, an aboriginal geometry, uncorrupted by the greed for objects that began with the Industrial Revolution and continued through late capitalism.

Brancusi’s goal was to reconnect with these elemental forms of matter. He dreamed of sculpting through all the subsequent significations to their fundamental core. The capacity was in his blood and articulated the lonely, exultant years he spent as a youthful shepherd as well as the isolated latter part of his life. But if, in some Modernist project, he could strip down matter until it revealed its form beyond the trappings of technology, it was because his fellow peasants were doing it just that same way for thousands of years.  



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