Visual Arts

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Brâncuși – the Unknown Portrait: marooned at the Star Gallery

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01/11/2016

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This year marks the 140th birthday of Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957), perhaps the best-known Romanian artist of his time. To commemorate the life and work of the modernist sculptor, artist Raluca Popa has created a series of works exhibited at Europe House’s 12 Star gallery. The selection is small, comprising only eight works that should show us Brâncuși from a new angle, exploring ‘the potential within language and image to shape our perception of myth, reality, ideas on creative processes’.

img_8919-1The first thing we find on entering is an untitled pair of images, one resembling a starry night sky, the other showing a pencil portrait of a male figure holding his hands in front of his face, so that only his eyes and nose are visible. Is this Brâncuși? By keeping the portrait elusive, Popa continues the myths surrounding Brâncuși: he used his ‘private life’ to shape his image as an artist, wearing Romanian peasant dress and celebrating all things Romanian, mythical and spiritual, combined with a good dose of Bohemianism and womanising – the perfect genius ‘artist from the east’ in early 20th century Paris, where Brâncuși lived most of his life. From the first set of works we encounter, it’s clear that Popa makes no attempt to uncover any more of Brâncuși’s self-stylisation. Instead, she focuses on the myth of the elusive artistic genius in all its subjectivity, spinning further and redeveloping ideas that have already been filtered by authors, editors, and curators: what we see is layers and layers of interpretation.

img_8921-2The next work focuses on Brâncuși’s infamous Paris studio. Showing a large panel of four oversized sheets of paper, soft pencil drawings render a fantastic space from different angles. We see rough drafts of Brâncuși’s high-towering sculptures like The Endless Column, which seems to reach the very top of his studio walls, where large windows provide a natural source of light. There are heavy blocks of stone in between the sculptures, creating a crowded space that make the search for his best-known smaller works, like Bird in Space, a searching-game. Because the panels are so big, you’re immediately drawn into the scene depicted, which helps you engage with it and makes you want to experience this studio in reality. Undoubtedly, this is the best work of the exhibition, because its size fits the space best, and because it pairs something tangible and clearly recognisable – the studio –  with a magical place of the past that preserves the myth of Brâncuși and his work. While this treatment of ‘artists as legends’ is not something everyone approves of, it fulfils Popa’s stated aim of the exhibition in a carefully considered and well-executed manner.

Wandering around the corner, the exhibition continues on only one wall, which is confusing, because the space holds three more, either left blank entirely, or showing images of unrelated people. This jars, especially as the wall used displays some miniature images, which undeservedly disappear: an exquisite pair of portraits, showing Brâncuși and Popa next to each other, as if she were to continue his legacy – a thoughtful homage from one artist to the other. The images’ small size makes them even more precious, and it feels they should be made even smaller and carried around in a locket to capture the intimacy they hint at. Instead, the portraits seem lost on the large, blank gallery walls…

img_8928-1The remaining works again focus on Brâncuși’s tall sculptures, almost looking like drafts for the finished works – pencil sketches on paper visibly ripped at the edges. While the roughness of these sketches makes the work authentic and personal, in this particular gallery it adds a sense of careless incompletion, due largely to the space, rather than the drawing itself. In fact, the gallery seems to be the main issue with the show overall: one can’t help but think that, in a different location, Popa’s pieces would have worked so much better. The lack of labels, the bare walls and the wide foyer space – just too big for what’s on show – are distracting. However thoughtfully executed, the Brâncuși commemoration disappears in the sense of an office space just not right for the kind of magic and myth-making Popa tries to capture in her work.

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Brâncuși- the Unknown Portrait continues at the Star Gallery, Europe House, till 4th November. The exhibition is supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.

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