There are 18 Romanian Cultural Institutes around the world and on Friday 19th February, from London to Paris to Berlin, all simultaneously celebrated the birthday of one of Romania’s national heroes– Constantin Brâncuși.
Born in 1876, Brâncuși was a sculptor who displayed almost unparalleled virtuosity in the way he controlled and reduced forms: eventually liberating himself from the confines of slavish representation, he explored in three dimensions the eternal themes of birth, life and death. In his hands materials seemed to live as potent entities that communicated something greater than ourselves. Today, his work’s highly regarded internationally and is part of the canon of modern twentieth century art.
At the RCI’s sumptuous offices in London’s Romanian Embassy, Brâncuși’s legacy was celebrated in an evening of discussion and talks by some of the UK’s leading Brâncuși scholars – together with a screening of Bruno Wollheim’s BBC documentary on the sculptor. While ostensibly it was an informal evening, this didn’t mean the discussion was lightweight. Far from it, in fact – some rich scholarship on Brâncuși’s links with the UK was presented by Jonathan Vernon, who talked about the sculptor’s relationships with, among others, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
Over two decades ago – and still in the shadow of communism – the BBC produced a series of arts programmes – Artists’ Journeys – that paired a living artist with a dead one – the idea being that the living artist would talk about how their dead hero or heroine had influenced their work and would explore their legacy. Bruno Wollheim, the series producer, recounted how he invited sculptor Tony Cragg to choose an artist: Cragg’s choice being Brâncuși. Together they travelled to Brâncuși’s birth place in Romania and traced the artist’s life in broad brushstrokes – his years in Paris in the crucible of modern art (his closest friends are a roll-call of seminal figures including Man Ray and Duchamp), time in New York and his brief returns to his homeland. Wollheim mentioned the difficulties trying to source a crane in Târgu Jiu so as to get a shot of the Endless Column from above – the best-known public sculpture in Romania, dedicated to young men and women who fought in the first world war. Despite these challenges Wollheim said the bird’s-eye views of the Endless Column were one of the things he was proudest of in the film.
Eric Shanes gave an irreverent talk about Brâncuși and kitsch – arguing that the sculptor’s forms are anything but. Brâncuși, Shanes argued, was profoundly rooted in an academic tradition and studied from life for years in Bucharest: his work is emphatically not about abstraction – Brâncuși himself is on record as having said ‘only fools call my sculptures “abstract’’’. For Shane, Brâncuși was trying to fashion Platonic forms, which transcended our lowly, mundane terrestrial existence.
It was obvious from the evening that Brâncuși is a cherished and important cultural figure about whom there’s a lot to say – too much as it turned out: the event was scheduled to run from 7 to 9pm but the penultimate speaker didn’t finish until 9:30, meaning a swathe of the audience got up and left before the end. Such an ambitious programme would, one might suggest, have been better achieved in a half-day event.
Brâncuși’s works can be found at London’s Tate Modern (four pieces, 1911-1926). Brâncuși: The British Connection was part of the ongoing programme of cultural events at the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.