The bird was a central theme in Brancusi's oeuvre. Over a period of at least 30 years he completed 27 sculptures of birds in marble and bronze. His first bird, Maiastra, 1910–12 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York: Katherine S Dreier Bequest) was inspired by the legendary Pasarea maiastra (Master bird), a magic bird in Romanian folklore famed for its radiant plumage and marvellous song, a messenger of love who guided and protected Prince Charming in his search for his Princess.1 Brancusi returned to the theme again and again, each sculpture prompting refinements in the next. From the comparatively naturalistic Maiastra—with its majestic demeanour, outstretched neck and open beak—of which he made seven variations (three in marble, four in bronze)—through a series of four variations (two in marble, two in bronze) which he called Golden bird (L'oiseau d'or), the form becomes more attenuated, taller, absorbing the head and neck in a swelling urn of marble. Finally, in 1923, he established the form of Bird in space, which exists in sixteen versions (seven in marble, nine in bronze) an aeriform blade of marble or polished bronze soaring upwards in such equilibrium that the sculptor was obliged to anchor it by inserting a metal rod running internally from the narrow footing up into the body of the sculpture. The black and white marble Birds in the Gallery's collection are Brancusi's final marble versions of Bird in space, and the black marble version is the tallest he carved; from each a bronze was cast.1
A handwritten notation dated 19 January 1932, by Brancusi's friend Henri-Pierre Roché, states: 'Oiseau marbre noir, pas fini 250,000 frs'.3 This provides an approximate starting date for the black marble Bird in space but a certain completion date for both Birds cannot be established before the spring of 1936, when Brancusi sent photographs of them to their dashing new owner, Yeshwant Rao Holkar, Maharaja of Indore.4
A photograph of the black marble Bird in space taken by Brancusi in his studio has been dated to c 1933 by Marielle Tabart and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine.5 At the same time Brancusi photographed a white marble Bird using similar dramatic lighting. Traditionally this Bird has been identified with that made by Brancusi in 1930 and formerly in the collection of Nelson A Rockefeller, New York. This identification is debatable.
According to information supplied by Marcel Duchamp to Athena T. Spear in 1962, Brancusi sold this Bird to Mrs. Charles Rumsey, New York, in c.1929-30.6 It seems more likely therefore, that if the dating of the photograph to c.1933 is correct, this photograph is of the white marble Bird subsequently sent to the Maharaja. Visually, this also seems more correct, as the photograph clearly shows that flaring of the 'neck' of the white Bird where it meets the collar, a distinctive feature of the Bird sent to the Maharaja. Brancusi accompanied the photographs he sent to the Maharaja in 1936 with a message, dictated to Henri-Pierre Roché, in which he said:
The height of the 'Bird' is meaningless in itself … It is the internal proportions of the object which count … The differences between the most recent 'Birds' can scarcely be seen in the photographs. Each, however, is the result of a fresh inspiration, unrelated to that of the one before … My 'Birds' are a series of different objects in a questhat remains the same. The ideal realisation of this quest would be an enlarged version that would fill the vault of the sky. My two most recent 'Birds', in black and white, are the ones where I got closest to the right proportion—and I approached this correct proportion to such a degree that I was able to rid myself of myself.7
Of the proportions of these Birds, Sidney Geist has written:
The white marble Bird in space is close to the taller Bird of 1930 (formerly collection Nelson Rockefeller, New York) in the proportion of footing to total height. But its body is newly slender where it springs from the footing, making for the easiest, swiftest such transition in the oeuvre. The black marble is unique among the' Birds' in its colour and is also the tallest he created, 1¾ inches taller than the Rockefeller. Although Brancusi placed no importance on size—valuing instead measure, proportion—great size, coupled with the extreme hardness of black marble, made the execution of the last Bird a demanding task. The proportion of footing to total height is below the average for this Bird in Space (while that of the white Bird is above the average) and close to that of the much smaller Zurich grey marble c.1925–31, (Kunsthaus, Zurich). But whereas the latter is quite erect, with a 'proud' stance, the black tilts to the rear as though to levitate. The emphasis on the body resulting from the relatively short footing is in keeping with the density of the black 'matière', in contrast to the more delicate body of the white Bird.8
It is worth noting that the subtle differences in the poise of the black and white marble Birds is also reflected in the proportions of the bases. In both cases the line of intersection of the 'legs' of the solid X bases does not occur at the centre but slightly lower (by exactly one-tenth of the total height of the bases), so that the basses appear to push their weight upwards in anticipation of this same action by the Birds themselves. Predictably, the base of the black marble Bird is the fatter of the two bases, and yet the indent cut to form the squatting X shape is shallower than in the base of the white marble Bird. Thus the deeply cut base of the white marble Bird in space appears springy by comparison.
Although the Maharaja of Indore did not take delivery of the black and white marble Birds until the end of 1936, he had reserved both and a further bronze Bird in space (now with the Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena, California) on an earlier visit to Brancusi's studio, probably in late 1933.9 Henri-Pierre Roché, who conducted the Maharaja to Brancusi's studio, later recalled of this visit:
The visitor [the Maharaja] looked at every work slowly and quietly as in a fairy-tale. He had not much money at the time. He pulled his little notebook out of his pocket and began careful calculations. Why? He simply wanted to buy the three major and related works which were there: a large Bird in space in black marble, one in white marble and one in polished bronze. A unique trio. He was counting the money he was able to spend. He also wanted, later, to have a temple built for them by Brancusi, twelve steps by twelve, placed on the lawn near his palace, as if it had fallen from the sky without doors or windows, with an underground entrance, a temple in which to meditate, open to everybody but to only one person at a time. Inside, there would be a square mirror of water with the three Birds on three sides and a tall oak sculpture, Spirit of Buddha by Brancusi, on the fourth side, arranged so that the Golden Bird [in polished bronze] would be struck by the sun precisely at noon, through a circular hole in the ceiling, on a particular sacred day of the year. A drawing of the temple was soon made.10
In Roché's recollection it is the Maharaja who introduces the idea of a temple as the ultimate home of the Birds, although this was probably at the prompting of Brancusi, who had long cherished the idea of combining his sculpture and architecture.11
During 1936, with Roché acting as intermediary, a lively correspondence took place between Brancusi and the Maharaja regarding the final form of the temple.12 Originally it seems the Maharaja simply envisaged a 'sacred precinct', open to the air and 'enclosed by a tall, hardy hedge', with the 'Birds sheltering in niches at the sides of a rectangular pool of water'.13 A number of sketches have survived which show Brancusi experimenting with the design of these niches.14 However, as Brancusi took the initiative, the temple became enclosed, a small pantheon-like structure lit by a single open aperture in a vault or dome.15 Another sketch by Brancusi conceived of the monument as a small stupa-like building, very Indian in feeling.16 Clearly the external form of the temple remained in a constant state of change in the artist's mind. The Romanian engineer Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan (who worked with Brancusi on the installation of the memorial at Tirgu Jiu) has written that by the time Brancusi sought his assistance on the Indore project the sculptorenvisaged the temple as egg-shaped,'17 while according to the architect Octav Doicescu, Brancusi apparently talked of the temple in the form of an apple, 'an apple of monumental dimensions, on the scale of a mausoleum; it was to be executed in solid marble, in undulating country, at the end of a valley with a river running through'.18
The interior of the proposed temple also appears to have been in a continual state of metamorphosis in the artist's mind. The constant, already present in the correspondence of 1936, was the idea of the three versions of Bird in space purchased by the Maharaja—in white marble, black marble, and polished bronze—arranged around the sides of a square or rectangular pool of water. In the correspondence of 1936 the Maharaja also visualised that the fourth side, opposite the bronze Bird in space, would be occupied by 'a small temple of the Indian God',19 although in Brancusi's mind this later became his own tall, wooden sculpture, originally entitled The spirit of Buddha and subsequently King of kings (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Those who later heard Brancusi speak of the project also mention frescoes, of which a trial panel (collection Alexandre Istrati and Natalia Dumitresco, Paris) and a gouache design (Musée National d'art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris ), survive, showing white triangular birds floating horizontally on a blue ground.20 Brancusi visualised the temple as a chamber for spiritual contemplation in which the presiding spirits were to be the three versions of his Bird in space. Perhaps in this context the Birds would have assumed their real meaning for the artist, transcending their avian inspiration to become, rather, a metaphor for the human urge towards spiritual ascension—the flight of the soul. 'All my life', said Brancusi, without any specific reference to the Birds, 'I have only sought the essence of flight. Flight—what bliss'.21
Brancusi arrived in India on 30 December 1937 with the intention of beginning work on the temple but the Maharaja was away (apparently on a tiger hunt) and seemed to have lost interest in the project.22 Brancusi mooned about the palace at Manik Bagh for about a month, polished his Birds for the last time, and then departed on 27 January 1938.23 But he never lost interest in the project. Even in the 1940s and 1950s many friends recalled that Brancusi spoke often and with enthusiasm of the planned temple at Indore.24 Had it been realised it would surely have been one of the most remarkable monuments of modern art.
The installation of the black and white marble Birds in the Australian National Gallery pays homage to Brancusi's unrealised dream, while raising the Birds in the pond itself, rather than beside it, for their own safety.25
Shortly after the Gallery bought the Birds it was advised that the original limestone bases had been destroyed in India. With the aid of precise measurements of the lost originals, replicas were made in 1982, cut from Wondabyne sandstone from the Gosford region of New South Wales, which has the same grainless, even grey colour of the originals.26
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.193.
- In Romanian, pasare means 'bird'; maiastra derives from the Latin magister, literally 'master bird'. The Russian form of this same legend was the inspiration for the ballet L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) by Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev which was performed for the first time at the Théâtre National de l'Opera, Paris, on 25 June 1910. The performances of the Ballets Russes were attended by many artists of avant-garde and may have prompted Brancusi to take up the Romanian form of the legend.
- The bronze Bird in space originating in a cast of the white marble Bird in space is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mr and Mrs William A. Burden, New York, with life interest retained (Sidney Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1968, cat. no. 225). The bronze Bird in space originating in a cast of the black marble Bird is in the Brancusi Studio at the Musée Nationald'art Moderne, Paris (Geist 1968, cat. no. 226). Athena T. Spear (Brancusi's Birds, New York: New York University Press for the College Art Association of America, 1969, p.49), has identified the two plaster casts made after the black and white marble Birds as 1-24/25 and J-26/27 respectively. Both plasters, currently in the Brancusi Studio, Musée National d'art Moderne, were still displayed on bases in Brancusi's studio at the time of his death
- Original document Mrs H.P Roché, Paris. Quoted in Spear, op. cit., entry for cat. no. 22, IX. Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959) was at various times a journalist, painter, member of the French High Commission in Washington, and an arts entrepreneur of great flair. Roché arranged the first meeting of Picasso and Gertrude Stein, and was an art adviser to the American John Quinn. He was also the author of Jules et Jim (1953), the novel from which the famous Truffaut film of the same name was made in 1961.
- Text of letter enclosing photographs given in full in Spear, op. cit., p.116; handwritten notation by Henri-Pierre Roché, dated 11.5.1936 that payment had been received for both Birds (original document Mrs H.-P. Roché, Paris, quoted in Spear, op. Cit.,cat. no.24, X.). Prince Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur acceded to the throne of the Kingdom of Indore (today part of the vast state of Madhya Pradesh in central India) in 1930, at the age of twenty-three. The Maharaja had studied at Oxford and was a great admirer of modern art Enlisting the assistance of the young German architect Eckart Muthesius, he set out to make his palace, Manik Bagh, on the outskirts of the city of Indor, a showplace of European avant-garde style of the 1930s. In addition to classic designs, which included Eileen Gray's Transit chair and le Corbusier's Chaise longue, especially upholstered in leopard skin, there were commissioned furnishings by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Louis Sognot, as well as designs by René Herbst, carpets by Da Silva Bruhns and flatware by Jean Puiforçat. (A number of these pieces appearedat a Sotheby's auction in Monte Carlo on 25 May 1980.) With his young bride, the Maharanee Sanyogit Devi Holkar, the Maharaja was a glamorous figure in European society in the 1930s. Man Ray, who photographed the couple on their honeymoon in Cannes, vividly recollects the life-style-complete with racehorses, fast cars, jazz and jewels-in his autobiography Self Portrait New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979, cf. pp.172-5.
- Marielle Tabart and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, Brancusi Photographe, Paris: Musée National d'art Moderne, 1979, pl. 86 and comment p.123.
- Spear, Brancusi's Birds, op.cit., cat. no. 21, IX.
- The complete text of this message, dated spring 1936, is as follows (original document Mrs H.-P Roché, Paris; quoted in Spear, op.cit., cat. no. 24, X): 'Je vais vous donner des photos de mes oiseaux, avec des dates, depuis le premier / La hauteur de l'oiseau ne veut rien dire en soir (C'est comme la longueur d'un morceau de musique.) [this sentence is erased] Ce sont les proportions intimes de l'objet qui font tout. / Les prix ont varié salon les époques et les nécessités. Les acheteurs ont une pudeur à eux et ne veulent pas qu 'on dise les prix qu'ils ont payés. / J'aivendu certains oiseaux plus de 100,000 frs, d'autres moins. / Pour les derniers oiseaux les différences entre eux n'apparaissent guère sur les photos. Chacun est pourtant fait d'une inspiration neuve, indépendante de celle du précédent. Je pourrai montre à votre ami, sur quelques moulages de plâtre leur differences subtiles. / Mes oiseaux sont une série d'objets différents sur une recherche centrale qui reste la même. / L'ideal de la réalisation de cet objet devait être un agrandissement pour remplir la voûte du ciel. Mes deux derniers oiseaux, le noir et le blanc, sont ceux oû je me suis approché le plus de la mesure juste-et je me suis approché de cette mesure au fur et à mesure que j'ai pu me débarasser de moi-même'.
- Sidney Geist, correspondence with the Gallery, 11 September 1984.
- Although generally assumed to have been in 1933, the exact date of the Maharaja's visit to Brancusi's studio has not been firmly established. Roché's recollection (see n.8) that at the time of his visit the Maharaja 'had not much money' might mean that the visit took place before the Maharaja formally acceded to the Indore throne on 9 May 1930—after which he had a good deal of money. On the other hand Brancusi's last-minute decision to subtitle the Column of the kiss as 'Part of the project for the Temple of Love' in the catalogue for his exhibition which opened at the Brummer Gallery, New York, on 17 November 1933, may reflect the recent discussion of such a temple between Brancusi and the Maharaja, thus situating the visit in October-November 1933. Brancusi cabled New York on 5 November 1933 requesting the addition to the catalogue entry for the Column of the kiss. His handwritten copy of the cable is in the archive of his papers bequested to the Musée National d'art Moderne, Paris. Spear, op. cit., p.33, no. 16, also believes that the Column of the kiss, subtitled 'Part of the project for the Temple of Love', 'was intended for the temple of Indore'. The amendment to the title would therefore post-date the Maharaja's visit to Brancusi's studio. However, Sidney Geist has pointed out that the notion of a temple had been in Brancusi's mind from an early date (see Sidney Geist, Brancusi/The Kiss, New York: Harper and Row, 1978, p.71). It seems likely that Brancusi suggested the idea to the Maharaja, sensing that he had at last found a patron capable of bearing the expense. Nevertheless, the last-minute change to the catalogue entry effected by Brancusi on 5 November 1933 may still reflect his revitalisation of the notion of the temple as a tangible 'project' following the Maharaja's visit. The Maharaja is known to have been in Paris from the first week of October 1933 until the last week in January 1934 (see Friedrich TejaBach, Constantin Brancusi: Metamorphosen Plastischer Form, Cologne: DuMont Buctverlag, 1987, p.364, n.273).
- Henri-Pierre Roché, 'Souvenirs sur Brancusi', L'Oeil, Paris, no.29, May 1957, pp.12-17, cf. p.16: 'Le visiteur regarda toutes les oeuvres avec une lenteur et un calme de conte de fées. ll n'avait pas a cette époque beaucoup d'argent. Il tire son petit carnet de sa poche et entreprit des calculs soigneaux. Pourquoi? / Il voulait simplement acheter les trois oeuvres capitales et soeurs qui étaient là : un grand 'Oiseau dans l'espace en marbre noir, un en marbre blanc, un en bronze poli' Trio unique au monde. Il calculait l'argent dont il disposait. / Il voulait aussi, plus tard, faire batir pour eux un temple par Brancusi, de douze pas sur douze, posé sur la pelouse [sic] près de son palais, tombé du ciel, sans portes ni fenêtres avec une entrée souterraine, un temple pour méditer, ouvert à tous, mais à tous, mais à un à la fois seulement. / Il y aurait à l'interieur un Miroir d'eau carré, avec les trois Oiseaux sur trois côtes et une haute statue de chêne, 'L'Esprit de Bouddha', par Brancusi, sur le quatrième, et une disposition telle que l'Oiseau d'Or fut frappé en plein par le soleil de midi, à travers le trou circulaire du plafond, tel jour sacré de l'année. Un dessin du temple fut bientôt fait.'
- References to 'Brancusi's temple' can be found well before the appearance of the Maharaja on the scene. In a letter to John Quinn dated 29 March 1922 Henri-Pierre Roché writes: 'Brancusi would like to build a temple, even if just a small one' (letter in John Quinn Collection, Manuscript Division, New York Public Library, quoted in Geist, op. cit, p.71) In a letter of 11 November 1926 to William Bird, Ezra Pound writes: 'However, you can let your fancy play as to the course of modern art if I had an income, esp. during the 1912-14 period, Epstein, Gaudier, Lewis. . . And, later, Brancusi's temple etc' (quoted in Geist, op. cit., p.109n). Brancusi of course was not alone in this dream of building a temple to house his sculptures. Jacob Epstein had planned a'Temple of Love' in 1905 (see Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein: Sculptor, London: Faber and Faber, 1963, p.18), and Amedeo Modigliani dreamed of creating a temple surrounded by hundreds of 'colonnes de tendresse', his own sculptures, of which the most likely candidate is the Standing figure in the collection of the Australian National Gallery (see Gotthard Jedlicka, Modigliani 1884-1920, Zurich: E. Rentach, 1953, pp.33-4). For an overview of these artists architectural projects see Edith Balas, 'The Unbuilt Architecture of the Early Modern Sculptors', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. 110, no. 1426, November 1987, pp.181-90.
- Henri-Pierre Roché's letters of 1936 to Brancusi, written on behalf of the Maharaja, and dated 25 April, 7 May and 9 August, are cited in full in Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco and Alexandre Istrati, Brancusi, Paris: Flammarion, 1986; New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, 1987, p.217.
- Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. Cit., p.217, from Roché's letter dated 25 April 1936.
- These sketches are reproduced in Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. cit., p.219, figs C, D, E, R G.
- Letter from Henri-Pierre Roché to Brancusi dated 7 May 1936, reproduced in Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. cit., p.217.
- Sketch reproduced in Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. cit., p.219, fig. H.
- Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan, 'Contributii inedite la cunoasterea unui proiect al lui Brâncusi, Templul din Indore', Arta (Bucharest), vol. 25, no. 4, April 1978, pp.25-8.
- Letter from Octav Doicescu to Radu Varia dated 31 October 1977, quoted in Radu Varia, Brancusi, New York: Rizzoli, 1986, p.293.
- Letter from Henri-Pierre Roché to Brancusi dated 25 April 1936, reproduced in Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. cit., p.217.
- In addition to Roché's recollections, first published in 1957 (see n.8), the reminiscences of other friends of Brancusi should be consulted, many of which were elicited in interviews with Friedrich Teja Bach and published in his book Constantin Brancusi: Metamorphosen Plastischer Form(Cologne: DuMontBuchverlag, 1987) Of interest to the temple are the notes of Jacqueline Matisse Monnier (who was a student with Brancusi in the winters of 1949-50 and 1950-51), in particular her notes for 4 March 1950, pp.228-9; Jacques Hérold cf. p.260 and his sketch p.94, fig. 143; Francois-Xavier Lalanne, cf. p.264 and sketches p.178, figs. 264 and 265; Michel Seuphor, cf. p.309.
- Brancusi, as quoted by P Morand's Brancusi, the catalogue of the Brancusi exhibition at the Brummer Gallery, New York, 1926
- The death of the Maharanee in Paris in 1937 may well have contributed to the Maharaja's failing interest in the project and the palace at Manik Bagh: 'Shortly after the death of the Maharanee, Yeshwant Rao married Marguerite Lawler Branyen, from North Dakota, his daughter's nurse. They divorced in Reno, Nevada, in 1943. As part of the settlement, he gave her Brancusi's Bird in space in bronze [now in The Simon Foundation, California]. He then married another American, Faye Watt Crane, from Los Angeles' (Varia, op. Cit., p.306, n.3).
- While in Indore, Brancusi was observed polishing the marble Birds by Harishankar Tiwari, an official at Indore, who so advised Sidney Geist in correspondence (see Sidney Geist, 'The Birds', Artforum, vol. 9, no. 3, November 1970, pp.74-82, cf. p.82). Tiwari's recollections of Brancusi's visit are also reported in Sumit Mitra, Dinesh Awasthi and Chander Uday Singh, 'Mysterious Flight', India Today (New Delhi), vol. 15 15 August 1982, pp.76-7. Brancusi gave an unfavourable account of his stay in Indore to François Stahly, who first met the artist in 1945-46. Stahly's report is reprinted in Bach, op. cit., p.314: 'D'abord le Maharadja l'avait fait attendre plusieurs semaines dans les antichambres de son palais, puis Brancusi présentant finalement son oeuvre au Maharadja, n'ayant confiance en personne, a voulu porter lui-même son marbre sur l'épaule et a cassé au tournant d'une porte le "bec" de son Oiseau!' ('Initially the Maharaja had made him si [Brancusi] wait several weeks in the antechambers of his palace; then, when Brancusi finally came to present his work to the Maharaja, having confidence in no-one, he carried the marble himself on his shoulders and turning through a doorway he broke the "beak" of his Bird!) The tip of the white marble bird had been broken off and re-glued long before it came into the Gallery's possession. Brancusi also later told Alexandre Istrati and Natalia Dumitresco that while in India he 'changed one of the supporting pins' of the Birds (Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. cit., p.231). This may account for the difference in the supporting pin of the white marble bird, which is bronze, and the machine-turned stainless steel pin of the black marble Bird, which is obviously a replacement.
- See n.18.
- A detailed account of the installation of the black and white marble Birds at the Gallery can be found in an article by Nathan Stolow, 'Brancusi's Birds in Space: A Conservation Installation Project', International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, no. 4,1985, pp.345-58.
- Precise measurements of the original bases were supplied by Richard L. Feigen, New York, in correspondence with the Gallery, 27 October 1981 (ANG file 81/127, folio 11).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010