A-Level: Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1916, limestone, 58.4 x 33.7 x 25.4 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a room devoted to the work of Constantin Brancusi, an artist who redefined sculpture in the modern age.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] [In] sculpture at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, the great figure who stands out is Auguste Rodin, still very much within that narrative tradition of the 19th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] Rodin broke all kinds of rules in terms of the way he handled surface, fragmented the human figure, and took issue with the classical ideal of the human body. We can see that for instance in “Walking Man.” Brancusi comes as an outsider to modernism and to the art establishment in Paris. He was Romanian. He did go to the Academy in Bucharest but made his way as a young man to Paris.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] It’s important to remember, too, that Paris is the center of the art world for the 19th century. It’s the home of what we think of as modern art, and in a way, at the end of the 19th century, we see artists wanting to leave Paris to find other traditions. There’s this interest in something that was thought of as more primitive or more true.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] What’s so interesting is that Brancusi brings that notion of a primitive truth to Paris rather than having to leave Paris to find it. He comes from Romania, where there was a long-standing peasant tradition of stone carving and wood carving, of folk art.

[1:27] While Brancusi himself worked briefly in Auguste Rodin’s studio, when Brancusi was more established, the younger artist Isamu Noguchi would work with this master. One of the things that Noguchi took from Brancusi was the artist’s regard for the nature of the object, finding its internal spirit, its structures.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] We clearly see that here in this limestone sculpture called “The Kiss.” It’s easy to fall into thinking, “Oh, this looks like something a child could do. This is so simple. It’s so block-like.” The forms are not carefully detailed in their depiction of the human body, especially if you think about the academic tradition that someone like Rodin is coming from.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] Where there’s a careful articulation of movement, musculature, of anatomy, but here what we have instead is an attempt to retain materiality. This came from a block of stone. Look at the turn of the elbows, and yes, of course, arms do turn at right angles, but here, those right angles are aligned with the corners of the block.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] It’s almost surprising to find those arms continuing around.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] And lovely the way those hands clasp each other and hold the other figure tight. So much so that these figures, which are each defined only by the single incised line that separates the two, without which they could almost be read as a single figure.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] Except that, of course, the figure on the right we read as a woman because that line makes an arc. We read those as breasts.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] She’s ever so slightly thinner than he is. Her eye is slightly smaller, but the eyes also join together to create a single, almost cyclopean eye in the middle of the forehead. The mouths, which are lips reaching to each other, are here singular.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] Brancusi is making something that reveals the structure of the limestone. We even have that sense in the simplified carving of the hair. There’s also something in that idea of the union of these two figures, of male and female coming together, something primitive, something truthful, something about the human condition.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] I think there’s real honoring of the material nature of this block. He’s leaving it raw. It’s not just the cubic quality, it’s the surface, which is allowed to be rough. Look especially at the hair. We can use the term primitive, but I think it’s also archaic. It’s hearkening back to the tradition before the classical.

Dr. Harris: [3:47] Outside of that academic tradition: you go to the Academy, you learn how to sculpt, you learn how to make a human figure. You study human anatomy, you learn how to polish stone so that it has a high degree of sheen.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] How radical this must have been after 300 or 400 years, from the Renaissance to the high-polished sculptures of Bernini during the Baroque period to the academic art of the 19th century, where the technical facility was at a high point, to return to a basic, beautiful form.

[4:17] This was not the first version of “The Kiss.” This is actually the fourth, and it was commissioned by an American collector who was interested in acquiring the first. But Brancusi said it wasn’t available.

Dr. Harris: [4:28] It’s important that it’s not on a typical base that we think of for sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [4:33] In fact, the artist didn’t even want it on the piece of wood that we see it on in the museum. He wanted it directly on the ground. He said it would be a kind of amputation if it was placed on a platform. This is important to the idea of taking sculpture out of the academic realm, where sculpture had always been accorded a kind of high status, put on a high pedestal.

[4:53] The avant-garde has rejected the sophistication of the urban experience, looking instead for truth in nature.

Dr. Harris: [5:01] Well, you could say that that is the very definition of the avant-garde, rejecting the authority and strictures of the academy and finding an alternative that speaks more genuinely to the time that the artist lives in.

[5:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss," in Smarthistory, July 26, 2017, accessed July 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/constantin-brancusi-the-kiss-2/.