Constantin Brancusi -- that modernist, that peasant, that most magical of sculptors -- was a fairy-tale figure. His bushy beard was white; his dark eyes seemed to twinkle. He often wore the sort of hat worn by Snow White's dwarves. There was about the man, as there is in his art, something out of time, a blend of strength and tenderness, a nearly perfect purity, an aura of enchantment. He had taught himself to carve while working as a shepherd in the mountains of Romania. Then he walked across Europe to the capital of art.
In the 73 photographs on view now at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Brancusi's Paris studio -- with its rough-hewn chunks of wood and stone, its forms of shining metal, its sunbeams and its shadows -- brings to mind the workshop of some transcendent troll. These photographs are at once elegant and artless. The combine vast sophistication and complete simplicity. eConstantin Brancusi (1876-1957) made most of them himself.
Degas, thomas Eakins and many other painters had long employed the camera as a tool for sketching. Brancusi, instead, used it to make a complex portrait of his beloved studio -- and to record the changing light that brought his art to life.
Always self-sufficient, Brancusi would not delegate. Before he carved his oaken "Endless Columns," he felled the trees himself. His gleaming "Bird in Flight" was made of polished bronze he had cast in his own forge. Nothing in his studio suggests the 1920s. The sofa-throne he kept there was made of one notched log; his workbench was a squat and solid cylinder of plaster. Once, he showed his friend Man Ray a photo of one of his sculptures taken in New York by Alfred Stieglitz, one of the sculptor's early patrons. "The photograph is beautiful," Brancusi said," But it does not represent my work."
"The next day," Man Ray writes, "we purchased a camera and a tripod. I suggested that a photographic lab make the prints. But Brancusi wished to do this also. all alone, he built a darkroom in the corner of his studio."
When he died in 1957, Brancusi bequeathed 560 negatives (most of them on glass) and some 1,250 prints to France's National Museum of Modern Art. In time, that trove was transferred to the Centre Georges Pompidou. The photographs now on view are on loan from that museum.
In some, the master's studio seems a symphony of grays; the light in others is so dim that the sculptures seem to be carved out of dark shadows. A work of metal, "The Newborn," for example, seems to swim about in a sea of bright reflections; the "Bird in Flight," touched by a stray sunbeam, explodes into light. Brancusi liked to photograph his sculptures and the blocks of wood or stone that would become their bases standing side by side, conversing with each other. These are not simple photographs. Many of them bristle with a kind of cubist clutter in which a single reduced form -- the egg shape or the wedge -- is echoed and re-echoed by other forms nearby.
The sculptures of Brancusi have never looked more beautiful than they did in his studio. They lost much of their magic when they were sold into the world of art.
There are 73 photographs in the exhibition, "Brancusi as Photographer" -- 10 of "Mme. Polgany," four of "Bird in Space," 20 studio views, and three self-portraits. The show, organized by the Akron Art Institute, will remain on view through Aug. 10.