Authors on Museums: next door to one of Paris's biggest galleries is one of its smallest—Brancusi's workshop. The poet Christopher Reid keeps going back there
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
It must have been in 1980 that my wife, Lucinda, and I made our first visit to Paris, a delayed honeymoon, the two nights in Brighton’s Royal Crescent Hotel immediately after our wedding being something of a stop-gap measure, all we could then afford. We were drawn to Paris by a combination of things. Lucinda was a wholehearted Francophile, a consumer of French novels, and a fearless, if not faultless, French speaker. As an actress, she had taken a course at Jacques Lecoq’s Ecole Internationale de Théâtre. She knew where to find inexpensive but perfectly acceptable oysters and champagne. So she led the way.
What attracted me was the promise of setting my eyes on the works of Manet, Degas, Cézanne and Bonnard, and exploring the great museums and galleries, newest of which was the Pompidou. Its revolutionary exoskeletal—or should that be extravisceral?—structure had been celebrated in all the Sunday colour supplements. So we had to go there. And we did—delighting more, it must be said, in what it revealed of the city’s gorgeous, variegatedly grey roofscape, visible from its upper storeys, than in the provocations and titillations of its own design. If the colour supplements had mentioned the Atelier Brancusi it had escaped us; but we soon noticed the incongruous little building, stepped into it, and were amazed.
Until then, Constantin Brancusi had been barely known to me. I now revere him as a wholly original genius, in sculpture and drawing, and as a key figure in that paradoxically non-parochial movement, the Ecole de Paris. If he had been only a minor associate of the movement, of questionable artistic stature, there would still have been an aura of legend about him. The feats of his youth alone would have singled him out.
Born in rural Romania in 1876, Brancusi left home at the age of ten or 11, on an impulse that seems almost to have been a prophetic calling. He was not heard of for the next six years. In his gadabout teens, challenged to make a violin, he did just that, examining another instrument, puzzling out how to align the grain of the wood to achieve a classical richness of tone. After several years of menial employment, he enrolled at art school, and as a graduate student modelled a life-size, écorché human figure sufficiently accurate to be of use to medical students. In his early 20s, he set off on foot for Paris, with his flute for company.
He reached the capital city of art in 1904, for a while contemplated apprenticing himself to the great Auguste Rodin, but at last decided against it on the grounds that “nothing of significance grows under the shade of a large tree.” A fund of folksy wisdom, reinforced by steely independence of purpose, seems to have been part of his natural equipment. Rodin, he opined, sculpted “in beefsteak”—that is, in the decadent Renaissance manner, lavishing undue care on the virtuoso treatment of musculature and flesh. He himself was on a quest for something purer, truer, stronger; both of the earth and spiritually fulfilling.