Constantin Brancusi
Fish 1926

Artwork details

Constantin Brancusi 1876–1957
Date 1926
Medium Bronze, metal and wood
Dimensions Displayed: 934 x 502 x 502 mm
Acquisition Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1996
Not on display


Brancusi, who was Romanian but lived in Paris from 1904, worked in series, returning to a small number of motifs time and time again in order to develop and reinterpret his vision of a subject. However, he made relatively few sculptures based on the slender form of a fish. The first, dating from 1922 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), was a veined marble work set on a circular mirror, which in turn was supported by a carved oak base. Two years later Brancusi made two hand-finished bronzes of similar size, one of which was destroyed, while the other has lost its original base. In 1926 he made a further three bronze Fish pieces, each of which has a different wooden base. All but one of the five bronzes were mounted onto reflective metal discs, echoing the very first piece. After an interval of four years Brancusi returned to this subject, producing a large work in blue-grey marble, set on a white marble and limestone base (Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Central to these works is Brancusi's novel expression in sculptural form of the experience of horizontal movement. The 'fish' is fixed to its supporting disc - its 'pool' - in such a way as to allow it be rotated. When viewed from a certain angle, it becomes so streamlined, that it almost seems to disappear. Brancusi's use of polished bronze was intended to make reflections an integral part of his sculptures. Here the play of light on both the bronze and the metal disc makes the fish seem to be constantly slipping away as if darting through water. As Brancusi reportedly said to a visitor to his studio c.1939, 'When you see a fish, you do not think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through water … Well, I've tried to express just that. If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement and hold you by a pattern, or a shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit' (Malvina Hoffman, Sculpture Inside and Out, New York 1939, p.52).

Supporting the bronze 'fish' is a three-part base comprising the reflective disc and a wooden pedestal standing off-centre on a black metal disc. Brancusi often experimented with different combinations of sculptures and bases and he never saw the base as merely functional. In contrast to the simplicity and symmetry of the 'fish', this base combines different materials, technologies and textures and creates an overriding impression of asymmetry. While the base testifies to Brancusi's interest in African art, the polished surfaces of the disc and 'fish' suggest the perfection of machine-made products. Such a conjunction of different formal principles and media was not uncommon in Brancusi's work: despite his reputation for being a sculptor who created simplified, unitary forms, the bases of many of his works suggest a deliberate courting of disjunction. As totalities, however, the sculptures and their bases create a tense interplay of ideas that give the works their characteristic vitality.

Fish was previously owned by E.J. Power (1899-1993), one the great collectors of post-war international art in Britain.

Further reading:

Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, Alexandre Istrati, Constantin Brancusi, Paris 1995, catalogue no 161, p.305, reproduced p.179
Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1995, catalogue no. 87, pp.236-7, reproduced in colour
Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Brancusi to Beuys: Works from the Ted Power Collection, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.24, reproduced p.25 in colour

Jennifer Mundy
June 1996

About this artwork