Illustrated companion

In his early years in Paris Brancusi broke away from the influence of Rodin, then the leading modern sculptor of the day, carving, from 1907 onwards, a series of versions of his own on the theme of 'The Kiss' which may have been a conscious reference, or challenge, to the work of the older artist. (Sculpture such as Rodin's 'The Kiss' [Tate Gallery N06228] is of the kind Brancusi habitually referred to as 'beefsteak'). In his versions of 'The Kiss' Brancusi dramatically simplified form, suggesting a spiritualisation of the subject, and an emphasis on the integrity and innate beauty of materials - ideas that were to influence later generations of sculptors. But his mystic and primitivistic view of life found its most original and compelling expression when, in about 1910, he turned away from the human image and began to make sculptures of animals, particularly of birds, or rather of one bird, the Maiastra, a mythical creature in the folklore of Brancusi's native Romania. The bird is shown singing its marvellous song, which had miraculous powers. The 'Maiastra' of 1912 in the Tate Gallery collection is one of seven variations of this theme, two of which are markedly taller and more elongated than this one. The image of the Maiastra was eventually refined by Brancusi into the tall, slender, almost completely abstract 'Bird in Space', of which he completed twenty-eight versions. This sequence of bird sculptures has often been considered to form the core of Brancusi's achievement.

The first 'Maiastra' was made by Brancusi between 1910 and 1912 and is a carving in white marble, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Tate Gallery version is a bronze cast taken from this by Brancusi, to which he added a carved stone base. It is also the first work in which Brancusi introduced the innovation of polishing bronze to its natural golden colour. Apart from the sheer beauty of effect, this helps to dematerialise or spiritualise the object. The immateriality of the smooth, gleaming bronze, and its upward thrust, is given deliberate emphasis by the extreme contrast with the weighty rough stone base, on which are carved in relief two birds rather similar to the 'Maiastra', their heads and necks coiled like springs below the fiat slab on which the bronze bird rests.

'Maiastra' was bought from Brancusi in Paris in 1913, by the American photographer Edward Steichen, who wrote in his autobiography 'it appealed to me immediately as the most wonderful concept and execution I had seen by any sculptor with the exception of Rodin'. Brancusi installed it in Steichen's garden at Voulangis, placing it on a square section wooden pillar about ten feet high, where it must have looked extraordinary, shining in the sun, and seen from below against the sky. It became known then in the Paris art world as 'L'Oiseau d'Or' - the golden bird.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.151