Constantin Brancusi



Constantin Brancusi 1876–1957
Bronze on limestone base
Object: 905 x 171 x 178 mm
Purchased 1973

Display caption

While working in Paris Brancusi retained a strong association with the traditions of his native country, Romania: Maiastra exemplifies this inspiration. The polished form evokes a golden bird with miraculous powers, which featured in Romanian folk tales. The carved bird-like forms of the stone base relate to more rustic folk decoration. Emphasising an idealised connection with nature, Brancusi originally set the whole sculpture on a high wooden column in the garden of its first owner, the photographer Edward Steichen.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957

T01751 Maiastra 1911

Inscribed with founder's stamp 'CIRE | C. VALSUANI | PERDUE' at back b.r.
Polished bronze, 21 7/8 x 6 3/4 x 7 (55.5 x 17 x 17.8) on stone base, height 13 3/4 (35)
Purchased from Miss Kate Rodina Steichen through Marlborough Fine Art, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1973
Prov: Edward Steichen, Voulangis and Redding, Conn. (purchased from the artist c.1911); Miss Kate Rodina Steichen, Wilton, Conn.
Exh: (?) Salon des Indépendants, Paris, April-June 1911 (not in catalogue); Spring Salon, American Art Association, New York, October 1955-January 1956 (not in catalogue); Philadelphia Museum, January-February 1956 (not in catalogue); Seven Decades 1895-1965, Knoedler, New York, April-May 1966 (97, repr.); Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957: A Retrospective Exhibition, Philadelphia Museum, September-November 1969 (works not numbered), p.50 and repr. pp.50-1; Guggenheim Museum, New York, November 1969-February 1970 (works not numbered), p.50 and repr. pp.50-1; Art Institute of Chicago, March-April 1970 (works not numbered), p.50 and repr. pp.50-1; Selected European Masters, Marlborough Fine Art, London, June-September 1973 (11, repr. in colour)
Lit: Ionel Jianou, Brancusi (London 1963), p.97 Edward Steichen, A Life in Photography (New York 1963), n.p., Part 10; Sidney Geist, Brancusi (New York 1968), No.70a, pp.43-4, 200-1, repr. p.43; Athena T. Spear, Brancusi's Birds (New York 1969), pp.45, 56-7, repr. pp.56 and 57; Sidney Geist, 'The Birds' in Artforum, XX, November 1970, pp.75-6, repr. p.76; Sidney Geist, Brancusi: The Sculpture and Drawings (New York 1975), No.76, p.178, repr. p.63
Repr: Christian Zervos, Constantin Brancusi (Paris 1957), p.31; Carola Giedion-Welcker, Constantin Brancusi (Basle-Stuttgart 1958), p.232

This bronze is closely related to Brancusi's earliest sculpture of a bird, the white marble 'Pasarea Maiastra' in the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Pasarea = majestic, Maiastra = bird), and according to Geist must have been made from a plaster cast taken from the marble. Geist dates the marble 1910-12 because there is a photograph of it inscribed '1910-12' in Brancusi's hand in the Brancusi Bequest to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris; also because Brancusi told the US Customs Court in 1927 that he began working on the Birds in 1910, and the marble was exhibited at the Brummer Gallery, New York, in 1926 with the date 1912, evidently the date of its completion. An early photograph of 1912 reproduced in the catalogue shows that the marble originally had a flat marble plate at the bottom of the 'legs' similar to the small bronze slab in T01751, though this is not present in the finished work. Evidently the plaster cast was taken when the marble was still incomplete. Brancusi afterwards removed some material from the left side of the head, giving it the appearance of turning slightly to the right.

Edward Steichen records in his autobiography A Life in Photography that he saw this bronze in 1909 or 1910 at the Salon des Independants. 'It appealed to me immediately as the most wonderful concept and execution I had seen by any sculptor with the exception of Rodin'. As the price quoted, one thousand francs (two hundred dollars), was more than he could afford, he went to see Brancusi, who agreed to sell it to him for the price of five hundred dollars if it remained unsold from the exhibition. It did not sell, so he acquired it and moved it out to his home in Voulangis, near Crècy-en-Brie, where Brancusi helped to install it in the garden.

'At a lumber yard, he found a square piece of timber about ten feet long and made a separate base that harmonized with the short stone pillar on which the bird rested. "L'Oiseau d'Or" (as it was then known) reigned over a garden of flower beds'. There it remained until the family moved back to the United States. Exactly which year it was exhibited at the Salon des Ind?pendants is uncertain, as it was not listed in the catalogue, but 1911 seems the most likely. In a letter to Athena T. Spear of 17 May 1962, Steichen confirmed that he bought it not later than 1911, because it was installed in his garden long before 1913.

Photographs of it standing in the garden at Voulangis make it clear that it was at that time on a different stone base consisting of a rectangular pillar of stone only slightly wider than the wooden post, surmounted by a second much smaller stone block of rectangular or possibly cylindrical form on which the bird gave the appearance of perching. The present base, shaped rather like a Romanesque capital, has two stylised profiles of standing birds carved on the front face in low relief. Sidney Geist has written of this in the catalogue of the 1969-70 Brancusi exhibition: 'The base is apparently ancient. Brancusi owned it at a time when the recarved "Woman looking into a Mirror" was complete; he made at least two drawings from the motif which appears on it in relief'. However Kate Rodina Steichen has always been under the impression that it was made by Brancusi himself and the opinion of a wide range of experts at the British Museum on ancient and medieval art, including Romanesque, is that it is almost certainly modern. Some affinities exist between the symmetrical carved profiles of birds and certain of Brancusi's well authenticated carvings, such as the later versions of 'The Kiss' and 'The Gate of the Kiss'. Geist notes in his 1968 monograph on Brancusi, pp.168-70, that none of Brancusi's five works in the Armory Show of 1913 had pedestals and that the elaborate bases on which some of his early sculptures now stand, including the pedestal of the Museum of Modern Art's 'Pasarea Maiastra', which incorporates a pair of caryatid figures, were added some time later. Possibly this one was provided by Brancusi when Steichen left Voulangis in 1923 and moved back to the United States. The two drawings mentioned by Geist may have been done as studies for it.

T01751 is generally considered to have been Brancusi's earliest polished bronze, though the surface may originally have been gilded. It was followed by three further bronze 'Maiastras' (Geist, 1975, Nos.77, 82, and 83) which were variants of the same theme and which all have abstract stone bases, two with a saw-toothed motif. The most closely related is Geist No.77 (coll. Mrs Katherine Graham, Washington, DC), which is the same height as the marble and resembles the finished marble in having no plate underneath the legs. The other two bronzes, Geist No.82 (coll. John Cowles, Minneapolis, presented to the Des Moines Art Center, with life interest retained) and Geist No.83 (Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice) also lack the plate and are taller than the original, with the legs and tail noticeably longer, and the body both longer and fuller. The former is dated 1912, while the latter is said to have been bought from Brancusi in 1912.

The earliest bird sculptures by Brancusi - these five and two other marble carvings, Geist Nos.99 and 100 - were all inspired by the Maiastra or Pasarea Maiastra, a magic golden bird in Romanian folklore, noted especially for its marvellous song, which had miraculous powers. (The Russian form of this same legend was the inspiration for Stravinsky's Firebird). Brancusi's later Birds became progressively more abstract and simplified until they turned into the theme of the 'Bird in Space', a slender, subtly curved shaft of marble or polished bronze. One of these 'Birds in Space' was also bought by Edward Steichen and was the subject of the famous lawsuit in New York in 1927-8, after the US Customs had refused to admit it as a work of art. Altogether 28 completed Birds are known, dating over a period of at least 23 years, and a 29th exists in the form of a shaft of marble on which the carving was only just begun.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.71-3, reproduced p.71

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