Constantin Brancusi, ‘Maiastra’ 1911
Constantin Brancusi
Maiastra 1911
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

Above all else, the Birds came to summarise Brancusi’s distillation of form. The impetus for these works was mythological - the earliest versions soon acquired the name Maiastra, from a Romanian magical creature akin to the firebird (this was also the subject of a contemporary ballet by Stravinsky). The bronze Maiastra seen here is the second in this sequence. The open beak may imply the birds magical voice.

When he returned to the Birds after the First World War, Brancusi shifted away from mythical references. In the two versions carved in yellow and grey-blue marble, a tall, flame-like body now dominates. His choice of coloured marble lends a striking exoticism, while also being more difficult to carve as the veining is necessarily variable in texture.

By the mid 1920s, he brought the theme to a new pitch of verticality in the Birds in Space. These works embody an idea of flight, and suggest liberation from material concerns. In 1927-8, one of the bronze Birds in Space unexpectedly became the subject of a notorious court case. Challenging the tax imposed by American customs officials who classified it simply as metal raw material, Brancusi won legal recognition for abstract sculpture.