Loading the Canon #22 by Helena-Anne Hittel
That’s Not What You Think That Is
Here’s a photograph of a work titled Princess X (1915-16). I want you to take a good, long look at it. Ready? Go.
Yeah. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. “Helena-Anne. That’s a penis. Why am I looking at a giant penis?” I’m not saying that it doesn’t look like a penis. It totally does. However, as we’ve been taught from an early age, things aren’t always what we think they are. Case in point, this sculpture. What if I told you that this undeniably phallic-looking work of art is (supposedly) modeled after a photograph of a woman? Nobody was gonna get that on the first try. I didn’t, that’s for sure. That is the wonder of the works of Constantin Brancusi.
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) was a French-Romanian sculptor whose concentration was, as you might be able to guess, abstraction. He attended the Bucharest School of Fine Arts and studied sculpture. After learning of the works of Auguste Rodin, Brancusi traveled to Paris in 1904, where his first major work, The Kiss (1908), was created. He became internationally notable after exhibiting in New York City’s Armory Show in 1913. Brancusi’s works after The Kiss, such as Sleeping Muse (1912) became even more abstract. Two of his works were at the center of artistic controversy-Princess X was removed from Le Salon de Indépendants in 1920 on the grounds of obscenity, and Brancusi’s later work Bird In Space (1923) was refused the classification of “art” by the United States Customs office in 1926. Brancusi’s studio and the works within was bequeathed to the Museum of Art in Paris at Brancusi’s death, on the condition that it would be installed in its entirety.
Now, a bit more about Princess X. The jury seems to be out on who this is, or if it’s even modeled after anyone in particular. Some allege that this is a portrait of French princess Marie Bonaparte. Most of the articles I’ve looked through seem to at least agree on a feminine figure, if not a name. Encyclopedia Britannica reads that Princess X is “a portrait of an imaginary person that takes on a curiously phallic form.” The information in the catalog of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where a polished bronze version is housed) says that Brancusi, infuriated by the comparison of his work to a phallus, “ insisted the sculpture was a portrayal of a feminine ideal,” while the Guggenheim’s past exhibition catalog states that it was modeled after a woman craning her neck to look at herself in the mirror. This specific catalog goes on to read, “The neck is exaggerated in order to convey the self-awareness of this gesture. Dissatisfied with this version, Brancusi carved back the superficial details. The head became an ovoid on an arching neck and the supporting hand is reduced to a pattern.” (See? I do my research!)
Art will confuse you. It’s going to happen. You will look at a piece in a museum or gallery that will defy all logic in your brain, and you might short circuit if you try to make sense of it on your own (this happened to me when I started studying surrealism). That feeling of confusion, to me, is part of what makes this artist’s works so much fun to look at. Given so little as a title, you, as the viewer, are invited to look again at the form Brancusi has presented. Princess Xbecomes a bit more human. Bird In Space becomes an overly-simplified view of a bird flying sideways. His works are brilliant in its abstraction and simplicity.
Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Central Florida.