The Centre Pompidou in Paris has dedicated an extensive retrospective right to Constantin Brancusi

What is art? Is it everything that is created by man, a virtuous transposition of reality, a journey to discover beauty, or the ability to imbue universal themes with aesthetic and poetic depth? Or, perhaps, is it a tool for conveying emotions and revealing the most hidden part of ourselves and the world around us, while renouncing a mechanical reproduction of reality? This latter view was held by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who in 1926 was involved in an interesting exchange with a U.S. customs official that highlights the elusive and volatile nature of artistic creation. When the official encountered Brancusi's Bird in Flight, a slender stem of polished brass that abstractly represented the essential nature of a bird, without using traditional representative forms, he could not recognize it as such and classified it as a commercial object, denying it the exemption from custom duties reserved for works of art. However, in court, it was eventually recognized as a duty-free work of art, demonstrating how even sculpture - a form of expression traditionally linked to reality in its most tangible materiality - can evoke profound emotions to us, even when aimed at conveying more abstract concepts.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris has dedicated an extensive retrospective right to Constantin Brancusi. Curated by Ariane Coulondre, the exhibition features an ensemble of nearly 200 sculptures and 400 works in total, highlighting Brancusi's significant impact on the history of sculpture.

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His contribution is marked indeed by his ability to transcend the material world and express conceptual notions with remarkable volumetric simplicity and an acute sensitivity to the intrinsic qualities of matter. This poetic universe, capable of transcending the material world and expressing conceptual notions with remarkable volumetric simplicity and an acute sensitivity to the intrinsic qualities of matter, is succinctly captured in the exhibition's opening sculpture, Le Coq. In this work, Brancusi reduces the rooster to its essential silhouette and characteristic crest, which soars skyward, embodying his relentless pursuit of form purification.

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Beyond the individual works, which still reflect the values and inner world of an artist, it is his atelier that serves as the true space of production and contemplation, where his intimacy, through tools, works, and walls, can be sublimated and crystallized. The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, mindful of this, allows visitors to penetrate Brancusi's atelier—a completely white space in the heart of Paris. This microcosm at No. 15, Impasse Ronsin, in Paris' 14th arrondissement, was described as such by the publisher Margaret Anderson: "His hair and beard are white, his long working man's blouse is white, his stone benches and large round table are white, the sculptor's dust that covers everything is white..." Man Ray, the famous Dadaist artist, referred to it as a "cathedral" where visitors were "overwhelmed with its whiteness and lightness." This luminance is evoked in the exhibition's first room, clad with entirely white walls, showcasing three sculptures on the rooster theme: Grand Coq I, II, and III.

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Behind the wall, another enigmatic and sublime work, La Muse Endormie, punctuates the visit: a face lying sideways, resolved into a perfect oval, with the bronze polished to such a degree that the material dissolves into its own luminosity, almost vanishing. More than representing a Muse — the inspirational female figure of the arts in classical mythology — Brancusi seems to evoke the true essence of sleep and of love, achieving a perfect harmony where eros and hypnos serenely collaborate for the order of things.

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These precise and crisp forms reflect an aspiration toward the pure, perfect, unchanging idea that has always been perceived by humanity throughout history, including in modern times: not only Brancusi, but also Piet Mondrian, and, more distantly, Piero della Francesca and Greek statuary. But what lies within these perfect forms? What struggles, what creative sparks nurtured their germination and their growth? This is the theme of the exhibition's second room, which explores the diverse sources of inspiration that influenced Brancusi as he patiently simplified forms to express "the essence of things". Brancusi drew from a broad spectrum of sculptural traditions, spanning from ancient forms like Archaic Iberian sculpture, reinterpreted in a limestone Danaid displayed in the exhibition, to more modern influences such as Paul Gauguin, whose Tahitian-themed Oviri was transformed by Brancusi into an idol known as Wisdom of the Earth. An essential influence was Auguste Rodin, one of the foremost innovators in 19th-century French sculpture, renowned for blending Michelangelo's monumental style with intense realism and profound psychological insight. Brancusi served as Rodin's assistant in 1907, and while Rodin's forms sometimes oozed a sensual allure, as seen in works like The Kiss, Brancusi responded with his own interpretation of the theme, where male and female elements intertwine within a rugged limestone block, conveying a sense of granitic strength. Brancusi's stylistic metamorphosis, characterized by a simplification of forms, is also evident in the Child Heads series.

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Another significant source of inspiration is found in the traditional sculpture of Oltenia, the region in Romania where Brancusi was born. The oak door once dividing the public and private spaces of Brancusi's atelier now serves as a threshold to the exhibition's third room. Here, several wooden works—among which a Caryatid and a Child’s head —are presented to the public, highlighting the craftsman's commitment to decant the potential of the material and abolish hierarchies between furniture, sculpture, and pedestals in favour of an enhancement of spatial integration. Alongside these works, a chronological display traces the artist's biographical journey, from his birth in Hobița, Romania, in 1876, to his arrival in Paris in 1904, his participation in international exhibitions starting from 1913, and finally his passing in 1957, when he bequeathed his entire studio to the French state.

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Spanning the decades are numerous photographs capturing the artist and his creations, as well as correspondence, portraits such as Modigliani's, and records documenting his deep fascination with traditional Romanian music.

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Finally, his life is sealed with the reconstruction of his atelier, serving as both a place of creation and a celebration of his artistic legacy. This space, already musealized in 1997 by Renzo Piano in an exhibition venue adjacent to the Centre Pompidou that nevertheless suffered an unstoppable decline in visitor numbers, thus enshrines Brancusi's revanche in an exhibition that is proving extraordinarily successful with the public.

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The exhibition's strength lies also in its departure from a strictly chronological presentation of Brancusi's work, instead highlighting its most significant thematic cores. This narration begins with the provocative sculpture Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror, which explores the eternal dialectic between male and female through an ambiguous womanly figure with rounded, slender forms that hint at an erect phallus, akin to Torso of a Young Man also on display.

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Subsequent rooms feature portraits of women and muses, where Brancusi moves beyond visible phantasmagoria to express what is essential through pure, abstract forms—oval and smooth, minimally detailed.

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In another section, Brancusi's fascination with flight and birds, central to his art, exemplifies his process of patient distillation from complexity to essentiality. Influenced by the traditions of his motherland, Brancusi boldly embarked on rendering the maïastra—a dazzlingly plumed bird from Romanian folklore—into sculpture. Even in his initial attempt, the bird was depicted with an abstractly arched neck, a gracefully open beak, and a body shaped by a pure, ovoid form. Yet Brancusi aimed beyond mere depiction, seeking to capture the essence of flight itself: how could this upward thrust, the boundless projection toward the heavens, be rendered in the medium of sculpture, which often confines itself to realistic interpretations of the tangible world? Through several iterations of his Bird in Space series, Brancusi presented subtly smooth forms that elegantly soar upward in flight, suggesting that if “enlarged, they could dominate the sky”—an ambition perhaps too nuanced for the U.S. customs official who famously mistook one for a utilitarian object in 1926. And in the backdrop, the transparent envelope of the Centre Pompidou is unveiled, set in a mise en scène that allows these tributes to the purity and spirituality of flight to float above the skies of Paris, the city Brancusi chose as his home.

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While the Birds are eloquently poetic, they do not stand alone in Brancusi's exploration of animal subjects. The penultimate room consolidates various interpretations of this theme, unified by a shared pursuit of an exaltation of the material —whether it's the gleaming polish of bronze or the tactile presence of stone— expressed through geometrically precise volumes, as seen earlier. Equally significant is the decision to valorise the pedestal on which the work stands, transforming it from a passive exhibition element into a sculptural form that enhances the final artwork. These stylistic elements define all the sculptures showcased in this room: enigmatic ovals and “Sculptures for the Blind” hint at the genesis of a forthcoming world …

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… seals with elongated forms evoke the clumsy bulkiness of these creatures on land and finally their graceful agility in water …

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… and lastly, a swan of mythological resonance, titled Leda (recalling the princess seduced by Zeus in avian guise), positioned on a perpetually rotating reflective steel base that mimics the rippling surface of water.

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Beyond the studio, however, the sculptor seeks visionary monumentality, as it can be seen in the exhibition's concluding room, dedicated to the Endless Columns. These sculptures, constructed by stacking rhomboidal blocks atop one another, create a sequence that hints at the potential of limitless expansion. Similar to the striving for infinity seen in the Birds in Space, these columns represent an axis mundi—a symbolic link bridging earth and sky. Brancusi created two notable columns: one standing 7 meters tall in the garden of a friend in France, and another towering 30 meters high in Romania, serving as a monumental tribute to the fallen of Târgu Jiu, who defended the city against a German force during World War I.

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Barbara Hepworth, a British sculptor, was deeply moved when she visited Brancusi’s studio in 1933 by "the humanism which seemed intrinsic in all the forms". This reaction highlights the lasting impact of Brancusi’s work, an artist who, like Plato, believed that "what is real is not the appearance, but the idea". Each viewer, however, will navigate Brancusi’s oeuvre in their own way, finding it simultaneously clear and enigmatic, anchored in the physical world yet deeply conceptual.