The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși once remarked, “I wanted to represent weightlessness in concrete form.” This paradoxical concept fascinated and perplexed Brâncuși throughout his life. It was this quest to capture and immortalize a moment of ephemerality that led him to create his most canonically important series of sculptures. The evolution of Brâncuși’s Birds from the first Maeastra Bird to the final Bird in Space is also the manifestation of the progression to abstraction in his oeuvre.
The Birds (one of which is now on view at MoMA) are a series of differently interpreted objects all concerned with the same central inspiration. From his first rendering of L’Ecorché (The Flayed Man) in 1901, Brâncuși distinguished himself as a sculptor whose ambition it was to reveal the essence of things rather than merely represent their outward appearance. He incorporated into his vision the idea of stripping back the surface to reveal a deeper and more eternal essence. His forms became increasingly more abstract as he developed this concept, best distilled in his somewhat cryptic statement in 1909 that “the greatest joy is between our essence and our eternal essence.”
The inspiration for his first Maeastra Bird sculpture came from a deeply rooted attachment to his Romanian origins. This allowed Brâncuși, living and working in Paris in the midst of the modernist avant-garde, the opportunity to occupy a space of non-belonging. Indeed, he was never fully to abandon his Romanian peasant origins. They provided a lasting inspiration, most crucially as he sought to capture and simultaneously liberate the mythical Maeastra — a bird whose golden appearance and transformative powers in Romanian folktales worked forcefully in harmony with his incipient modernism.
The polymorphous Maeastra was an image that pervaded the Romanian cultural landscape. It was variously, from tale to tale, said to be a princess transformed into a bird as punishment for loving her brother or a woman with the ability to metamorphose into a bird. The Maeastra’s song had the power to cure men of blindness and bring people back from the dead. In some tales the Maeastra had the power to see the past and predict the future; in others she had the power of eternal regeneration. Her outstanding characteristic was the eternally divine beauty of her feathers, feathers that “shone like a mirror in the sun.” This vivid description brings to mind the Phoenix which is more ubiquitous within the Western European tradition.
In each incarnation, everything about the Maeastra is unfixed, changing and other-worldly. Existing at no permanent moment in time, endowed with both godly beauty and power, the Maeastra is a symbol of transformation and untenable fluidity. No surprise, then, that an artist as preoccupied as Brâncuși was with capturing a joyous eternal essence through the abstraction of shape would have been so passionate about this creature and about the need to reveal it in its rawest, truest, most joyous form; to give flight to the Maeastra beyond the boundaries of folklore and fairy tale.
This magical bird was reimagined time and again over the next 45 years by Brâncuși, an echo of its legendary ability to birth itself anew. As seamlessly as the Maeastra shifted form from story to story, so the sculptor created new shapes and adapted his golden bird. Through more and more extreme departures from figuration, he enabled its symbolic power to shine through the confines of its earthly body. As Brâncuși progressed, the bird was no longer at the center of his focus. Instead, he sought to represent the idea of flying — in his words, “a flight translated in its purest form, without any needless elements.” Brâncuși began to elongate the Maeastra, forging head and neck together thereby increasing its sense of aero-dynamism; he thinned out its body, blending wings and torso; he fully removed the wings, the agents of natural propulsion, so that the viewer was presented with a leaner, purer representation. The Bird in Space thus evolved as the soaring, abstracted essence of the Maeastra Bird.
“I started working on the Maeastra in 1909 and I still think I’m not ready with it,” Brâncuși said of his own work in 1928. “This simplification is not a goal in art, you reach it against your will by approaching the real meaning of things, which is not the carcass we see but the very core it hides.”
In the gradual refinement of the bird to that hidden core, Brâncuși sought to present the very essence of the meaning of being a bird. The beautiful form launching itself to the skies with power and seamless grace — a representation of the pure joy and liberation of flight — still ultimately finds itself fixed to its pedestal, rooted to the ground. Repetition and recreation were important aspects of Brâncuși’s artistic output. He worked and reworked his sculptures, unpicking their original forms and baring their essence, only to find that in their abstraction they had come to resemble all the more clearly the original, essential form he had in view.
This metamorphic abstraction can also been seen in his early sculpture The Kiss, which depicts two people locked so closely in an embrace that they appear to be a single entity. The concept of two becoming one is derived from a myth propounded by one of the interlocutors in Plato’s Symposium. The myth states that the sexes were originally not two but three — man, woman and the union of the two — and that Zeus had sundered this union. The human journey through life, therefore, is driven by the desire and pursuit of our missing essence in the hopes that we might fuse it once more into its original, eternal shape.
The bonded unity of the figures in Brâncuși’s Kiss is a pattern repeated in all the birds from the first Maeastra Bird through the Golden Birds to the final flowering in the Birds in Space. The simplification of the body and the idea of propulsive movement display both a drive towards new forms and representations whilst rooting the essence of the bird deep in ancient magic and tradition. Just as the Maeastra can predict the future, she can also see the past. So too Brâncuși — in freeing sculpture from its figurative shackles and simultaneously identifying himself with his folkloric, rural tradition — is both eternally modern and eternally Romanian.