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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A structural analysis of constantin Brancusi’s stone sculpture Dawn, Leslie Allan


It has long been recognized by Sidney Geist and others that Constantin Brancusi's stone work, after 1907, forms a coherent totality in which each component depends on its relationship to the whole for its significance; in short, the oeuvre comprises a rigorous sculptural language. Up to the present, however, formalist approaches have proven insufficient for decodifying the clear design which can be intuited in the language. The resultant confusion can be attributed to the fact that formalism takes only half of the work's significance into account. Yet Brancusi's careful selection of titles, and his insistence on content, indicate that the latter plays an equal part in establishing the relationships between his sculptures. A structuralist analysis which treats his work as a system composed of signs and which takes both form (signifier) and content (signified) into account, and relates each piece to the whole, seems imperative. Various features of Brancusi's work, including his mythological themes (Prometheus, the Danaids) and transformations (Leda, Maiastra), as well as the presence of parallel yet opposing works (George, Princess Xj and reconciled dualities (the Kiss), correspond to Levi-Strauss' observations on the features of "mythic" thought or "concrete" logic. Thus Levi-Strauss' structuralist methodology was chosen from those available for analyzing Brancusi's work. This choice is strengthened by Brancusi's primitive background in Romania, his techniques (la taille directe), and his affiliation with the French avant garde when it was drawing inspiration from primitive art. It is the thesis of this study that Brancusi was a "primitive thinker" working in Paris, and that the structure of his sculptural language functions like a primitive mythology. Language systems do not depend solely, however, on their internal relationships for their significance; they draw much of it from their social context. It is thus necessary to reconstruct the historical milieu from which Brancusi drew his ideas. A structuralist and historical analysis of the Kiss, the cornerstone of Brancusi's stone work, indicates that the sculpture does, in fact, function linguistically like a mythic object, and that it has a highly complex, and densely packed significance. The latter arises from Brancusi's major sources of inspiration: the sculpture of Rodin and the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Although these have been noted before, there has never been any systematic study of the influence, particularly of the latter, on Brancusi's work. The structuralist analysis employed here indicates that Brancusi continued to employ Bergson's concepts of glan vitale, intuition, duration, creative evolution, and the oppositions between consciousness and unconsciousness, the continuous and discontinuous, material and spiritual, from the early Kiss to the last Birds in Space. On the other hand, Brancusi transformed Bergson's ideas into his sculptural language and inverted those which did not correspond to the requirements of the mythology. A structuralist analysis of the sculpture after the Kiss confirms the accepted theory that Brancusi developed his works in series, but also supplements it by demonstrating that these series are as much linked by content as by form, that is, they proceed both metaphorically and metonymically. Furthermore, the analysis indicates that the four major series are, in turn, systematically linked to each other. It appears that Brancusi conceived his series in opposing parallel pairs which could be transformed, through mediating elements, into each other. When the series are finally linked the conceptual infrastructure, or metalanguage, which establishes the relationships between the totality and the parts, becomes clear. Various other oppositions, such as those of male/female, sacred/profane, human/animal, can also be seen to relate opposing works and series to each other. The entire structure, however, rotates around the Bergsonian dualism of the material and the spiritual. Only when the final work has been placed in the structuralist matrix can the system be perceived as coherent. Nonetheless, once the basic concepts of Brancusi's early works and their semantic relationships are clearly understood, his system of sculptures can be seen to proceed with such rigor that the existence of certain works can be predicted. This, in turn, validates the application of both the methodology and the analysis.

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