A portrait of Joe Fig’s momentous miniature of Brancusi’s studio, inspired by Fig’s lecture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and a visit to the Shore Collection, the largest collection of his work.
by Christian Schmit
The impasse Ronsin No. 11, Montparnasse, Paris, the studio of Constantin Brancusi. Sunlight enters the room cautiously, through a tessellation of glass panes in the slanted ceiling. The room is an aquarium. Peering through the cloudy glass and siltwater, objects both low and ascending can be discerned in varying casts of obscurity. Great slabs of stone anchor the floor. On them rest glowing white things: coral, bone and treasure. There are ropes that hang, timbers of gut-spilled wrecks, things submerged and coated by the sheddings of time. Sproutings from the seabed disappear into the light above, things have thudded on the bottom, toppled over and come to rest.
In 1958 the photographer Robert Doisneau photographed Brancusi’s studio, the year after the sculptor died. Just as the aquarium is viewed through smudged glass, cloudy water, and unreliable sun, Doisneau’s photograph possesses strata through which the space is perceived, layers combining to produce an elusive feeling. This feeling describes a sacred space, made so by the patina of work, and the absence of the worker. Here paced the man who before made the walk from his homeland Romania and ended in Paris. Now he is gone. In this photograph there is no pastry-fingered Picasso, no Savignac contemplating his painting’s next move, no Tinguely in a headcloud. Here there is a palpable absence. A set of pliers lays on the edge of a slab, awaiting the press of a hand that will never come. A well-worn chair sits in front of an unfinished sculpture. The single, exposed bulb of a lamp feels frozen. This is not a portrait of Brancusi propped up in a suit, surrounded by his arrangement, looking up into the lens. He is gone, the work is alone, the viewer is peering through glass and fog.
Brancusi laid down the hammer and chisel sometime in the 1940s. The place of work suddenly became something like a church. Was this his plan all along? Was he slowly, contemplatively carving out a sculptural chapel, with the intent that someday the tools would be put away, the stone dust swept, and the sun given free passage, to illuminate those silent tables, those infinite columns? It is hard to imagine that a personality so resolute, stubborn, decided, would passively drift and cease to make. The studio transitioned to a new phase, one where the space became the thing. Brancusi seemed content to welcome visitors and take endless photographs of the work.
Brancusi, 1928. This scale model created by the artist Joe Fig depicts Brancusi in his studio, one foot up on a concrete dais, cigarette in hand, staring away from the viewer towards his forest of sculptures or perhaps beyond. Everywhere is the fallout of work, marble and plaster rubble encircling islands of activity. On the slab is a familiar head-sized marble stone, acting as a paperweight to a scattering of photographs. Several windows are open, and a wide wound of rust visible on the wall above them, a sign of things to come, the eventual deterioration of space and health. The light is of a full sun through impassive clouds.
1928 was most certainly a trying year for Brancusi. It was in this year that a decision was finally reached in the infamous court case involving his sculpture Bird in Space. Declaring the court proceedings a “brouhaha,” he flew back to Paris and locked himself in his workshop, content to allow artist friends to testify in his stead. Is this what is causing Brancusi’s hundred yard stare in Fig’s depiction? Is this a flash freezing of a pivotal moment, of a man locked in psychic struggle, playing out the maneuvers of a battle for the validity of his art, fought thousands of miles away? Or has Brancusi found solace in the objects, and left the ludicrous events of the past two years behind? It seems no slight coincidence that the sculptures that stand squarely in his gaze-line are two Birds.
The photograph of Joe Fig’s Brancusi on display in the Shore Collection possesses an atmosphere that is markedly different from that portrayed in Doisneau’s picture. Here the sun enters freely and warms every molecule in the room. This is no subaquatic murkworld. This is a sky room. It is comforting to think that Brancusi is in a state of reverie, imagining the Birds rising and disappearing into the soft glow, or accepting the open window’s open invitation. By photographing the model and displaying it distant from the physical work, Fig has placed yet another layer of strata between the viewer and the piece. This picture makes the moment it describes all the more Momentous, the desire to see the actual model, studio, man, more profound.
The desire to recreate artists’ studios after their death is a phenomenon that is becoming more and more prevalent. Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, London was recently dismantled and meticulously reassembled in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. Gustav Klimt’s studio in Vienna is being painstakingly reconstructed from photographic reference, right down to the carpet fibers. Since its demolition in 1961, impasse Ronsin No. 11 has been reimagined three times. Many are disappointed with the most recent attempt, the Brancusi Atelier, at the Centre Pompidou. In their minds, the artist’s demand that the workshop be preserved as it was at the time of his death, has not been honored. To these purists, visitors should be able to enter the studio, smell the cigarette smoke, kick up the floor’s dirt and run hands on marble and wood grain.
Fig’s model does more than replicate Brancusi’s studio, it preserves a moment simultaneously colossal and intimate. It is both a loving tribute to a great artist, and the most noble attempt thus far to achieve what has been proven impossible. In this miniature room, the fate of a Man, and the very definition of Art are swaying, threatening to topple, like the apex of one of those infinite columns in the breeze of the open window. His foot is planted on the slab, like a captain at the prow of a ship piercing a storm. It isn’t hard to imagine the miniature room growing dim, dust filling the air, columns, birds, fish, disappearing into the gloam. Can it be that there exists, in this tiny space, which sits somewhere on a pedestal, in a room, in a building, in a city, in the world, that elusive desire which so many others have tried to capture?
Christian Schmit is an artist living in Northern Kentucky and a teacher at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.