Here in the early 21st century, even the non-artists among us carry digital video cameras in our pockets. Back in the early 20th century, the ability to film your own life and work, or that of your coterie, wasn’t so close at hand — unless, of course, you ran with the avant-garde. Constantin Brâncuși did, having been brought into the artistic and intellectual scene of the Paris of the 1910s, to which he’d made his way from his native Romania. He eventually counted among his friends the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Man Ray, who got the innovative, hardworking and famously low-tech sculptor practicing cinema.
“In the early 1920s, Man Ray, who had previously taught Constantin Brâncuși how to handle a still camera, introduced him to the movie camera,” says Ubuweb in a description of “fifty minutes of film, shot between 1923 and 1939,” that represents “the sum total of all the images ever filmed by Brâncuși.”
The artist “makes use of framing, shadows, incidental light and refraction in order to activate the plastic properties of his sculptures, and opens up this visual analysis to movement and to time.” Pieces such as Leda and the scandalous Princess X become the subjects of their own sequences; later, we witness “Brancusi’s journey to Romania and the construction of the Endless Column in Târgu Jiu.”
These Endless Column passages, as art critic Blake Gopnik sees them, show “Brâncuși obsessed with how his soaring sculpture comes to life in the open air.” From all this footage Gopnik gets the sense that Brâncuși was “less interested in making fancy museum objects than in putting new kinds of almost-living things into the world,” and indeed drawing inspiration from the living things of the world: “In one of the clips, Brâncuși turns his camera on a pacing hawk, which comes across as a close, natural analog to the many ‘birds’ he created as sculptures.” Another “shows one of his stone pedestals, which meant as much to him as the sculptures set on them, supporting a live flapper doing an ecstatic dance” — captivating evidence of his interest in forms of life beyond the avian.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletterBooks on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.