Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Out of Space: Many Happy Returns

Things discussed: The Kiss; Constantin Brâncuși; John Berger; Everything that Rises; Lawrence Weschler; Convergences; Perfumes and Shampoos; Early Christian Art; Jorge Luis Borges; Love, eternal.


The Kiss (Le baiser), the haunting sculpture by Constantin Brâncuși, is possibly one of the greatest works of art of all time. To me, it's up there with three or four others at most. 

And it's been part of my life for so long now it's impossible to imagine it without: it stuck in my mind when I saw a picture of it as a child, and, as I grew up, its power over my aesthetic sense, emotions, expectations, and fears, has never faded.

It shows the absolute and the ultimate of so many things: the two becoming one; complementarity; sex; tenderness supreme; and, on the creepy side, the sort of perceptive atrophy that comes to couples who only look at each other and don't take nourishment from stimuli of the outside world. 

As with everything of this level, in here you can over-interpret or project everything and nothing. But there is one thing and one only that the sculpture is really all about: love.

It doesn't come as a surprise that the same compositional scheme has been used, consciously quoting Brâncuși or otherwise, so many times. 

Here are a few examples, all from cosmetic paraphernalia: 

But these are rather superficial glides on the vast implications of Brâncuși's work: these images show the complementarity of the male and female body, hint at their union, and, when they go further, hold the kiss as a synthesis and gateway of the sexual act, rather than love as a whole. 
Something gets lost, on purpose, because, well: sex sells.

One can argue that we needn't go to Brâncuși to find the perfect image of complementarity, because the yin-yang symbol would do just fine: 

But this is, clearly, neither Brâncuși's world nor research. In a sense, this far eastern abstraction could have been too cold for the rumanian sculptor. Perhaps due to the christian core of a vast part of western culture, Brâncuși, whatever his tension towards synthesis, never does away with the body. And he wasn't looking for symbols or emblems.

As for sex as such, we can agree that Brâncuși wasn't looking for that level of one-to-one correspondence either: whatever he was looking for included that level and, maybe, tended to abstraction, but it seems to me it aims much, much further up.

So: what was Brâncuși looking for?

Let me digress for a second. 

I have the feeling that everybody should embrace their own obsessions. In the so called "art world" there are fads, trends, fashions, and so on, but only obsession creates a path. If we want to be a bit less dramatic, we could substitute "obsession" with "focus": only focus creates a vision.This, I think, is valid for each and everyone involved.

In this particular case, a viewer's obsession—mine—and an artist's obsession, Constantin Brâncuși's, are at play. I'm not putting myself anywhere close to the sculptor: I'm just saying that I pay more attention to the world surrounding me when I look at it through The Kiss.

Enter Lawrence Weschler. I knew and loved Weschler's book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder; and I knew John Berger in at least three major roles: the political activist, the art critic and broadcaster, the book writer.

And I knew Constantin Brâncuși. It seems to me neither Berger nor Weschler speak meaningfully about Brâncuși, so that's not the point. The point is: I stumbled upon this book:

In the introduction, Weschler quotes John Berger's The Look of Things on the subject of the famous photograph of Che Guevara's death: in there Berger makes a point that that picture is obviously based both on Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson and Mantegna's The Dead Christ, and Weschler goes further in the analysis in the book:


But Weschler's aim in this book is not to find Wally in the art world: it's to find examples of how we come to look and represent certain situations or objects along certain lines without even knowing it.

The book is full of insightful analyses, inspirational hints, and more than one surprise. But the most important thing Weschler does is in the words he uses.

Weschler talks of convergences rather than influences, for what's "created" in art as well as any human creative endeavour is often a recombination of known aesthetic schemes, filled up and set alive again by new psychological and cultural anxieties.

On what I'd call the "intensive" level of convergence, an excellent source of ever more surprising entertainment is the website Who Wore it Better. Its visual cataloguing and comparing shows the whole range of "similarity" from amicable quotes, homages, critical rethinkingsto flat-out plagiarism.

On the extensive side of convergence, there is, I think, a very strong tie to the themes some artists choose to explore, that have been crawling through millennia of art production. And that's what Weschler's book explores, and is reflected often playfully in his website

Now, back to Brâncuși. The artist walked a complex and variegated path as a sculptor that we can onlyas it happensinterpret from its conclusion: the polished surfaces, the smooth shapes, the raw often hard material bended to the core of an aesthetic essentialism. 

But it's not minimalism, and it's not abstraction: it has nothing to do with either. Brâncuși was really looking to carve out the essence with his own hands. Of course "essence" has different meanings to different artists. What I think it meant for him, and what emerges from his greatest works, is an urge to represent the eternal.

The permanent gymnasium for the seeking of the eternal has been religious art, in the West as everywhere in the world. And in their quest for a "new" way to represent the world, artists contemporary to Brâncuși looked deeply and eagerly at "oriental" and "primitive" art. Sometimes they copied the shapes, sometimes they had insights into their function, and sometimes they ironized on them. 

Brâncuși was attracted to them as well, but followed a path all of his own. And The Kiss itself had many different versions, starting from the one exhibited at the Armory in New York in 1913.

That is why I see what am I about to show as a convergence (on the extensive side) rather than an influence, on Brâncuși's masterpiece.

I found this browsing flickr one day. It comes from this link, and it shows a relief on thChurch of Santa Eulalia de la Lloraza, in the Asturias, on the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain).

The similarities with The Kiss are startling. And this image shows something similar:

It's a relief on the Church of Saint Quentin de Chermignac, Charente Maritime, Poitou, on the Atlantic coast of France. I found it here

In the Early Christian iconography, both images show the themeand possibly the constellation?of Gemini, the Twins. Sometimesit seemsused as a compositional pattern to represent a couple in love. 

This is not the placeand I don't have the knowledgeto go in depth on the subject of this iconography and Brâncuși's relationship with it. But if eternality is what he was looking for to convey in The Kissthis is a kindred research done some ten centuries earlier. 

And both themes and researches converge in what's perhaps best expressed in the poem "La dicha" (Joy) by Jorge Luis Borges: 

El que abraza a una mujer es Adán. La mujer es Eva.
Todo sucede por la primera vez.
translated here as:

He who embraces a woman is Adam. The woman is Eve.
Everything happens for the first time.

1 comment:

  1. Splendido questo post. Davvero.
    E non solo per la citazione finale.