The Endless Column/ The Column without End.
By Maya Howard
This blog post explores Constantin Brâncuși’s famous sculpture the Endless Column as part of an exploration into Romanian culture and art.Constantin Brâncuși was born in 1876 in the Romanian village Hobiţa, not far from the town where the sculptural ensemble stands today. He was born into a peasant family that had a strong connection to the crafts tradition of the area. Thus, Brâncuși used wooden farm tools and displayed an aptitude for carving with wood from a young age. Wood carving was famous in the area as part of the local folk-craft, used architecturally and varying repeated shapes and patterns. Brâncuși was influenced by traditional Romanian folk-craft and nourished this style in his work throughout his life as an artist. Brâncuși fled from an unsettled home life at the age of 11; formal studies in art first took him to Bucharest, then on to Munich, then finally to the ‘École des Beaux-Arts’ in Paris, where he later settled. His final grand masterpiece and most famous monument the Endless Column was commissioned by the National League of the Romanian Women of the Gorj in 1935. Brâncuși refused to receive payment for it (Parigoras, 2002), instead he welcomed the opportunity to create this large commemorative sculpture in his homeland, and work began on the sculpture in 1937.
Brâncuși made several versions of The Endless Column, originally carving a prototype out of oak, before he fully developed the monument to its final form (MoMA, 2014). The evolution of the column at first took many forms, focussing on the base and the column as a pedestal before it developed into a sculpture (Lanchner, 2012, p.15). In 1920 Brâncuși carved a version just under 24 feet tall, a nine-module wood column, which was set up in the garden of the photographer Edward Steichen (Geist, p.76). The design consists of a single symmetrical element, a pair of truncated pyramids stuck together at their base, and then repeated to produce a continuous rhythmic line (MoMA). It is said to be structurally ‘based on repetition of a rhomboid module whose ratio, carefully selected by Brâncuși, is 1:2:4’ (Miller, 1980, p.473). ‘The elevation consists of fifteen such identical rhomboid beads, flanked at either end by half modules performing the most staggering optical illusion,’ (Miller, 1980, p.473) whereby the column appears to intertwine with the sky, ascending into infinity. Whilst replicating this same abstract shape, Brâncuși emphasized the possibility of vertical expansion —it was, he later said, a “column for infinity” (MoMA). The Column is a symbol of the means of ascension to heaven for the souls of the soldiers, and, as Brâncuși himself stated, a way to “sustain the vault of heaven” (Lanchner, 2010, p.6).
The monument was inaugurated, in iron, on the 27th October 1938. It stands in Târgu Jiu in Romania, as a memorial for the young Romanian soldiers who died defending the town against German forces in the First World War. The location marks the place along the River Jiu where the young men died fighting. At the heart of the tripartite ensemble is the Column, a 30-metre high column of zinc and brass-clad, cat iron modules. The column stands alongside the Gate of the Kiss and the Table of Silence. For nearly two kilometres the ensemble leads on in procession continuing through the town. The Column is the “culminating element of a linear group, standing on a low hill above the town” (Gormley, 2009). Often termed “the Column of the Infinite,” it symbolizes the “Infinite Sacrifice” of the Romanian soldiers. It was initially intended to commemorate the First World War and by implication became a war memorial to both World Wars, it holds high cultural significance for the town and nationally in commemoration of the war in Romania.
Brâncuși used natural forms in his work, mainly the shapes of a head, eggs, birds and columns, they were then reduced down to simple shapes almost to the point of abstraction. Using either wood or stone he reinstated the ancient technique of direct carving as a tool for modern artists, employing both smooth surfaces that evoke classical traditions and rough-hewn surfaces that look back to primitive art and the folk art of Romania. The industrial production and construction of the column references the location which was previously an area heavily industrialized in coal mining. Brâncuși was concerned about the architecture and the surrounding space. He took the vision of the location, the natural environment, and incorporated it into the integral essence of the piece. It is in this that we see the environment with great significance for the Column:
‘The Jiu river, which runs between these two towns, through a high ravine with endless meanders, is the central axis of Brâncuși’s hinterland. A number of entities stand out: The world of metal, and Petrosani’s mechanical workshops, where, in 1937, the Endless Column was produced, and in 2001 its clone; the world of coal, in the neighbouring town of Petrila, whose mine goes down almost a kilometre into the earth as a sort of mirror image of the Endless Column; the world of river stones in the Jiu valley, whose spanning by the railway in 1948 was the great patriotic project of communist Romania; and the world of wood and vernacular architecture.’
According to Ezra Pound, Brâncuși found “the world of forms”, which ‘contains or implies both the triangle and the circle’ (1921). The shapes and patterns Brâncuși uses are related to ancient forms, Lanchner adds that: ‘Debates on the origin of the motif have largely divided into those linking it to Romanian folk sculpture and others tracing it to African tribal art’ (2010, p. 13). However, a profound connection can be made between the column and Romania’s ancient history. The Danube Valley Culture, termed “Old Europe”, flourished in 5,500 – 3,500BCE; Old Europe was the proto-civilisation for Europe itself. The civilisation was centred in the Danube River’s fertile valleys. The Danube Valley Culture created the first monumental sculptures in Europe, and some of the richest Old European archaeological heritage was found in Romania, as well as Moldova and Bulgaria (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World New York University, 2017). With this piece, Brâncuși alludes to the beginnings of sculpture and the creations of mankind. The Endless Collumn in form is not dissimilar to that of a strand of DNA. The artist implies with this work associations with ancient civilisation and heritage, alongside conceptual ideas of the essence of mankind and the celestial realm. There are multiple interpretations of The Endless Column, it is unsurprising as we can see here that there are so many ways of perceiving the symbolic association of the sculpture. In all, the sculpture presents a unique cultural significance, most especially as a local memorial and its relation to the surrounding landscape such as the River Jiu.
The Romanian landscape, culture, and heritage are all an integral part of the column The Column is commonly suggested to resemble the shape of Romanian ‘funerary poles or trees (…). An analysis by Miller interprets the column in similarity to the concept of the Axis Mundi, or tree of life, as she states that references to the ‘axis mundi’ are made in Romanian Christmas carols and may have inspired the design (Miller,1980). The concept of the infinite in the column can be seen in the gradient, which gives the appearance of the modules getting smaller as it ascends, the base appearing as thick roots in the ground. The incomplete half module that appears at the top of the monument could allude to an ethereality, the continuation of the column into the sky. If the Endless Column is a form of axis mundi, then conceptually the column connects the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. The axis mundi is defined in mythology as the world centre, as a connection between heaven and earth as a celestial and geographic pole. It further describes in detail the “the world’s point of beginning” functioning as an “Omphalos” (naval). Due to this it is considered with a feminine quality perhaps related directly to birth. The Romanian word “sine” means “self”, and combines the sense of both an “overt self” and a “covert self” which Brancusi called “lady self”, an “essence subject to becoming” (Saussier, 2012). Symbolically it exudes the essence of life, the pattern as a symbol of “the cycle of life”, the duality of birth and death. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Brâncuși was influenced by the ‘Book of Milarepa’, a collection of poetry written by the ancient Tibetan Buddhist and Mystic Jetsun Milarepa (c. 1052 – c. 1135 CE). Milarepa’s songs are said to have been incited spontaneously from a higher state of consciousness in meditation (O’Brien, 2014). As the concept of the infinite in Brâncuși’s column equates with the basic Buddhist teachings of cyclical rebirth as an eternity, until a higher state of consciousness is achieved. There seems to be an infinite context applied to the Column and it is perhaps presented to play with different meanings within Brâncuși’s own personal and cultural context. After working under Rodin, Brâncuși questions his relation to the world as an artist in the process and creation of objects. The idea of the “axis mundi” could signify Brâncuși’s desire to create a world within an object, rather than merely decorate and perfect an object.
In an essay on Brâncuși in The Little Review, Pound asserts that “A work of art has in it no idea which is separable from the form” (1921). This is true in how the structure of the Column reflects the complexity of meaning it presents as a piece of art. Brâncuși states: “There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.” Brâncuși’s work can be associated with minimalism rather than abstraction. Brâncuși could well have relied upon similar ideas to the Platonic and Aristotelian definitions of forms and the early Greek philosophy of the elements. For Plato, forms are perfect, modelled on the traditional, pure and essential for concepts and objects, such as goodness, virtue or humanity. Aristotle transformed this Platonic notion of Forms, distinguishing between the essential and the contingent, in other words, permanence, and change (Banach, 2006). The essence of the object defines what it is despite of whether it changes its appearance or state. Just as Brâncuși replicated the shape of the column in earlier models; the form changes but the essential meaning is infinite. The Endless Column is connected with an idea of human continuity and of time as a sequence of generations (Gormley, 2009). The Column seems to be both primitive and existential in nature, adhering to fundamental notions of mankind.
The Column fell into disrepair for many years, suffering surface damage from gradual erosion. Eventually it was put on watch by the World Monuments Fund. The project to restore the monument started in 1996, and it was finally fully restored in 2000. According to WMF Vice President for Programs it was considered “by far the simplest structure WMF has ever dealt with” (Paragoris, 2002). In the original project Brancusi enlisted the help of the engineer Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan. This was a successful partnership in creating technical solutions to the Column, vital in the simplicity of the structure. It can be seen to resemble an industrial production (Gormley, 2009) the repetition of the shape means it could be restored in a mechanical way.The restoration was necessary in returning the radiance of the monument back to its former glory. Thus, timeless in its presence, to be seen by and influence future generations.
Sanda Miller argues that ‘the significance of the work lies not so much in any symbolic interpretation, but in its singularity as a self- explanatory, sculptural ensemble’ (Miller, 1980, p. 478). Brâncuși was a modern master of sculpture; he influenced the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Jacob Epstein, including his student Noguchi. Shortly before he died, he bequeathed his studio and all its contents to the French government on condition that the Musée National d’Art Moderne reconstitute the studio as it had been in its original location near Montparnasse. The Endless Column is considered his most notable work by many, it continues to influence conceptual art and sculpture today. To quote Ezra Pound: “It is perhaps no more impossible to give a vague idea of Brâncuși’s sculpture in words than to give it in photographs, but it is equally impossible to give an exact sculptural idea in either words or photography” (1921).
The monument and artist are famous to Romania, such that the column has become a cultural motif, for instance with the choice to picture the artist and column on the 500 lei banknote issued first in January 1991, as well as on the December 1992 note (Banca Naţională a României, 2001).
For me it was not a difficult choice to write a piece on the Endless Column, as this work shows to me that the artist has been able to unite the history of the area, the personal identity of the town, and the traditional arts and crafts movement that he was influenced by, all in this one sculpture. The sculptural ensemble is open to many interpretations, the sculpture may not aesthetically be to some people’s taste, yet it certainly exudes a presence which prompts the visitor to experience it conceptually and more directly to its surroundings.
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