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Modern and contemporary art

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(piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a room devoted to the work of Constantin Brancusi, an artist who redefined sculpture in the modern age. - [Dr. Harris] Sculpture at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. The great figure who stands out is Auguste Rodin, but still very much within that narrative tradition of the 19th century. - [Dr. Zucker] Rodin broke all kinds of rules in terms of the way he handled surface, fragmented the human figure and took issue with the classical ideal of the human body. We can see that for instance in Walking Man. Brancusi comes as an outsider to modernism and to the art establishment in Paris. He was Romanian. He did go to the academy in Bucharest but made his way as a young man to Paris. - [Dr. Harris] So it's important to remember too that Paris really is the center of the art world for the 19th century. It's the poem of what we think of as modern art and in a way, at the end of the 19th century we see artist wanting to leave Paris to finds other traditions. There's this interest in something that was thought of as a more primitive or more true. - [Dr. Zucker] And what's so interesting is that Brancusi brings that notion of a kind of primitive truth to Paris rather than having to leave Paris to find it. He comes from Romania where there was a long standing peasant tradition of stone carving and wood carving. A kind of folk art. And while Brancusi, himself, worked briefly in Auguste Rodin's studio, when Brancusi was more established, the younger artist Isamu Noguchi would work with this master and one of the things that Noguchi took form Brancusi was the artist regard for the nature of the object, finding its internal spirit, its structures. - [Dr. Harris] We clearly see that here in this limestone sculpture called The Kiss. It's easy to fall into thinking, oh this looks like something a child could do. This is so simple, it's so block-like. The forms are not carefully detailed in their depiction of the human body. Especially if you think about the academic tradition that someone like Rodin is coming from. - [Dr. Zucker] Where there's a careful articulation of movement musculature of the anatomy. But here what we have instead is an attempt to retain the materiality. This came from a block of stone. Look at the turn of the elbows, and yes, of course, arms do turn at right angles but here those right angles are aligned with corners of the block. - [Dr. Harris] It's almost surprising to find those arms continuing around. - [Dr. Zucker] And lovely the way those hands clasp each other and hold the other figure tight. So much so, that these figures, which are each defined only by the single incised line that separates the two without which they could almost be read as a single figure. - [Dr. Harris] Except that of course the figure on the right we read as a woman because the line makes it an arch so we read those as breasts. - [Dr. Zucker] She is ever so slightly thinner than he is. Her eye slightly smaller, but the eyes also join together to create a single, almost cyclopean eye in the middle of the forehead. And the mouths which are lips reaching to each other, are here singular. - [Dr. Harris] Brancusi is making something that reveals the structure of the limestone. We even have that sense in the simplified carving of the hair. And there's also something in that idea of the union of these two figures of male and female coming together, something primitive, something truthful, something about the human condition. - [Dr. Zucker] I think there's a real honoring of the material nature of this block. He's leaving it raw. It's not just the cubic quality, it's the surface, which is allowed to be rough. Look especially at the hair. We can use the term primitive but I think it's also archaic. It's hearkening back to the tradition before the classical. - [Dr. Harris] So outside of that academic tradition, you go to the academy, you learn how to sculpt. You learn how to make a human figure. You study human anatomy. You learn how to polish stone so that it has a high degree of sheen. - [Dr. Zucker] How radical this must have been after 3 or 400 years from the Renaissance to the high polished sculptures of Bernini during the Baroque period to the academic art of the 19th century. Were the technical facility was at a high point to return to a basic beautiful form. This was not the first version of The Kiss. This is actually the fourth and it was commissioned by an American collector who was interested in acquiring the first but Brancusi said it wasn't available. - [Dr. Harris] And it's important that it's not on a typical base that we think of for sculpture. - [Dr. Zucker] In fact, the artist didn't even want it on the piece of wood that we see it on in the museum. He wanted it directly on the ground. He said it would be a kind of amputation if it was placed on a platform. This is important to the idea of taking sculpture out of the academic realm where sculpture had always been accorded a kind of high status put on a high pedestal. The avant-garde has rejected the sophistication of the urban experience looking instead for truth in nature. - [Dr. Harris] Well you can say that that is he very definition of the avant-garde, rejecting the authority and strictures of the academy and finding an alternative that speaks more genuinely to the time that the artist lives in. (piano music)
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