31 JANUARY 2004, Page 61

Rare purity of spirit

Andrew Lambirth

Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things Tate Modern, until 23 May

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) is a founding father of Modernism who somehow gets slightly forgotten. There has never been a major exhibition of his work in Britain, and, although the Tate has several pieces by him, because he doesn't fit into the kind of categorisation art historians prefer, he is oddly marginalised. Yet he produced some of the most exquisite, serene and musical sculptures ever, and lent speed to the introduction of abstract and primitive modes into modern art. He is unfashionable perhaps because he was such a skilled maker, intent on his craft, refining and polishing his sculptures to the peak of perfection. Such skill is frowned upon in this age of ideas-driven art. Yet Brancusi's work is conceptual as well as material, sophisticated but also passionate. It's just not easy to write ahout.

Born and trained in Romania, a hundred years ago Brancusi apparently walked to Paris, where he worked (very briefly) as an assistant to Rodin. before settling to the practice of carving. Already the myth was evolving. There is no doubt that Brancusi was careful to stage-manage his public persona, deliberately playing the peasant who wore clogs and dressed in white, but there is in this more of native cunning than cynicism. Brancusi's work has a rare purity of spirit that would have been impossible for a cynical self-seeker to achieve. His distillation of forms — his radical abstraction — seems to arise directly from a desire to purify art, to take it back to its simplest terms, in effect to drink from the fount not from the tap.

Brancusi was a pioneer of direct carving, which means that he worked directly with the stone or wood without recourse to a maquette or model. (In those days it was much more common to employ assistants to cut your marbles for you; most academic portraits and allegorical groups were copied by staff from clay originals.) His first carving was 'The Kiss', three versions of which Brancusi made between the years 1907 and 1916. Two of these are in the first room, or antechamber, of the Tate's remarkable exhibition. The material used is stone, limestone in the case of the later, more refined version. It was to remain a favourite with Brancusi, and though he is also celebrated for his hand-polished bronze sculptures, this exhibition concentrates on his carvings, showcasing some 35 works.

The second gallery is devoted to a clutch of disembodied heads like eggs, mostly carved in marble, lying as if pillowed in sleep in individual vitrines. Brancusi is here seeking the essential form of the head, seeing how far it can be simplified before all sense of human presence is lost. Only one head is made from wood, and it perches upright on a pole, an armoured, unsubtle presence in the delicate marble and plaster context of its fellows. The extreme reduction is reached in the next room, which is given over entirely to one sculpture, modestly entitled 'Beginning of the World'. It consists of an oval-ish headshape on a polished steel platter, mounted on a limestone base.

Here at once we encounter one of Brancusi's central innovations — the incorporation of the base into the work of art. Sculpture is, of course, most often presented on a pedestal, but this is usually formalised, or not of the artist's choosing. Brancusi made his pedestals special, carving them in stone or wood, sometimes even making them crouching sculptures in their own right. He piled up different elements from which to launch his sculptures — one of the soaring bird sculptures is, for instance, mounted on a monumental fourpart limestone and oak base. Monumental, yet somehow entirely appropriate, and seemingly weightless. Brancusi had such an innate feeling for materials that he rarely misjudged his effects.

Of course the greatest problem with mounting an exhibition of Brancusi's work is how to display it. Since the artist himself devised the best way in which a particular piece should be seen (and often clarified or enhanced its effect by photographing it), how do you show it yet also protect it from an inquiring public tempted to touch the very tactile surfaces? (So many of these sculptures cry out to be caressed.) The designers of this show have solved the problem not by cordoning things off, but by placing each piece that is not in a display case on a circular white dais which keeps the viewer at arm's length. Possibly these large white discs look a little too obvious on the raw planking of the Tate's floors, but they are a very effective way of showing and protecting the work, and serve to emphasise its purity.

And so the exhibition progresses, measuring out Brancusi's genius through theme and subject. Thus there is a room of abstracted upright heads, blessed with a minimum of features — just a bun of hair on the nape of the neck or vast eyebrows — against which an early sandstone carving entitled Danaide' seems like an ancient weathered fragment, roughened and eroded by the elements, not purified like the others in the crucible of abstraction. Then there's a gallery given over to torsos, including a phallic wooden one of a young man in walnut and the louche limestone curves of 'Timidity'. A corridor of Brancusi's own photographs, mostly taken in the 1920s and 1930s, of his studio and featuring various versions of his celebrated 'Endless Column', leads to the second half of the exhibition. Some sculptures are less appealing than others. 'Princess X' takes the phallic suggestiveness too far, but 'Young Bird II' has all the innocent poignancy of a bewildered fledgling. The hieratic totem 'King of Kings', intended for an Indian temple, is to me less eloquent than the caryatid in red oak. But the best is reserved for last: a room of Brancusi's birds in marble and metal, a great uplift of the spirit, a triumph of absolute forms in balance, silent music.

The generally rather unsympathetic galleries at Tate Modern have rarely looked so good. This is an excellent and thoughtful installation of a really major artist. The exhibition, sponsored by Aviva plc, is a must. Not everything on show is of the same compelling magnitude, but there are pieces here which gain by association. Looking back through the galleries, it is, for instance, unforgettable to see the gallant wild cherry 'Cock', poised in early morning song, in juxtaposition with 'Adam and Eve', the latter placed on top of her helpmeet, all lippy and sexy. This is an inventive ballet of forms, exceedingly wellorchestrated: all praise to the curators Carmen Gimenez from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the exhibition can be seen this summer, and Matthew Gale from the Tate. The effect really is breathtaking.