Constantin Brancusi: Laughing matter

Fans of modern art are reluctant to admit that it may be funny. Viewing the work of Constantin Brancusi at Tate Modern, Tom Lubbock thinks it's time to get the joke

There are two stories about Brancusi people like to tell. In 1920, the sculptor entered his portrait-bust Princess X to the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. But the organisers had a problem. In the pure curvaceous volumes of this almost abstract composition, they could perceive the ominous form of a penis, rising above a pair of testicles. Despite the artist's protestation of innocent intent, the object was removed on grounds of "phallic obscenity". After remonstration, it was restored.

Some years later, the sculptor sent another piece, Bird in Space, to a show in Chicago. It was stopped by American customs officials. In the even purer volumes of this composition, they were unable to perceive any art whatsoever, and imposed a 40 per cent tariff on the object as "raw metal". A court case followed, which Brancusi eventually won.

The thing about both these stories is that they're basically comic. One's a tale of sexual innuendo, the other a case of mistaken identity. Both involve a double-take - is it a portrait or a penis, a sculpture or a lump of metal? And in neither is it quite clear who the joke is on. We could be laughing at the prudishness and insensitivity of officialdom - or at the impossibly high-minded minimalism of the modern artist.

Maybe Brancusi himself is the joker. Look at Princess X. It obviously suggests a penis, and the innuendo can't really have escaped the artist's eye. And look at Bird in Space. The whole point of this sculpture is that it almost isn't. It teeters on the brink of being just a shaft of upright polished brass. These double-takes are the artist's own - well, aren't they?

Modern art has had an uneasy relationship with comedy. Its fans have been reluctant to admit that it might be at all funny, for fear of giving comfort to its enemies who thought it was all just a joke. Of course nobody can deny that Picasso's art is playful, and full of the same kind of ambiguity that Princess X was thought to contain. And anyone can see that Marcel Duchamp's work displays a dry and perhaps tiresome irony. His famous sculpture Fountain, an unmodified gentleman's urinal, deliberately dares the kind of response Bird in Space later encountered. In fact, it was Duchamp who encouraged Brancusi to bring the case to court, no doubt foreseeing some comic potential there.

But Brancusi (the name is pronounced "Brankoosh", though practically nobody bothers); surely he isn't any kind of clown? His sculptures are modern art at its most pure. They are elemental, spiritual. They pursue the essential forms of things. They stand like holy talismans, ritual objects, numinous concentrations of power. They soar. They would quite like to disappear entirely, to dematerialise. And this is true too, as you can see in the new survey show in London at Tate Modern, Brancusi: The Essence of Things, or - on a lesser scale - in Immaterial: Brancusi, Gabo, Moholy-Nagy, at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge.

Yes, Brancusi's is a very serious, beautiful, transfixing and uplifting art - and at the same time it is a comic art. It works with all the tricks of comedy: bathos, caricature, the pun, the anticlimax.

It started with a kiss. Constantin Brancusi travelled from his native Romania (legend has it, on foot) and arrived in Paris, capital of modern culture, in 1904. He washed dishes, enrolled at art school, and got himself a job - briefly - as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. Shortly after that Brancusi made a stone carving he called The Kiss. Of course, there was a precedent. A decade before, Rodin had made a stone sculpture, now very well known and loved, called The Kiss. Its pair of over-lifesized figures grapple mightily on a Promethean rock, bodies surging with Michelangelo muscle. And what is Brancusi's reply? An object about a foot high, in which two little cuboid figures are pressed together in a childlike hug, face flat to face, froggy arms wrapped round each other's backs.

It is a critique of Rodin, certainly. It eliminates all trace of Rodin's muscliness. It stands opposed to Rodin's production methods. Rodin had done the modelling of his sculpture in plaster, then had assistants copy it in marble. Brancusi's sculpture is ostentatiously a piece of true carving. The square block of stone it was made from is still visible, hardly transformed at all, in the shapes of its compacted huggers.

More than a critique, Brancusi's lovers - dumb, simple, sweet - are a joking riposte to Rodin's inflated and theatrical clinch. Beside the Rodin, the Brancusi looks absurd; absurdly crude and inarticulate. And beside the Brancusi, the Rodin looks absurd; absurdly grandiose and explicit. Which is sublime, and which ridiculous, is a matter of taste. The two embody quite irreconcilable ideas of sculptural seriousness.

Bathos - the comic comedown - is a favourite Brancusi effect. He insisted, crossly, that his work was never abstract. "They are imbeciles who call my work abstract." The subject is vital - a human head, a torso, a bird, a fish, a turtle. But there is always a gap between Brancusi's subjects and the objects that depict them.

These objects are so emphatically objects: pieces of raw stone, wood and metal, shaped into basic geometrical solids, cubes, ovoids, hemispheres, cylinders and half-cylinders. Brancusi's sculpture holds a tension between the handmade and the unhandmade. His figures involve a sense of distance, a jump, a jolt, between the animate organic subject, human or animal, and the inanimate geometric or mechanical entity to which it is reduced. And this is the very essence of comedy - at least according to one big theory of the time.

In 1900, the Parisian philosopher Henri Bergson wrote an essay on laughter. What was the fundamental element in the laughable? For example: what was so funny about a person falling over in the road? Bergson closed in on his central principle. We laugh when a living body is subject to rigidity, inelasticity, at "something mechanical encrusted on to the living". The comic arises out of a struggle between soul and matter. The soul is infinitely supple, subject to no law of gravitation. Matter, however, is obstinate, and resists. "When matter succeeds in dulling the outward life of the soul, in petrifying its movements, and thwarting its gracefulness, it achieves - at the expense of the body - an effect which is comic."

This idea has its limitations. (It doesn't see that the excessively soulful bodies of Rodin could be laughable too.) But as an account of a leading tendency in 20th-century art, it is prophetic. Bergson says: "We laugh every time a person gives the impression of being a thing." How true that is of Picasso's great inanimate lumps of girls, of the metallic, cylinder-limbed figures of Léger, of Duchamp's sex-machine * * imagery of organisms encrusted with gadgetry. Do we laugh? Perhaps we should laugh a little more.

Brancusi's people and animals often give the impression of being things, and the effect - the abrupt compacting of creature into thing - is often funny. Go from a fish to Brancusi's Fish, a featureless teardrop sliver of highly reflective bronze. Go from a bird to Brancusi's Yellow Bird, a standing elongated bottle of yellow marble, precariously balanced on a tiny base, its top becoming an upward gaping mouth, opened in song or hunger. These are brilliant simplifications, but what's delightful about them is that they are oversimplifications. Their reductions go just too far in turning the living body into a dumb thing. There's a likeness, but it's the likeness of an extreme caricature.

Just so: and some of Brancusi's work is overtly caricatural. When he makes a portrait-sculpture, he uses the caricaturist's formulae and economies. There's a marvellous head of the American culture-vulture, Nancy Cunard (also called Sophisticated Young Lady). It consists simply of a swelling D-shape (her face), and perched on its crest there's an elegantly twisted blob of hair, like a cartoon cloud. It achieves the most remote, yet most precise evocation of a physiognomy, a character. And it invites a surprising comparison.

The name of Max Beerbohm, the English parodist and caricaturist, is (I guess) not often coupled with Brancusi's. The two were in fact almost exact contemporaries - Beerbohm 1872-1956, Brancusi 1876-1957. Beerbohm would probably not have admired Brancusi. He once did a cartoon of the avant-garde art critic Roger Fry gazing enraptured at the pure, curved, carved volumes of... a wooden toy soldier. Caption: "We needs must love the highest when we see it." And it's not a bad crack: it knows the target, modern art with its simplified forms and love of the primitive.

But the irony is that Beerbohm's comic drawings perform the very same operations as Brancusi's sculptures. In Beerbohm's caricature of the playwright Arthur Wing Pinero, Pinero's head is a single smoothly tapering trunk adorned with a single slug of an eyebrow. Take that Pinero head and carve it 3D in stone, and a Brancusi is near enough what you'd have. Compare it with the bust of Nancy Cunard, or with the even more minimal head of Brancusi's sometime girlfriend, Eileen Lane, which is at the Tate Modern show. Each brings off the same magic. The economy is taken so far that at first nothing is recognisable. But once a likeness appears, it appears with full feeling.

Brancusi's art is a kind of impressionism: in the mimic, not the Monet, sense of the word. It knows its creatures from the inside. It empathises. The rising yearning appetite of Young Bird - you feel it straining greedily out of the nest - is captured perfectly in a shape that might be mistaken for a fingertip and fingernail. The barely awakened consciousness of The Newborn is created from a minimally transformed white marble egg. What he represents is not the look of things, as much as a bodily sensation, a state of mind, a gesture, a movement, a sound. The Cock is nothing much like a cock to look at. Its zigzag edge rising to a pointed tip suggests, but can't really be read as, the cock's comb. What it summons up is the cocky stance of a cock, and the jagged piercing cry of a cockcrow.

Again you might think of cartoons and the way they do noises. There are the frenzied parades of shapes and critters that fill the speech bubble when an Asterix character is effing and blinding. Or there is HM Bateman's "The New Word in Golf" - the furious violent deformed pustulating red-hot ectoplasmic blob, representing an unspeakable swear-word, that issues from the mouth of the man who has missed the easiest putt in the world. It is clear that Bateman got his idea for this extremely mimetic shape from modernist sculpture (though he too was no admirer); from Henry Moore, probably, who in turn got many of his ideas from Brancusi. The cartoonists and modern art - they speak a common language.

And then there are the puns. Look back at that Cock. Which way is it pointing? The sharp point at its apex; do we take that as the creature's raised head, or the tip of its stuck-up tail feathers? Both. Princess X isn't the only piece that allows alternative readings, and one reason to doubt Brancusi's innocence in that case is that he is so alert to the potential ambiguities of a shape. Torso of a Young Man goes the same way. An upside down Y, with a long upright cylinder rising from two short cylinders, it can be read as an upper body plus the beginnings of thighs; or again, as what's missing between those thighs - male genitalia.

Bird in Space is the supreme example of an ambiguous object. What does this swelling vertical boomerang evoke? The flying wing of a bird? The upright stance of a bird? The trajectory of a bird's flight? Soaring, or touching down? Windswept motion? All of these things at once. And it's a piece like Bird in Space, so breathtaking, so piercing in its sudden shimmering presence, that makes this comedy story look like a wrong turning. Whatever Bergson said, this is something different.

Brancusi's art offers an answer to Bergson's theory. Bergson saw matter as "dulling the outward life of the soul, petrifying its movements, and thwarting its gracefulness". But in Brancusi the inanimate achieves a transcending gracefulness. His works propose that highly purified material forms are nearer to pure spirit than a living body is. But to Brancusi's credit, that is not the whole of the story. He doesn't just seek to transcend. The sculptor's great monument is his Endless Column, in Tirgu Jiu, Romania. Nearly 100 feet high, it rises like a vertical string of beads, a tower of identical lozenges, of alternating hips and waists, in a shallow zigzag, in and out, upwards, indefinitely. It just goes up and up - and at some height it must simply end. As it does after 15 whole lozenges, and at a hip, not a waist, opening out, not closing...

You can take this end as a mere material limit to a form that continues spiritually, invisibly, all the way to heaven. But stick to the visible facts, and it's an abrupt and arbitrary halt. The whole point of Endless Column is that it's an anticlimax. Comedy has the last word. We rise. And we just stop.

Brancusi: The Essence of Things is at Tate Modern, London SE1 to 23 May (020-7887 8000). Immaterial: Brancusi, Gabo, Moholy-Nagy is at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge to 14 March (01223 352124)

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