A wooden house in a garden of mulberry trees, with a deep well for a summer’s day, a stone path over the lawn, and outhouses packed to the brim with corn-cobs. There is also an assortment of outhouses, barns and sheds with old farm implements and cartwheels attached to the walls, wearing the branches of plum trees in their hair like crowns. Even the tiles on the roofs are made of wood – these are the heartlands of the Romanian peasant, and the place has been preserved, restored even, and saved from the ravages of both communism and capitalism.
A long veranda runs in front of the three, humble, earth-floored rooms of the Brancusi dwelling. The actual house which once stood here burnt down, but was replaced by this one, which was also built by his father, Nicolae, and dates from the same period. There are sculpted wooden columns on the outside, carved with spirals. The shapes which surrounded him as a child, and which formed the artistic and religious vision he carried with him throughout his life, however far he travelled from these roots. In one room there is a hearth with clay pots and pans. In another, a workshop. But the third room is the most interesting, with oil-lamps on the wall beside of Brancusi – photographs mostly from his atelier in Paris – a writing desk with fresh flowers, and a view out into his parents’ garden.
Above the desk is a translation of a story he kept above his desk in Paris. The story is about a master-carver called Costache, so skilled at his craft that his fame eventually reaches even the gods. Who commissioned him to build a stairway to Heaven. It was the marvel of the world, and when his own last day arrived, the master-carver ascended it himself, and has watched over the deeds of men on earth ever since. But later people came and desecrated the staircase, damaged it and eventually locked it away in a dark place.
Their intention was to build a new one, of their own. The gods, in their fury and sadness, wept tears of fire, which caused terrible destruction on earth. Until the great God granted grace to other masters, who broke the locks on the room where the old staircase had been locked away, and restored it to its former glory, gilded with the golden tears of the gods. Then the masters disappeared, as silently and mysteriously as they had come.
“According to the legend, the staircase will burn the evil man who tries to lay hold of it, and lights the way of the good man. I have been told this story by an old man, seated on a bench close to the staircase of the gods, on a moonlit night. People who go to see the staircase at night meet the old man, and listen to his story. Is it possible that the old man is the master himself?”
Constantin Brancusi grew up tending his father’s sheep on the hills around Hobiţa, and learnt to carve on those long days with nothing to do except watch the animals. At the age of eighteen, when he was working as a domestic servant in a house in Craiova, in Southern Romania, his employer recognized his talent and found him a place at the Craiova Arts and Crafts School, where he graduated with honours in 1898, at the age of 22. From there he went to the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, and had already gained a firm reputation in his native Romania, when he set out five years later on foot for Paris. Little is known about his exact route – and in later life, he was fond of embellishing it – but he certainly passed through Budapest and Munich, where he stopped for a while to work to earn more money for the journey.
Once in Paris, he found a place in the workshop of Antonin Mercié, and briefly in that of Auguste Rodin, whom he left almost immediately with the argument that “nothing grows in the shade of great trees”. The style he developed for himself, of simple geometrical shapes, clearly grew out of the simple carved shapes of his childhood.
“Work like a slave; command like a king; create like a god”, became his credo.
Alongside his ties to rural Oltenia, he was also deeply influenced by his encounters with African and Mediterranean art. In Paris, there were many traces in his workshop of rural Romania – a rough stone table, wooden furniture and tools he made himself. He was also an accomplished player of the violin and the shepherd’s flute, and was befriended by many of the famous artists and intellectuals of his generation in Paris, including Picasso, Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, and fellow Romanians like Eugene Ionesco and George Enescu.
“There are idiots who define my work as abstract”, he wrote, “yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.”
Fifteen kilometres from Hobiţa is Târgu Jiu, the county capital and the site of three of Brancusi’s best known works, a sequence known as the Heroes’ Way: the Table of Silence, the Gate of the Kiss, and the Endless Column. Built in a straight line across the city in 1938, they were commissioned as a tribute to the heroism of Romanian soldiers who died defending the city from German troops in 1916 – but a war monument with a difference. The Gate of the Kiss represents the farewell kiss of the soldier to his sweetheart, to his children, to his parents, as he sets out to war. The kiss is an image he worked at throughout his life, and there are versions of it in the Montparnasse cemetery where Brancusi himself was buried.
In the park in Târgu Jiu, couples ask to be photographed under its arches, small children hold hands or play around it, and mothers and grandmothers walk prams up and down the gravel path, trying to lull wide-eyed babies to sleep. Along the top of the arch, carved into the vertical stone, one can see the roof-tiles of a peasant house, out of perspective, like in a child’s drawing. And what had seemed only a few moments before like a rather stylized arch, suddenly swells in the viewer’s imagination, to embrace other meanings – a roof held up by the columns of all our farewells, and re-unions.
Close by, almost on the bank of the river Jiu, the Table of Silence is a perfect round of stone, surrounded by round stools. Sit on one of them, and the sound of the nearby town falls away, and other tables come to mind. The table of the Last Supper; and the table laid with a place for the soldier who never returns.
“I am not fighting for justice, I am not fighting for freedom, I am just fighting for my life and another day on this earth dear”, sang Tom Waits, about a young American soldier in Afghanistan, “I just do what I’m told, we’re just the gravel on the road, and only the lucky ones come home, on the day after tomorrow.”
On the far side of the town, the Endless Column was originally set up in a hay meadow. Like the other Brancusi monuments, it was ridiculed by the ruling Communists in Romania in the 1950s who dismissed Brancusi as a “degenerate bourgeois artist” – his work was a far cry from their “socialist realist” images of heroic, sharp-jawed workers. In terms of taste, they had much in common with the New York customs officials who refused to recognize his polished bronze work Bird in Space as art in 1926, and slapped a forty per cent customs duty on it as a “manufactured metal object”. “If that’s art, I’m a bricklayer”, one government official is reported to have commented. The sculpture was eventually allowed into the country under the “kitchen utensils and kitchen supplies” label, until a brave 1928 New York judge decided that it could be defined as ”art”.
Back in Romania, in the more “national communist” period of the 1960s, Brancusi was rehabilitated and appreciated once again as a true “son of the people”.
In Hobiţa, I found Brancusi’s parents’ graves in a little cemetery at the end of the village. This is where the sculptor too might have been buried, had the Gheorghiu-Dej regime allowed him back to his country. Earlier this year, two Romanians set out from Hobiţa, to try to persuade the French government that Brancusi’s remains should be exhumed and brought back here. But the idea has only garnered lukewarm support so far.
“I fear it would not be very profitable for tourism”, says Ovidiu Popescu, pragmatically. “In Paris there are a lot of visitors, to his atelier, faithfully preserved at the Pompidou Centre, also to his grave in Montparnasse. I’m not sure we could provide the same services here, in a country with infrastructure problems, with bad roads, no airports here in the area – and these are basic conditions for tourism.”
“What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things…”, wrote Brancusi. “It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.”