Slide your eyes along this tall, thin sculpture from top to bottom. What do you see? Bright, shiny bronze. A pointed tip. A sleekly rounded shape, tapering at the end. And then things change. The forms become geometric (triangles and circles), and the materials are stone and wood instead of bronze.
What do you think you are looking at? Does it seem familiar? The artist who made this sculpture didn't include many details. He wanted above all to show the spirit of the figure.
Constantin Brancusi Romanian, 1876-1957 Golden Bird, about 1919 Bronze; limestone and wood base Minneapolis Institute of Art © 2000 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Constantin Brancusi was born in a small Romanian village in 1876. As the son of peasants, he did not attend school. Instead, at the age of seven he began working as a shepherd. During his early years he also learned to carve wood, a skill highly regarded in the Romanian countryside. When his great talent was noticed, he enrolled in the School of Arts and Crafts in nearby Craiova. Later, he won a contest for admission to the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest.
Brancusi loved his home, but he wanted to experience the art world outside of Romania. He particularly wanted to go to Paris once he learned of the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin. In 1904, Brancusi traveled first to Munich, Germany, and then made his way to Paris. It is thought that he walked much of the way.
Rodin's sculptures continued to interest Brancusi when he studied in Paris. The first artworks he showed at an important exhibition resembled Rodin's sinewy figures. However, when invited to join Rodin's workshop as an apprentice, Brancusi stayed only briefly, saying, Nothing grows in the shade of a tall tree. He soon abandoned his classical-looking sculptures and started experimenting with abstract forms.
Brancusi grew up in a small village in Romania, a country in Eastern Europe.
The classical-looking sculpture of Auguste Rodin prompted Brancusi's journey to Paris. But after a few years in Paris, Brancusi began creating abstract, simplified forms. Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral, after 1908, bronze, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Werner Simon
At first glance, Golden Bird doesn't look like much of a bird. It has no feathers or wings. The bright, brassy yellow isn't a color you'd expect to see on a bird. And if you could reach out and touch the sculpture it would feel cool and sleek, not soft like feathers.
But take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a bird soaring straight up into the air. Then look at the sculpture again. Can you see a bird now? Picture the narrow upper part as a neck and the very top as an open beak, open perhaps in song. Does the shiny, slim form give you a sense of the bird's speed as it bursts into the sky? And could the long, tapered end possibly be the tail feathers? Keep looking, and the bird will appear.
Brancusi wasn't concerned with showing every little detail in his sculptures. He wanted, above all, to capture his subject's essential form in this case, the sleek, rounded form of a bird in flight. He also liked to make the base of a sculpture as important as the subject itself. In the base of Golden Bird, Brancusi's early love of woodworking shows up in his work as an artist.
The Kiss, made in 1908, is considered one of Brancusi's first abstract sculptures. For decades the artist revisited this subject, which became one of his signature themes. Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1916, limestone, © Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950
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Brancusi often combined different materials in his sculptures bases. For Golden Bird he used both wood and stone.
Brancusi's inspiration for this sculpture was a Romanian legend about a dazzling gold-feathered bird. This bird, called the Maiastra, had magical powers. Its beautiful song was said to restore sight to the blind and make old people youthful again. Brancusi titled many of his bird sculptures Maiastra.
Golden Bird wasn't Brancusi's first bird-in-flight sculpture, nor was it his last. In fact, Brancusi returned to this subject nearly thirty times over the course of forty years. His first bird sculpture, made around 1910, was of marble. After 1919, he began creating birds in bronze.
Brancusi's switch to bronze for his sculptures led to quite a controversy. In the late 1920s he tried to ship a Bird in Space sculpture to a client in the United States. Under U.S. law, art objects entering the country were not supposed to be taxed. But a U.S. customs official didn't consider the abstract sculpture to be art. He classified it instead as raw metal and imposed a tax. When Brancusi challenged the tax in court, the judge found that even though the sculpture might not look like a bird, it was still art. That ruling was considered a great victory for modern art.
This photograph shows Brancusi in his art studio, with a bird sculpture in the background. Edward Steichen, Brancusi in His Studio, Paris, 1927, gelatin silver print, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Brancusi made his first bird sculptures of marble. How does this sculpture compare with Golden Bird? Constantin Brancusi, Maiastra, 1912, white marble, marble base, © Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950
In his sculpture, Brancusi included only a few, abstracted details that suggest a bird. What abstracted features would you include for a horse? A monkey? A lion? Create an abstract sculpture of an animal of your choice.
Brainstorm six adjectives that describe Golden Bird. Then use those words to write a poem about the sculpture.
Use the search tool on Mia’s website to discover hundreds of artworks from around the world featuring birds. Better yet, visit Mia to explore the galleries to see how many birds you can spot! If you want to visit as a school group, request a tour using our online form.