Prométhée exemplifies the unique sculptural language Constantin Brancusi developed in the early years of the twentieth century. The work displays an unprecedented stylization of form in which the artist re-established his own artistic idiom. After arriving in Paris from Bucharest in 1904, Brancusi proceeded to revolutionize the boundaries of sculptural form. He created a sophisticated minimalism that combined influences ranging from primitive models to Romanian folk traditions and the sleek machine aesthetic of the industrial age. Brancusi took form to the brink of abstraction while relying upon the romantic power of representation.
Brancusi arrived at the radical simplification of form in Prométhée through a series of ovoid works that he began in 1908 with L'enfant endormie. This work in marble depicted the head of a sleeping child, disassociated from the body. The facial features were relatively clear, including the child's hair. Brancusi then drew out the form of this work in Muse endormie of 1909-10 (fig. 1). Though the forms are somewhat abstracted in this work, there is still clear delineation of eyes, mouth and nose. In the leap from Muse endormie to Prométhée, executed the following year, is a vital gesture in the trajectory of 20th century sculpture. The influence of primitive sculpture played a major role in the formal language that permeates this series of works. In particular the subtle arcs that describe the eyes and nose of Prométhée find precedents in Cycladic figural representations (fig. 3).
Marielle Tabert describes this gesture in Prométhée in a recent exhibition catalogue, "The final work is devoid of all pathos, the inclination of the head borrowed from a gesture of grief that Brancusi used in the works of his youth (as in his study of the Laocoön, or in the Supplices (Torment) series). The contortion has vanished with the elimination of the body, while the simplification achieved the year before with Muse endormie (I) draws on the child's head in an amplified form. Now an ovoid shape, with the severed neck referring to the absent body, the head amounts to an almost perfect sphere, barely indicated by the pinching of the nose and the suggestion of an ear... After having imagined it and then extracted it from a fragment of marble depicting Prometheus, Brancusi really did sever the head of a figure condemned to destruction" (Marielle Tabart, Serra/Brancusi (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 94).
Though its formal language is radically abstract, Prométhée was in essence a figural subject. Brancusi took as his model the son of his Romanian friend Otilia Cosmutza. The boy posed for Brancusi with his arm raised and head tilted back, a gesture reminiscent of historical paintings of Prometheus such as Peter Paul Rubens' Prometheus Bound from 1611-12 (fig. 4). Margit Pogany, a young art student who modelled for Brancusi in December 1910 and January 1911, sent a translation of Goethe's poem Prometheus (circa 1774) to the sculptor. In the accompanying note, she wrote "And it will show you that a glorious death is far less noble than a struggle" (quoted in Pontus Hultén, Natalia Dumitresco & Alexandre Istrati, op.cit., p. 86).
Brancusi was clearly taken with Goethe's poem, taking this as his subject matter in 1911. The tilt of the head which is so vital in Brancusi's interpretation perhaps derives from Goethe's words:
When I was a child,
And did not know the in or out,
I turned my wandering eyes toward
The sun, as if beyond it there were
An ear to hear my lament,
A heart like mine,
To take pity on the afflicted.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Prometheus, 1772-74
The character of Prometheus figured prominently in the works of Old Masters, many of which Brancusi would have seen in the museums of Bucharest and Paris. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who took the invention of fire from the gods and gave it to mortals. As punishment for his crime, Prometheus was bound to a rock, his liver eaten each day by an eagle only to grow back the following day. The pathos inherent in such a story has appealed to artists since its first appearance in Hesiod's Theogony from the late eighth century.
With Prométhée, however, Brancusi does not express an interest in the narrative of this subject. He extracts simply the essential moment, leaving only the tilt of the ovoid form as a signifier of the story. In a 1916 letter to the owner of the marble version of this sculpture, John Quinn, Brancusi specified that the sculpture be presented on its right side so as to achieve the proper tilt (Marielle Tabart, Serra/Brancusi (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 94). With this subtle inclination, Brancusi references a rich and complex historical lineage. The emotional resonance which the sculptor is able to extract from this mythological subject with such limited formal gestures is a testament to his vision for Modernist sculpture.
Ann Temkin suggests that the fate of Prometheus serves as a metaphor for the sculptor's struggle with representation. She writes, "As a Titan, a creature between god and man, Prometheus became the exemplar of the artist trapped between earthly confines and heavenly aspirations. 'Never, never can we catch the essence of our nature, we are bound like Prometheus to our own limitations,' a visitor quoted Rodin, who sculpted a Prometheus in 1917. Brancusi's sense of endless labor echoes this Romantic sentiment, and Prometheus often has been referred to as implicit self-portrait. The paradox of the solid weight of the resting head and the gleaming weightlessness of the reflective surface exemplifies the struggle between fixedness and freedom' (A. Temkin in Friedrich Teja Bach, Margit Rowell & Ann Temkin, op. cit., p. 108).
Brancusi executed this model across four different media, exploring the concept of form in bronze, marble, plaster and cast stone. In addition to the present work, there are three other bronze casts of Prométhée (The Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the third is in a Private Collection). Brancusi also created one in marble (The Philadelphia Museum of Art), two in plaster (Muzuel de Arta, Bucharest and Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) and two in black cast stone (The University of Cambridge, England and one in a Private Collection).
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art & Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1969, illustrated in the catalogue
Length: 7 in. 17.7 cm
Christian Zervos, Constantin Brancusi, sculptures, peintures, fresques, dessins, Paris, 1957, illustration of the marble version p. 34
Carola Geidion-Welcker, Constantin Brancusi, New York, 1959, illustration of the marble version p. 61
Ionel Jianou, Brancusi, Paris, 1963, illustration of the marble version pl. 37
Athena Tacha Spear, "A Contribution to Brancusi Chronology," The Art Bulletin, vol. XLVIII, no. 1, 1966, no. 43, p. 53
Sidney Geist, Brancusi, A Study of the Sculpture, New York, 1967, no. 79a, illustration of another cast p. 39
Barbu Brezianu, "Paciurea si Brancusi," Arta, vol. XXI, no. 1, 1974, illustration of another cast no. 21
Sidney Geist, Brancusi, The Sculpture and Drawings, New York, 1975, illustration the marble version and this cast p. 59
Barbu Brezianu, Brancusi in Romania, Bucharest, 1976, illustration of another cast no. 26
Sidney Geist, "Brancusi + Mondrian: A Sum, A Summa," Artforum, vol. XXI, no. 6, February 1983, illustration of another cast no. 79
Radu Varia, Brancusi, New York, 1986, illustration of the marble and of another cast p. 148; illustration of the plaster version p. 149
Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco & Alexandre Istrati, Brancusi, New York, 1986, no. 66b, illustration of the marble version p. 111 & 285
Friedrich Teja Bach, Constantin Brancusi, Metamorphosen Plastischer Form, Cologne, 1987, no. 105a, illustration of another cast p. 433
Edith Balas, Brancusi and Rumanian Folk Traditions, New York, 1987, illustration of the marble version pl. 104
Eric Shanes, Constantin Brancusi, New York, 1989, illustration of the marble version p. 80
Friedrich Teja Bach, Margit Rowell & Ann Temkin, Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957 (exhibition catalogue), Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris & Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1995, illustrations of the marble version pp. 106-107; illustration of the cement version p. 108; illustration of another cast p. 109
Anna C. Chave, Constantin Brancusi, Shifting the Bases of Art, New Haven, 1993, illustration of the marble version p. 128
La Collection L'Atelier Brancusi, Paris, 1997, illustration of another cast pp. 85 & 142
Paola Mola, ed., Brancusi, The White Work (exhibition catalogue), The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2005, illustration of the marble version p. 43; illustration of another cast on the front and back covers
Eileen Lane Kinney, Washington, D.C. (a gift from the artist circa 1920-1930 and sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 21, 1981, lot 549)
Sidney Janis, New York (acquired at the above sale)
Sale: Christie's, New York, May 13, 1999, lot 488
Acquired at the above sale