The Portrait of Nancy Cunard (also called Sophisticated Young Lady) 1925-1927, is carved of walnut and sits about 25” tall on a black marble circular base. The ovoid form, symmetrically balanced upright, is sliced straight down the back and is topped with a spiraling wisp of wood about six inches long. This chignon is affixed awkwardly, teetering on the back corner edge of the head. One wonders if it was attached or if it is part of the original wood.
POINT: I believe that investigating the Nelson's 1928 walnut bust of Nancy Cunard by Constantin Brancusi interrogates commonly received narratives about "primitivism" and the “truth to materials” idiom emerging during late modernity. Even though this work was marked “modernist” and “primitive,” Brancusi was not aiming for prehistoric signifiers from our pre-personal past like other modernist sculptors (Flannagan, Picasso, Matisse), but was instead aiming for Platonic signifiers from our transpersonal future. If we can appreciate that sculpture is a form of thinking, we can engage this artwork and recover the interior, emotional/mental state of the artist, gaining the ability to read his thoughts, and maybe even travel through time. This will help us understand what Nancy Cunard meant to him, not just what it meant to the critics, scholars, and historians.
Interestingly, this sculpture was one of Brancusi's favorites: he thought enough of the composition to send four snapshots of it to his friend Roche, and to mention it to the editors of the art magazine The Little Review. Marcel Duchamp owned only three works by Brancusi: two carved chairs and a Portrait of Nancy Cunard.
The sculpture is highly abstract and can thus be many things at once, polymorphic and biomorphic like a surrealist object. In dealing with biomorphic imagery, cultural historian William Irwin Thompson reminds us that we have to move to a "polymorphic mode," in which one form contains many forms—the kind of perception you can learn from the statues of Henry Moor in the NAMA sculpture gardens. "The key is to move beyond simple realism or linear, conceptual thinking, in which one form is merely a sign for one concept." I'll unpack the various readings and interpretations of the forms found in Nancy Cunard given by art historians, understanding that the universal and spiritual "essence" the sculpture may be pointing to is both in the forms, their multitude of signifiers, and beyond the forms altogether.
In profile the entire configuration can be read not as a head but as a feminine body, the curve becoming the pregnant belly, and the chignon dividing into three segments: ponytail, head, and bangs. As Nancy Cunard herself saw it: “The head resembles, at first sight, somewhat, a torso, a graceful curve, and then one sees the intention of that dear Brancusi, it is really the profile of a head extended in the lengthwise curve, with a tuft of hair, if you please, at the crown!” The ovoid shape is a reoccurring form for Brancusi and can represent the Cosmic Egg, “getting all the forms into one form,” as he used to say. The curve of Cunard can also recall the ancient omphalos or naval of the world, "pregnant with the All." The tiny, spiraling chignon is angled parallel to the under side the head’s curve, formally completing a top-bottom integration. Moreover, the straight back contrasts the swollen, pregnant profile; It looks as though the head will fall forward, and yet the chignon hanging off the top brings balance and helps activate the negative space beneath. Brancusi: “Beauty is absolute balance.” He notes that with his portraits he wants to “sum up in a single archetype all of the female effigies on Earth.”
The burgundy brown walnut shines smoothly with a polished patina. Brancusi claims his forms follow the nature of the materials, and wood only behaves this way naturally as a seed. Nancy Cunard is thus both seed and tree, alpha and omega, ground and goal of the human spirit. Roger Vitrac, using terms nearly everyone agrees with, says that Brancusi’s portraits, with their “vanishing faces,” were meant to “precipitate a step from the absolute towards us, delivering for meditation mysterious entities, higher materializations of the Spirit.”
The only real feature that may resemble the actual Nancy Cunard is the elongated face/straight back. William Carlos Williams descried Nancy Cunard as “straight as a stick, emaciated, holding her head erect, not particularly animated, her blue eyes completely untroubled.”
In this portrait Cunard’s eyes vanish and we are left with the uninterrupted surface of the wood. Brancusi says why ruin a surface with a nose or an eye, when those features don't represent you anyway! However, it is not so much that she has no eyes, but that she is one big eye. Her ovoid head, in and of itself, can signify a detached eyeball. Following the gradual abstraction of Brancusi's portraits and noting how the eyes extend to eventually cover the entire head, art historian Sydney Geist remarks, “The head became and eye for Brancusi.” Anna Chave agrees that Brancusi is playing with the “homomorphy” of head and eye and suggests that “[His women] are at once unseeing and all-seeing, the image of total blindness and perfect insight.” Chave says Cunard’s head may even evoke “the unitary, all-seeing (because pupilless) eye of the Creator.” Did Brancusi revere this sophisticated young woman as a God?
The severe simplicity of the head underscores the spiraling form on top, making it a “striking note,” precarious, jarring, dislodged, and contrived, perhaps like a sophisticated young woman. The cut ovoid head plays the dual role of face and base for the delicate, yet swollen serpentinata form, which itself can read as an entire goddess figure sitting on a cliff.
Viewed head-on Cunard resembles the backside of a proud, standing chicken, or the great Maiestra. Chave points out that Maiestra also resembles an erect penis, thus the chignon curling to shape the penis head and/or a swirl of semen. The swollen configuration also reads as a vagina, with the space around the sculpture flipping to read as a solid body, and the tuft at the top the clitoris. This oscillation between phallus and vagina and the "intentional doubling, confounding, and fusing the markers of sexual identity" is noted by Ana Chave with regards also to Brancusi's eggs, portraits, and Bird in Space.
Placing the walnut head on a black stone pedestal may also have significance, such as an inversion of material hierarchy. Much has been written about Brancusi’s ‘s relationship with wood, most notably how his woodcarving is an embodiment and transmission of his Romanian heritage. “It is with wood that Brancusi is at his most Romanian.”
As for the use of wood in Nancy Cunard, some scholars suggest that it points out Brancusi’s intentional disregard for race in his portraits. Blond hair, blue eyes, Nancy Cunard was white, but Brancusi used a deep dark brown walnut to sculpt her spirit. Likewise, Shanes notes that the White Nigress and the Blond Nigress were both inspired by black women, and the black marble Portrait of Mrs. Eugene Meyer, Jr is a portrait of a white girl. With Nancy Cunard, Brancusi transforms a white women into a brown women, or better yet, a wood women, perhaps “to reveal a dark, more perfect luster within.” He may also be commenting how Cunard “colored” herself by stepping out of the white world and entering the socially coded, hypersexualized black world.
A brief look at Nancy Cunard’s fascinating background may help us recover how Brancusi “saw” her. The great-granddaughter of the founder of the Cunard shipping company, Nancy lived with privilege and met Brancusi in France during the 1920s. She was a very successful, bisexual, polyamorus, "nymphomaniac" who is recognized as the earliest proponent of “black transnationalism.” She dated Aldus Huxley and influenced characters in his novels. She founded the Hours Press publishing house, which produced the work of Brancusi’s friend, Ezra Pound. She collected African art objects, wore African jewelry, and made love to African American musicians and artists. In 1934 She organized and published Negro, an anthology, which became the very first anthology of black achievements all over the world. “Everything about the way she behaved showed how truly sophisticated she was for her day,” Brancusi said. The thought of her must have included the thought of a higher, wider, more integral and expansive worldview. However, it could have also included his own difference and separation from that world; Cunard’s aristocratic sophistication and femininity appearing to Brancusi as the “other.” Anna Chave notes that Cunard’s portrait by Brancusi is indeed a study of contrasts. William Carlos Williams wonders if the contrast between this sophisticated aristocrat and the rustic folk boy is what inspired the sculpture.
Many Brancusi scholars posit that his “simplified” forms, especially his wood sculptures, were influenced by African art and express Primitivism. That may be true, but Edith Bales, in her chapter The Myth of African Art in Brancusi’s Sculpture, refutes this belief and clearly demonstrates that Brancusi had an aversion to African art and the entire “primitivism” ideology connected to it. Brancusi even went as far as to destroy some of his works that resembled “African” influences He wanted everything to come from himself. African art, at best, served only as a “memory trigger that helped to bring the Romanian woodcarving tradition to the surface of his consciousness.” Brancusi's sculptures are “Platonic”, or “Tantric” (considering his love for Tibetan Buddhism). They are not "primitive;" not intentionally, anyway.
How then can we understand the childish bulb and whimsical construction of Nancy Cunard? “Neotenous,” a term used to describe contemporary Japanese art, may do the job. The “primitive,” “simple,” “naked,” and “childish” sculpture appears immature, but is actually communicating very mature, ancient, platonic, and transpersonal faces from our future, not below modernism, but beyond it; not premodern, but post-modern; not pre-personal darkness but post-personal, transpersonal light. Geist says it well in an introduction to the catalogue of the retroactive Exhibition of Brancusi’s work. “The sculptures of Brancusi present a universe of form where all is clear and filled with light. All, at the level of form, is given and given at once, without reserve, without mystery or surprise."
Feminism and Hapticity
I would like to include a Feminist and Sensory Historic lens through which we can enrich our understandings of the sculpture. Brancusi proudly told a news reporter: “My statue is of Woman, all women rolled into one, Goeth’s Eternal Feminine reduced to its essence.” However, “essentialism” would soon take a hard hit from the feminists and poststructualists. However enlighteneing and exciting the concept of an essencial feminine spirit shared by all bodies may be, from a feminist perspective, the use of abstraction by Brancusi can be seen as an assault on the female body. According to Art Historian Carol Duncan, 20th century modernist sculpture demonstrates male control and the suppression of female subjectivity more emphatically than sculpture in the 19th century. “Their faces are more frequently concealed, blank or masklike (that is, when they are not put to sleep), and the artist manipulates their passive bodies with more liberty and “artistic” bravado than ever.” This modernist “defense of male supremacy," that is integral to all modernist heterosexual male endeavors, finds its way into the treatment of Nancy Cunard when seen from this expanded lens.
Moreover, going after these streamlined, platonic "Ideal Forms" was not necessarily an honorable endeavor in the light of American and European eugenics. Christina Cogdell argues in her excellent book Eugenic Design that aesthetic choices made by artists in the 1920s was inspired and informed by the often overlooked American eugenics, and streamlined artwork served as a “material embodiment” of its ideology.
Another important concept to keep in mind as we gaze at the sculpture under the protective glass case is that we should really touch it to understand its meaning. Due to a modern taboo against touching works of art, Brancusi was driven to render the haptic quality of the work conceptually through the optic surface. Nevertheless, artists “think and feel by hand," and a “sculpture must be lovely to touch” Brancusi remarked. Art historian Valentiner claims that the fundamentals in understanding sculpture is the development of the sense of touch which we have almost forgotten to use in connection with sculpture. We must understand how central tactility was to ideas of beauty, knowledge, and meaning during the entire Modern period. Historian of the senses, Mark Smith: “Not only was sculpture considered at least as refined and intellectually vital as painting (most famously Michelangelo was obsessed with the power of the sculptors generative touch), but sculpture facilitated a sort of interaction denied by two dimensional art.” Smith explains in his Sensing the Past that with modernism, seeing alone was considered limiting because the eyes read only the surface of the object. Touch, conversely, was deemed an authenticator, or way to access truth. He further notes that true understanding and depth of meaning can come only through touch. “Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth.” In painting, the materials (stones, oils, woods,) are all obscured, but in sculpture the materials get to be themselves, unashamed.
A little more history
Brancusi is marked “the father of modern sculpture.” Ezra Pound called Brancusi a “genius, “ and “in some dimensions a saint.” He described his life as “a succession of marvelous events,” and he wanted his sculptures to “suddenly fill the whole universe and express the Great Liberation!” Constantin Brancusi was born of peasant parents in the village of Hobitza, within the foothills of the Romanian Carpathian Alps, where life had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Even Brancusi’s physique seemed ancient and mythic. “He had a pagan feeling for life and a pagan sense of Beauty,” wrote his friend, the journalist Jeanne Robert Foster. His father died when he was nine, and later that year Brancusi dropped out of school and lived as a shepherd. He worked odd jobs and when he was eighteen made a violin from a crate, attracting the attention of both his employer and one of the customers. They collected money and sent him to the Criova School of Crafts, where he learned wood-carving and metal-smithing full-time. He found work for a furniture factory, graduated from school with honors, and began to make portraits. In 1903 Brancusi left Romania for good to live and travel throughout Europe. He died in Paris, March 15th, 1957.
He was good friends with Matisse, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Picasso, Modigliani, and Guillaume Apollinair. He contributed to Dada journals and art magazines with Ducamp’s and Tzara. Eric Satie and Brancusi were good friends, played music together, and some argue that his mystical Romanian past influenced Satie’s famous Gymnopedies. As early as 1907, (or even 1894,) Brancusi became deeply influenced by Plato; five of Plato’s Dialogues found in Brancusi’s library are almost disintegrated from frequent use. He also carried around a Tibetan Buddhist text: The Songs of Milerepa, "like a bible." Anna Chave, summarizing all the evidence, observed that Brancusi “would emerge as a latter-day Platonist who succeeded in transcending individual and ephemeral states of mind to arrive at the eternal and the universal in works embodying pure, essential form.”