Mlle Pogany I
by Constantin Brancusi
17.4-Brancusi_MllePogany-PMA-1933-24-1-CX
Constantin Brancusi (Romanian-French, 1876–1957), Mlle Pogany I, 1912. White marble; limestone block, 17½ × 9¼ × 9¼ in. (44.5 × 23.4 × 23.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, 1933, 1950-134-163. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Constantin Brancusi
Mlle. Pogany (now titled Mlle Pogany I), 1912

Margit Pogany

Brancusi met the Hungarian art student Margit Pogány in Paris in December 1910, and she became both his model and his lover before she left the city in January. She later recalled of their portrait sittings: “Each time he began a new bust in clay. Each of these was beautiful and a wonderful likeness, and each time I begged him to keep it and use it for the definite bust–but he only laughed and threw it back in the boxful of clay that stood in the corner of the studio.” [1]

The series

The Mlle. Pogany series occupied Brancusi for some twenty years. He carved the first version of this sculpture in marble from memory in 1912, and made casts in bronze and plaster from the original. He carved a second version in marble in 1919 (location unknown), and a third version in marble in 1931 (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Though several stylistic features of the 1912 version reappear in the two subsequent iterations, including the figure’s slender hands and exotically deep-set eyes, the portraits became increasingly abstract.

At the Armory Show

Of the five sculptures that Brancusi sent to New York for the Armory Show, Mlle. Pogany caused the greatest stir with both the public and the press. Alongside Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), Mlle. Pogany was the most reproduced work, as well as the most caricatured and controversial. The critic for the New York Herald described it as “a piece of sculpture that looks like an underdeveloped and deformed infant.” [2] A reviewer for the New York American was one of many who compared the figure’s head to an egg: “As a portrait bust of a white Leghorn’s egg it would be a pippin. As a portrait of a bust Leghorn egg it would be a failure.” The writer continued: “There is nothing bust about this piece of art; it is as round and solid as a Brooklynite’s head. A kid’s glass marble placed on a cracker would make a crackerjack Brancusi. It could be labelled [sic] with any name desired.” [3]

A critic who gets it

Though the critic Charles H. Caffin also asked “Is She a Lady or an Egg?,” he seems to have understood what Brancusi was trying to do. [4] Like sculptors in ancient Greece, Caffin wrote, Brancusi “has stripped away the partial disguise … and revealed unashamed the naked, essential facts of structure. That he has enlarged, exaggerated, if you like, the size of the eyes, is again only following a well established principle, by which an artist may accentuate certain features of his composition at the expense of the rest.”

A resourceful American purchaser

The plaster cast of Mlle. Pogany was offered for sale at the Armory Show for $270, but failed to sell. The American painter Robert W. Chanler hoped to purchase a version carved in marble, but the price was too high. Instead he bought a bronze for $550.

[1] Quoted in Sidney Geist, exh. cat., Constantin Brancusi, Edobori Gallery, Osaka, 1989.

[2] “Art Extremists, In Broadsides of Lurid Color, Invade New York and Capture an Armory,” New York Herald, February 17, 1913, 10.

[3] “At the Art Exhibit. Our Critic’s Impression of the Impressionist’s Show,” New York American, March 2, 1913, Section 4, 3.

[4] Charles H. Caffin, “Is She a Lady or an Egg? An Analysis of Expression,” New York American, February 24, 1913, 8.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)

The Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi is widely considered the leading pioneer of modernist sculpture. Working to reveal the essence of his subjects rather than merely copying outward appearances, he introduced abstracted, non-literal representation into the sphere of sculpture. In doing so, he established himself as a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde, while also gaining international notoriety among artists, critics, and the public.

Born to a poor peasant family in an area of rural Romania known for its rich tradition of folk art, particularly woodcarving, Brancusi himself took up woodcarving at an early age. He studied art in Romania at the Scoala de Meserli in Craivo and at the Scoala Natzionala de Arte Frumoase in Bucharest before leaving in 1903 for Munich. From there he went to Paris. Eager to continue his education, Brancusi enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in 1905, and was subsequently invited to join the workshop of the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Though he revered Rodin, Brancusi left the studio after only a couple of months—he is famously and widely quoted as saying that “nothing grows under the shadow of the great trees.”

Brancusi’s mature style began to emerge about 1907, as his work became increasingly simplified and abstracted. Unlike Rodin, who emphasized theatricality and the accumulation of detail, Brancusi suppressed decoration and explicit narrative references in an effort to create pure and resonant forms that captured the essence of his subjects. His technique is also noteworthy—unlike most of his contemporaries, he focused on direct carving in marble and stone rather than modeling in clay or plaster first. This allowed him to move toward a purification of form, a focus on the essential. He created his first major work carved directly from stone, The Kiss, in 1907-1908.

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