Monday’s Muse: Mademoiselle Pogany
Constantin Brancusi first encountered Margit Pogany in 1910, some seven years after he had moved to Paris. Their relationship, comprised of only a handful of sittings, had such a profound effect on Brancusi that it shaped the series of sculptures titled Mademoiselle Pogany that he worked on for over 23 years.
Brancusi was born to a peasant family in Hobiţa, Romania. The small village was close to the Carpathian Mountains and situated in an area of Romania known for its folk art and woodcarving. The young Brancusi grew up herding his family’s flock of sheep. He was often picked on by his father and his siblings, and while comparatively little is known of his early life, he is said to have shown a talent for woodcarving at a very young age. He left home at the age of 11, and worked for a grocer before moving to Craiova. At the age of 18, he attracted the attention of a local industrialist after he fashioned a violin entirely by hand from scrap materials. The industrialist took a liking to him and enrolled him at Craiova School of Arts and Crafts. Brancusi studied woodworking at the school and graduated with honors in 1898. Following his graduation, Brancusi moved to Bucharest and enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, where he again distinguished himself as a talented sculptor. One of his works, an écorché, was even exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 19031. There are few surviving pictures of the work, and only six plaster casts remaining, but beyond the technical skill, the work also stands as an early indication of Brancusi’s interest in the essence of a body. The sculpture seeks to communicate something beyond just the skin and outward appearance.
Constantin Brancusi’s écorché, 1901
The concepts of internal nature and essence are key when examining the Mademoiselle Pogany series. Beyond the initial sittings, Brancusi worked on the series entirely from memory. Pogany met Brancusi in 1910, while she was in Paris studying painting. She sat for Brancusi over the course of two months, her last in Paris, between December of 1910 and January of 1911, and from her descriptions the visits were anything but formal:
“…Each time he began and finished a new bust (in clay). Each of these was beautiful and a wonderful likeness, and each time I begged him to keep it…but he only laughed and threw it back into a box full of clay in the corner of his studio. Once I had to sit for my hands but the pose was quite different to that of the present bust, he only wanted to learn them by heart as he already knew my head by heart.”2
The ritualistic nature of these sittings – Brancusi’s constant cycle of creation and destruction – offer an insight into what Brancusi believed to be the source of Pogany’s “essence”. For him, it was something which lay beyond the flat aesthetics and superficial features of her face and hands. His early sculptural work and his apprenticeship under Rodin clearly indicate that classical figurative sculpture was well within his capabilities. Yet, for Brancusi, Pogany was more than just a collection of musculature and bone. The Mademoiselle Pogany series has often been described as showing influences from Romanian folk art and Cycladic carvings. In each of the aforementioned genres, the works were not designed to be anatomically correct and representative of a reality, but instead, the works represented narratives and mythologies. Cycladic art is characterised by heavily stylized versions of figures, often referred to as idols, and here too Pogany is, to a certain extent, idolized by Brancusi. There is a fluidity and a softness, and the face of the bust is dominated by two large and expressive eyes.
Cycladic female figurine, early work of the Spedos variety, from approximately 3200–2000 BCE
Portrait of Mademoiselle Pogany, Marble, 1912
In his first formal sculptures of Pogany in 1912, she was wrought in white marble (like the Cycladic figurines) and in bronze. Over the following years, Brancusi would continue to cycle between bronze and marble as his two chosen mediums for the sculptures. Following these first sculptures, Brancusi and Pogany remained in distant contact. Brancusi sent her a bronze from the series on the condition that she never touch it, for fear it would ruin the effect. His instructions are in keeping with the almost religious reverence and idolatry with which he approached the series – as though each piece was sacred.
1Brezianu, Barbu, and Sidney Geist. “The Beginnings of Brancusi”. Art Journal 25.1 (1965): 15–25. Web…5/1/16
2Lanchner, Carolyn. “Constantin Brancusi”. The Museum of Modern Art (2010): 9. Web…5/1/16