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King of Kings by Constantin Brancusi

Constantin Brancusi is a very famous abstract sculptor that is inspired by primitive cultures and modernism. He was a student of Auguste Rodin, who influenced him in the context of metaphysical expression. In addition, Brancusi absorbed many other influences, including African art, cubism, surrealism, and abstract painting. King of Kings (1938) clearly expresses Brancusi’s art style, combining the ancient primitive and religious ideas with the critical intention of contemporary art. The modernist European art owes a debt to primitive African cultures, especially in the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, and Brancusi, who was the leader of abstract sculpture. It is not surprising that King of Kings was made from oak, and originally planned for meditation in an Indian temple. Brancusi was not interested in the formal side of reality, so when he tried to express the true nature of things, many artists and critics did not understand him. Accordingly, this particular sculpture expresses the idea of human inner search that leads to a release from everyday worries and problems, contrasting the ancient primitive culture with the modern mercenary civilization.


The sculpture (Figure 1) was made in a very primitive and minimalist style, and it seems that King of Kings is reminiscent of ancient totems. In this case, Brancusi used oak, emphasizing the archaic context of his work (Dantini 76). In addition, it is a typical single-colored sculpture of Brancusi’s style, because it should not detract from the main concept. Its size is small, so the viewer can fully appreciate it from different points. On the other hand, the sculpture also has several symbolical levels. In fact, the viewer can divide the sculpture into three key parts: the head, the body, and the feet. However, this figure is more abstract than real, because it was important to convey the philosophical sense. For Brancusi, material played a key role, but unlike his other famous works, the current material has no such powerful effect. Moreover, King of Kings gives an impression of an unfinished sculpture or the one that for years was placed in a basement. Thus, it has the aura of archaic mystery and wonder, containing more irrational elements then logical rudiments.

Through the sculpture, the viewer should understand their place in the world, explaining the general cultural logics. It is similar to the archaic totems, because they also establish connectivity with the other world. Brancusi often represents archetypes (birds, earth, women), particularly in the form of the leader or god. In this case, he tried to express the idea of the highest power of a man, the greatest king who can control everything. The author tried to contain the spiritual essence in the objective field of sculpture. In addition, there is an important physical or sexual level that was taken from the previous work Adam and Eve (1921). In addition to the idea of a higher god, the Romanian sculptor wanted to show the interaction between masculine and feminine. The motive of sexuality is very important for Brancusi, because it expresses a creative principle of the world and its continuous process of creation.

Brancusi created King of Kings as a kind of portal to another world, so it has a strong spiritual meaning. This sculpture expresses an idea of escapism from the material world, so the sculptor wanted to display it in the Buddhist temple (Dantini 161). It is no accident that this sculpture has the typical characteristics for the interior, including poetic, smooth and simple lines. Therefore, the sculpture resembles the traditional interior elements, including lamps, tables, and other objects. However, Brancusi overcame the utilitarianism, emphasizing the spiritual component in this object. In this case, King of Kings is a version of the Tibetan Buddhist Stupa: “Both stupa and linga generally correspond to the sequence of forms, the square multi-partite base surmounted by an ovoidal monoform sculpture, typical of work Brancusi” (Peck 52). There are three levels of compliance with stupas in the sculpture: the lower part is Brahma, the middle one is Vishnu, and the upper is Rudra. Peck also mentioned, that “the plump forms of Brancusi’s sculpture were prefigured by medieval Indian sculpture” (53).

The African culture had the most significant influence on Brancusi, especially in the context of rituals and ceremonies for taming nature. Accordingly, King of Kings expresses the content of pagan African culture. Brancusi borrowed simple and accurate elements from the African masks and totems (Figure 2). However, the main thing is that Brancusi tried to create sculpture as a sacred object for rituals. One more similarity is that the sculptor used wood, which is the most popular source for the African sculpture. At the heart of this art is a spiritual contact with the ancestors and God, and the sculptor was interested in this idea the most. Therefore, the Buddhist context intertwined with the African sacred culture is creating a unique polyphonic effect (Spector). Besides, the Romanian folk culture was also a prototype for King of Kings, which can be seen in the wooden gate with chiseled ornamental columns. Therefore, another layer in the sculpture is pagan motifs in the context of folk culture. In other words, Brancusi tried to convey the importance of human memory and tradition, reflecting his historical and biographical past.

The European modernist tradition, especially symbolism, cubism and abstract art, was especially important for Brancusi. In this sense, Brancusi was also inspired by Gauguin sculpture, including the Tahitian period. For instance, his work Oviri (Figure 3) has influenced Brancusi to represent the colonial policy, human necessity for salvation, and spiritual searches (Lanchner 102). Gauguin portrayed the Tahitian deity that represents mourning and suffering. On contrast, Brancusi emphasized his work completely differently, but borrowed formal characteristics. However, it is important that Brancusi and Gauguin worked with archetypes, referring to the unconscious man, appealing to the soul through the body (Spector). In addition, Gauguin tried to pay attention on the spiritual world, because he fled from civilization to Tahiti. Gauguin has inspired Brancusi to experiment with different types of sculptures. That is why the Romanian sculptor experimented with the oak material. Accordingly, the serrated patterns in King of Kings were borrowed from both Gauguin and tribal art.

While he borrowed fetishism and tribal motifs from Gauguin, the expressive content of his sculpture was inspired by Auguste Rodin. For Rodin, it was important to emphasize the deepness of inner world, and Brancusi always paid attention to the psychological side of human existence (Dantini 164). In this work, there are no realistic details, but rather the spiritual component of human existence. The idea of suffering is also common for both sculptors. It is especially noticeable in Head of Pierre de Wissant (Figure 4), where Rodin expressed the tragedy of human history. For Brancusi, it was difficult to combine the Eastern and Western elements, because Europe has always had the hedonistic and selfish intention, and Rodin perfectly understood this, criticizing it in his works. Hence, they both shared a special philosophical component, namely the idea of an invisible connection between man and nature and the impermanence of earthly world. In addition, Brancusi borrowed a specific manner of emphasizing the central idea without unnecessary details. Thus, he made a very minimalist sculpture and concentrated on achieving maximum therapeutic effect.

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Therefore, King of Kings represents both Eastern and Western motifs in sculpture, combining them in the idea of human escape from everyday problems. Brancusi tried to express a spiritual quest of a man in the material world, implementing the main religious viewpoints from Buddhism. The figure is associated with Buddhist stupa, which consists of three symbolic levels. In addition, the object was supposed to be placed in the temple, so it was important to convey a spiritual sense in this work, especially answering the question of what it means to be human in this world. In addition, it was important to find out how people can overcome their physical limitations through spiritual practices. In a sense, this idea is similar to the idea of Superhuman (Übermensch) by Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also inspired by Eastern philosophy, including Zoroastrianism. It is no accident that Brancusi named this figure a “king,” because this one is higher and stronger than all other people. Despite this, there are also many African and Romanian motifs that were expressed on both practical and semantic levels. The sculpture is a sort of an archaic totem or fetish, which can be used for contact with the world of ancestors. At the same time, the sculptural works by Auguste Rodin and Paul Gauguin are also crucial for King of Kings. The first one has inspired Brancusi to focus on the inner world, balancing between rational and irrational parts of the human beings. Meanwhile, Gauguin pushed Brancusi to experiment with different techniques and styles, restoring the primitive unconscious motives. Summarizing, the sculpture is a spiritual type of art, which reflects the idea of transition from the material to immaterial, overcoming physical, social, and transcendent limitations.

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