Belated recognition of a sculptor's gifts

SUN JOURNAL

Masterpieces: After decades of neglect and obscurity in Romania, major works by Constantin Brancusi are receiving much-needed repairs and restoration.

July 13, 1999|By Toby Smith | Toby Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TARGU JIU, Romania -- When Constantin Brancusi departed this city after completing a sculptural ensemble, he announced, rather prophetically, "You don't know what I'm leaving here."

True enough. For more than 60 years four works by the father of contemporary sculpture have stood here, and Romania truly didn't know what her native son had left behind, nor how to take care of the sculptures, nor how to let others know they existed.

Quietly, the pieces weathered the decades until one recent day someone noticed they were falling apart and that Brancusi deserved better, as did Romania.

Viorel Garbaciu, a cultural inspector for Gorj County and a lifelong protector of things Brancusi, is standing this summer morning in the Central Park of Targu Jiu, about 200 miles west of Bucharest. The public garden is decorated with three arresting Brancusi elements. The fourth piece, his glorious "Endless Column," rises like a rocket ship about a mile away.

A chain-smoking one-time French teacher at nearby Constantin Brancusi High School, Garbaciu, 50, first saw this park when he was 11. "I remember the smell of those bushes over there. How sweet they were. And then I looked up at the `Endless Column' and said, `It's so tall.' "

The park and its works have been a big part of Garbaciu's life ever since, more so now because Garbaciu has been a leading champion of saving them.

Trying to save Brancusis in the sculptor's back yard would seem an easy sell. But Brancusi is better known outside Romania than within. Far more of his conceptions reside in museums in Paris and the United States than can be found in Romania, where he was born in 1876.

"When he first came here," says Garbaciu, "Brancusi didn't mean much to the people of Targu Jiu, even though he had grown up close by."

He had spent most of his life in Paris, where he had been a youthful protege to Rodin, set up a studio on the Left Bank and gained fame.

Still, Romania had always tugged at Brancusi. As his stature grew in the 1920s and 1930s, he increasingly wanted to fashion a piece in his homeland. He had long been carving what he thought of as an endless column design -- a spiral that would symbolize continuous life. He talked of building a towering pillar in New York City.

In 1935, Romanian officials commissioned Brancusi to honor those who died one awful day at Targu Jiu during World War I.

The Battle of the Jiu River took place in 1916 when invading German troops were thwarted at a bridge by bands of children, women and old men. More than 1,000 Romanians died in less than 24 hours, but somehow they pushed back the Germans.

In 1937, Brancusi, a gentle man with a shaggy beard, erected four pieces in the city: the "Gate of the Kiss," a triumphal arch; the "Table of Silence," a round platform guarded by 12 empty chairs; and the "Alley of the Stools," circular seats along a pathway.

His fourth creation, the "Endless Column," was an engineering marvel located at the other end of the city's Avenue of the Heroes. Almost 100 feet tall, the striking necklace-studded totem pole could be seen from all directions and took three months to assemble.

Taken together, the inspiring ensemble represented the absence of loved ones and the hope for a brighter future.

Soon after the pieces were dedicated in 1938, Brancusi left Romania for Paris and never returned. He completed his last major work in 1945 at age 69. In 1952, he became a French citizen. He died in 1957 at age 81 and is buried in Paris.

Meanwhile, he had fallen out of favor with Romania's leadership.

"The communists considered him decadent," says Garbaciu. "A symbol of the bourgeois." In the late 1950s, the Stalinist mayor of Targu Jiu tried to tear down the "Endless Column."

It survived, as did the other three monuments. Eventually, the "Gate of the Kiss" became a favorite spot for young couples to pose for wedding photographs. The "Table of Silence" echoed to visitors the emptiness that loss can bring. And the "Endless Column," wrapped with diamond-shaped "beads" that made the pole appear to twirl perpetually, supported the notion that life is never-ending.

But in time, the Targu Jiu works began to deteriorate. Cracks and chips appeared. The "Endless Column's" 6-foot rhomboidal iron beads, each weighing about 1,700 pounds, desperately needed restoration.

By the 1990s, a Brancusi sculpture anywhere in the world was worth millions. But Romania's economy had fallen on bad times; there was no money to stop the decay of one of the country's great treasures. The World Monuments Fund put the "Endless Column" on its endangered list.

Finally, the World Bank donated $5 million last year to touch up historical sites around Romania -- most of it earmarked for Brancusi and Targu Jiu.

Each bead or module in the "Endless Column" has been carefully removed. The column's spine will be strengthened. The project is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

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