The genesis of the present bronze dates to 1913, when Brancusi carved Le premier pas, his earliest free-standing, full-length figure and his inaugural sculptural effort in wood (fig. 1). That work, which depicts a highly stylized figure of a toddler taking his first, unstable steps, was included in Brancusi's earliest solo exhibition, at Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession Gallery in New York in March 1914. Following the close of the exhibition, Brancusi appears to have destroyed the body of the sculpture, keeping just the head; the complete figure is known only through photographs from the Stieglitz installation and from a group of related drawings by Brancusi (fig. 2). In 1914 or 1915, Brancusi re-worked the head of Le premier pas as an autonomous object entitled Tête d'enfant, altering its position from upright to recumbent, with a prominent ridge in the back to hold the ovoid form in place (Bach, no. 121; fig. 3). In 1917, the sculptor made a series of casts of the head, molded directly from the wood; four of the casts, including the present example, are polished bronze, while three are plaster and one is black cement (Bach, no. 138). These became known during Brancusi's lifetime as Le premier cri, echoing the title of the original, full-length sculpture. In its decisive recumbent position, Le premier cri forms part of a sequence of radically simplified, ovoid compositions that represent a central theme of Brancusi's mature sculpture and a metaphor for the act of creation itself. The sculptor's immense confidence in these egg-like works emerged in a remark that he made about them in 1926: "With this form I could move the universe" (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., p. 52).
Le premier pas, the full-length precursor to the present bronze, is noteworthy as the first work in Brancusi's oeuvre to show the marked influence of African art, which would continue to serve as an important source of inspiration for the sculptor through the mid-1920s. The head in particular has striking affinities with a Bambara figure from Mali that Brancusi would have known from the Musée du Trocadéro (now the Musée de l'Homme) in Paris, which features the same ovoid cranium, hollowed-out mouth, and sharply peaked upper lip (fig. 4). Brancusi repeated this distinctive facial configuration in a second full-length wooden figure executed a year later, Le premier pas II (Bach, no. 120, known only from photographs), which was subsequently re-worked into La petite française (Bach, no. 143; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). The Bambara figure was illustrated in a 1916 study of African art by Marius de Zayas, the director of the Modern Gallery in New York and an acquaintance of Brancusi, and it is possible that Brancusi may have brought the piece to de Zayas's attention ("Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, vol. II, p. 347). Sidney Geist has written about Le premier pas, "Nothing in Brancusi's previous sculpture prepares us for the developments in his earliest extant woodcarving. In spite of the boldness of invention and unusual sensibility which it manifests, the sculpture of Brancusi up to this point is basically a version of European naturalism. As such it does not exhibit the special primitivism of The First Step and the striking treatment of the head in particular" (exh. cat., 1969, op. cit., p. 64).
The theme of the child preoccupied Brancusi throughout his career. For him, a child was the purest symbol of creativity: "When we are no longer children," he proclaimed, "we are already dead" (quoted in Brancusi, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 106). His earliest portrayals of children, L'Enfant endormie, 1906-1907 (Bach, no. 53) and Tête d'enfant endormie, circa 1908 (Bach, nos. 85-87; fig. 5), retain the descriptive naturalism that Brancusi had learned from Rodin, treating the head not as a self-sufficient sculptural entity but as a fragment of the body. In 1909-1910, Brancusi carved La muse endormie I (Bach, nos. 98-99), his first sculpture in which the form of the human head is pared down into a clean, distinct ovoid. The following year, he applied this new conceptual idiom to the theme of the sleeping child, producing Prométhée, a round orb with a vestigial neck and the merest hint of facial features (Bach, nos. 104-105; fig. 6). The egg-like form of this work, with its suggestion of birth, evinces the legend of Prometheus, who formed the human race and other earthly creatures from clay. The only indication of the Titan's subsequent suffering (he was punished by the gods for his hubris) is the inclination of the head to one side, a gesture of pain that Brancusi had previously explored in Le Supplice, 1906-1907 (Bach, nos. 62-63).
With his decision to truncate the African-inspired head of Le premier pas and to position it on its side, Brancusi had the next sculpture in his sequence of recumbent children. Margit Rowell has commented, "Its presence within the series of recumbent heads, so utterly different in their inspiration, serves to reinforce the strangeness of the image and to make it truly unclassifiable" (ibid., p. 45). Unlike the earlier sculptures, which show the subject asleep, the wooden Tête d'enfant, and the bronze and plaster casts that Brancusi made from it, depict a child with its mouth open in a wail-- hence the title Le premier cri. The sense of anguish latent in the peaceable-looking Prométhée became manifest in this bawling head. Brancusi explained, "Newborns come into the world angry because they are brought into it against their will" (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., p. 126); and on another occasion, "What do you see when you look at a newborn? A mouth, wide open and gasping for air" (quoted in P. Hulten, op. cit., p. 100). There is also an element of violence implicit in the sculptor's gestures in carving the wooden head. In place of the delicate relief that describes the facial features in La muse endormie and Prométhée, Brancusi has used a deep, curving gash to form an abstract eye and nose and has gouged out a triangle for the mouth. He was evidently pleased with the effect that the wooden head, so different from its predecessors, made as an autonomous object; the very next year, in 1915, he carved a closely related sculpture in marble, Le Nouveau-né (Bach, nos. 126 and 165; fig. 7), with the ovoid now sliced off into a flat oval plane to indicate the child's wide-open mouth emitting a noisy wail.
Both Le premier cri and Le nouveau-né may be understood not only as portrayals of an infant's head but also as metaphors for birth and creation. The ovoid form (with the vestigial neck of Prométhée now eliminated) suggests either an egg or a cell, while the slash of the eye and the nose creates a split form that evokes both cell division and the shock of birth. Brancusi explained, "The egg, shell and substance, is what is needed. Fullness and volume are necessary in order to give the shock of reality"--that is to say, of life (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., p. 128). The birth at issue with Brancusi's split spheres, however, was not only that of infants but of the planet itself. One visitor to his studio recalled, "He showed me the Newborn while giving the egg a little nudge which caused it to start shaking... He touched the form, which balanced itself again, and said to me: 'I believe that the beginning of the world must have been like that'" (quoted in ibid., p. 128). Brancusi would make this idea explicit with Le commencement du monde, circa 1920 (Bach, no. 162), in which the human visage is entirely effaced, leaving only the elemental egg shape. Finally, the theme of the newborn speaks powerfully of Brancusi's own artistic ambitious. Ann Temkin has written, "The theme also points to the newborn quality of Brancusi's art and this particularly bold sculpture. The sculptor's obsession with the moment of origin reveals his aspirations toward originality, perhaps the preeminent claim to merit among the modernist vanguard. The serial motifs that characterize Brancusi's work prove his originality by testing it: the seeming repetitiveness of his sculptures only demonstrates more compellingly the individual distinction of each" (exh. cat., 1995, op. cit., p. 136).
The present cast of Le premier cri has a noteworthy history. Its first owner was Henri-Pierre Roché (fig. 8), a writer (he is most famous for his roman à clef Jules et Jim, published in 1953) and sharp-eyed connoisseur of modern art whom Temkin has described as "an undefinable but ubiquitous force in the art worlds of Paris and New York for half a century" (ibid., p. 56). Gertrude Stein, who first met Picasso through Roché in 1905, remembered him as a "very faithful and very enthusiastic man who was a general introducer... He could introduce anybody to anybody" (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. I, p. 398). In 1916, Roché moved from Paris to New York and became a close friend of Marcel Duchamp and part of the circle of Louise and Walter Arensberg, whose apartment served as the unofficial headquarters of New York Dada. Roché also began to serve as the adviser and agent for modern art collectors in America, most importantly the lawyer John Quinn, who has been called "the single greatest patron of Brancusi's life, and a man for whom Brancusi's work was, in turn, one of his deepest passions" (quoted in exh. cat., 1995, op. cit., p. 53). In this capacity, Roché was in constant contact with Brancusi, and his voluminous diaries record frequent visits to the sculptor's studio in Paris. In letters to Quinn, he gave frank assessments of the work that he had seen there, as well as advice about price negotiations with Brancusi. In 1926, two years after Quinn's death, Roché and Duchamp-- in a move that has been seen as either a noble intervention to prevent market saturation or a shrewd personal investment--purchased Quinn's entire remaining collection of Brancusi sculptures from the distinguished dealer Joseph Brummer, who had been commissioned to handle sales from the estate.
In November 1926, Brummer mounted an exhibition of Brancusi's work at his gallery in New York, which traveled to the Arts Club of Chicago the following year. The exhibition featured all the works from Quinn's collection now owned by Roché and Duchamp, as well as sculptures and drawings loaned by other American collectors. The wood version of Le premier cri was included in the show with the title Tête d'enfant, as was one of the polished bronzes--either the present cast, which Roché had acquired independently for his personal collection, or a cast from Quinn's estate (Bach, no. 138a; now in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). Brancusi himself traveled to New York two months before the opening of the exhibition to undertake repairs of the Quinn sculptures, which had been in storage since the collector's death, and Duchamp supervised the installation of the works at Brummer's gallery. The show proved an indisputable success. Temkin has written, "The Brummer exhibition was the art event of the season, enjoying wide coverage in the local and national press. Most reports were glowing, and even conservative critics summoned a cautious sympathy; the New Yorker reported that Brancusi was 'knocking them over at Brummer'" (quoted in ibid., p. 60).
The present bronze was also included in Brancusi's first museum exhibition, a comprehensive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1955, less than two years before the artist's death, which "established the nearly eighty-year-old sculptor as a monumental figure in modern art" (ibid., p. 68). Organized by the Guggenheim's newly appointed director James Johnson Sweeney, an esteemed critic and former curator at The Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition was widely acclaimed; even before the year was over, Art News announced their decision that "the palm for The Most Important Exhibition of Modern Art goes for 1955 to the first comprehensive American view of the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi" (quoted in ibid., p. 68). By 1960, Sweeney had acquired eleven of Brancusi's sculptures for the Guggenheim permanent collection, most of them from Roché's holdings. The present bronze, however, remained in Roché's possession until his death in 1959.
(fig. 1) Constantin Brancusi, Le premier pas, 1913 (photographed at the Photo-Secession Gallery, New York, 1914). Destroyed except for head.
(fig. 2) Constantin Brancusi, Etude: Le premier pas, circa 1913. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, Tête d'enfant, 1914-1915. Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paris.
(fig. 4) Bambara figure. Musée de l'Homme, Paris.
(fig. 5) Constantin Brancusi, Tête d'enfant endormie, circa 1908. Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paris.
(fig. 6) Constantin Brancusi, Prométhée, 1911. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(fig. 7) Constantin Brancusi, Le nouveau-né I, 1915. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(fig. 8) Henri-Pierre Roché, 1920s. Photograph by Brancusi. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.