Beginning of the World by Constantin Brancusi [KON-stahn-teen brahn-KOO-zee], consists of a marble egg resting on a metal dish which sits on a stone base. The image of the egg may evoke a diverse range of associations: new life—a newborn resting on a birthing dish—or the deathly image of a severed head in a salver. The stone base recalls the image of an altar for religious service.
Constantin Brancusi was an expatriate Romanian who settled in Paris in 1904. Although he left a relatively small body of work consisting of about 215 sculptures of which about fifty are thought to be lost or destroyed, Brancusi was one of the most influential sculptors of the twentieth century.
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
Constantin Brancusi [KON-stahn-teen brahn-KOO-zee] was born in 1876 to a poor peasant family in the town of HobiÃ…Â£a, Romania. He began studying at the School of Applied Arts. Later, he studied drawing and sculpture at the Bucharest Art School.
In 1903, Brancusi left Romania headed for Paris, France. According to his account, he traveled by foot and arrived in the summer of 1904. In Paris, Brancusi studied at the Academie des Beaux-Arts. He quickly became regarded as an important and influential sculptor. In 1907, Brancusi went to work in the studio of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, but stayed only a month. His reason for leaving, he later explained, was that “nothing grows under big trees.”
In 1913, Brancusi exhibited in France at the Salon des Indépendants, and five of his sculptures were included in the Armory Show in New York. The Armory Show was an important international exhibition of modern art organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors which is widely regarded for introducing Americans to trends in European modernist art. Brancusi continued to work in Paris, but also traveled throughout the 1930s. He died on March 16, 1957 in Paris.
Though many well-known twentieth century sculptors were experimenting with modern and man-made materials, Constantin Brancusi chose mostly traditional materials that emphasized associations with classical art. In Beginning of the World, Brancusi sculpted the egg form from white marble. It rests on a dish made of nickel-plated stainless steel. Together, they are placed on a stone base.
Constantin Brancusi sought to find truth through simplicity. In his sculptures, he used symbolic forms that invite multiple interpretations. Throughout his career, however, Brancusi refused the label “abstract” for his work. He once said, "Those who speak of abstraction when contemplating my sculpture are completely off the track and prove that they have understood nothing. For what my work is aiming at is, above all, realism: I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature; this is my only deep preoccupation."
The stone base of Beginning of the World is inspired by the shape of the Greek, or Orthodox, cross. Many have suggested it looks like a religious altar. Brancusi was widely known for statements conflating the role of an artist with that of a god including his famous epigram “Work like a slave; command like a king; create like a god.”
The primary image in Beginning of the World is an egg on a round metal disk. Constantin Brancusi seemed obsessed with the egg shape as an expression of metaphysical and spiritual reality. To him, it was a shape that suggested eternity and timelessness. However, when Brancusi’s egg sculptures were first introduced to America, many audiences were confused about their meaning. The headline in a 1927 edition of Chicago Herald Examiner on Brancusi’s art read “Society Gulps Hard at Brancusi’s Eggs.”
A host of interpretations of Brancusi’s egg sculptures has emerged since then. Some people have suggested that the egg shape appears similar to sculptures of heads made by Brancusi such as Sleeping Muse I of 1909, or that it recalls the story of John the Baptist, an early Christian prophet whose beheading is a common motif in European art. Other viewers have suggested that the image is one which suggests new life. Some have suggested it appears like a newborn on a birthing dish. Brancusi’s friend, the poet Ezra Pound, believed that the oval on its side seemed to come to life and appeared ready to levitate.
Brancusi frequently used ovoid, or egg-like, forms in his sculptures because of the wide range of associations and interpretations they could evoke. The symbolism and significance of eggs appear throughout various cultures around the world. For instance, the creation story from the Chandogya Upanishad, a sacred Hindu text dating from the sixth or seventh century B.C., suggests that the world was born from an egg:
“In the beginning was Non-Being. It became Being. It grew and became an egg. It rested for a whole year and then cracked apart. Two pieces of eggshell
appeared, one of gold, one of silver. The silver fragment became the earth; the golden fragment became the sky. The outer membrane became the
mountains; the inner membrane became the clouds and mists; veins became rivers; waters became the ocean.”
Since the first appearance of Brancusi’s sculptures, many writers contemporary to Brancusi wrote about the forms and their meanings. Romanian poet, Ion Barbu, in his poem “Oul dogmatic” (“The Dogmatic Egg”), suggests both a literal and metaphorical reading of the egg:
The barren egg has now become
The food of saddened peoples
But the egg of life is the fecund source
Of inward solitary knowing.
In 1922, American poet Carl Sandburg commented on Brancusi’s obsession with the egg in his book Slabs of the Sunburnt West where he wrote, “O Brancusi, with your chisels and hammers, birds going to cones, skulls going to eggs-how the hope hugs your heart you will find a cone, one egg, so hard when the earth turns mist there among the last to go will be a cone, an egg.”
1. Why do you think Constantin Brancusi named this sculpture Beginning of the World? What about the sculpture suggests beginnings or origins?
2. Describe the three basic shapes and materials that comprise Beginning of the World. What does each shape look like to you? What associations do you have with each shape and material?
3. Constantin Brancusi believed that if artists would simplify their subjects into basic forms expressing the essence of the subject, their work would achieve a kind of truth not possible through more literal or complex depictions. What do you think? How does Beginning of the World reflect these ideas?
4. Constantin Brancusi once said: “I never seek to make what they call a pure or abstract form.” What does it mean for an artwork to be abstract? Is Beginning of the World abstract? Why or why not?
5. Brancusi thought that sculpture should be lovely to touch and friendly to live with. Before making Beginning of the World, he made a similar oval entitled Sculpture for the Blind, which was enclosed in a bag that had two sleeves so that people could feel it instead of looking at it. Imagine understanding Beginning of the World through touch instead of sight. Describe what you think the sculpture might feel like to you.
1. Constantin Brancusi chose these forms to suggest the creation of the world. How would you choose to represent this subject? Create a work of art which shows how you imagine the world began. Consider how a literal depiction might differ from Brancusi’s symbolic sculpture.
2. Brancusi believed that a sculptor could achieve a kind of truth by simplifying forms. Choose a subject and draw it as exactly as you can. Then, draw it again with its forms simplified. Do this as many times as it takes to achieve what you consider an image of the essence of your subject. What did you learn about your subject through this process?
3. In 1927, a historic trial took place in the United States to determine whether Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space, imported to the photographer Edward Steichen from Europe, was liable for duty as a manufactured object. At first, tariff officers, baffled by the sculpture, classified it under “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies.” The trial concluded that the sculpture was a work of art and therefore not subject to taxes, but it raised the question of what it means for an object to be a work of art. Though Beginning of the World was not the subject of the trial, it carries many of the same qualities of Bird in Space that created confusion. Act out a mock trial in which two groups of students discuss whether or not Beginning of the World is a work of art. Consider the following questions: Why might someone not believe Beginning of the World to be a work of art? How does Beginning of the World differ from other sculptures you are familiar with? What does it mean for something to be a work of art, and has this definition changed?
4. A number of poets around the world have written about Brancusi’s egg sculptures. Make your own poetic response to the Beginning of the World. Write an acrostic poem that uses the title of the work, some quality about the work, or the artist's name. An acrostic poem is one in which the initial letter of each line has a meaning when read downward.
Engaging my attention
Grasping the complex through the simple
Giving a form to thoughts
Bach, Friedrich Teja. Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957. Philadelphia, Penn.: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995.
Chave, Anna. Constantin Brancusi: Shifting the Bases of Art. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.
Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things. London: Tate, 2004.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997.
Geist, Sidney. Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture. New York: Grossman, 1968.
Kosinski, Dorothy. “Constantin Brancusi’s Beginning of the World.” Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas, 2003.
Shanes, Eric. Constantin Brancusi. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
This website has a visual tour of the important 1913 Armory Show in New York where Brancusi exhibited his work.
This website provides biographical information about Constantin Brancusi.
View other works by Brancusi in the Met’s collection.