Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” Soars Again
John Griswold, Conservator
September 28, 2020
Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space is one of the Norton Simon’s most iconic 20th-century sculptures. It commands the most prominent spot in the Modern Art gallery, its gleaming yellow-bronze surface magnificent under the skylighted rotunda. Its placement there is the culmination of a long process of art historical inquiry, scientific investigation and conservation treatment since its acquisition in 1972, requiring some challenging issues to be resolved. After riding out the Northridge earthquake in 1994 on a low, heavy concrete pedestal, the artwork was loaned to two important exhibitions. Upon its return, we were determined to install it safely enough to survive a major earthquake, and in a manner that was most appropriate to the artist’s original intention. Although the Bird retained its highly reflective polish, it had blemishes and discolored areas. Conservation treatment and development of the best approach to maintaining the lustrous surface directed by the artist would require careful study.
Brancusi had very specific notions about how his various Bird in Space sculptures were to be experienced—their height, their relationship to a base and pedestal made by the artist and their surface qualities, whether marble or bronze. Part of what makes the Norton Simon’s sculpture so successful in seeming to defy gravity also makes it potentially vulnerable to damage in an earthquake. Precariously standing on a slender foot, constricting and then swelling upward in a dramatic arc, Bird in Space is lightly off-balance, with a very high center of gravity. The bronze was originally pinned to a small, cylindrical limestone base, in turn attached to an X-shaped, carved sandstone pedestal. Unfortunately, the pedestal and the limestone cylinder, both made by the artist, were left behind in India when Yeshwant Rao Holkar, the maharaja of Indore and first owner of the sculpture, gave it to his second wife upon their divorce and her return to America. These missing pieces are visible in a photograph of the sitting room taken by the maharaja’s designer Eckart Muthesius in 1933.
The maharaja asked Brancusi to design a Temple of Love to honor his deceased first wife, and he purchased three Bird in Space sculptures to be displayed in it—our bronze Bird, plus two he commissioned of marble, one black and one white, both now in the National Gallery of Australia. This project was never realized, but Brancusi planned to install his Birds in a manner that would emphasize the impression of transcendent soaring, within an architectural space where his control of light falling on them would have been absolute. Dealer/poet Henri-Pierre Roché, who first brought the maharaja to Brancusi’s studio, described the concept for the Temple of Love, stating that the artist’s polished bronze Bird in Space would be placed inside so that it would be “struck full by the midday sun, through the circular hole in the ceiling on a particular holy day of the year.” Brancusi said he preferred an elevated placement for his Birds, forcing an upward viewing angle, as evidenced by the generally similar dimensions of his pedestals used for other Birds in Space.
Taking these concepts into consideration, and given the absence of Brancusi’s original base and pedestal, we decided on an elevated placement of our Bird in Space under the circular skylight in the 20th-century gallery on a simple, tall pedestal. To accomplish this, we first had to understand the sculpture’s likely behavior under strong seismic forces. Investigating the internal structure of the casting and finding potential areas of weakness were crucial to determining the best way to support the sculpture. We were pleasantly surprised when X-rays revealed just how expertly the interior thicknesses of the casting had been controlled, to distribute strength throughout the sculpture, especially at the slender neck near the bottom. By gradually tapering the wall thickness of the casting, the foundry was able to compensate for the top-heavy nature of Brancusi’s revolutionary form. We were also able to see that, in spite of many small, trapped air bubbles (technically called “vesicles”) in the surface of the polished casting, there were no significant internal cracks or voids. The threaded bronze rod that now secures the sculpture is, as one would hope, embedded to a sufficient depth into the solid foot of the casting.
Working with a team of engineers, we determined how the sculpture would respond to a major earthquake. By bolting it down securely, attaching small sensors called accelerometers to the surface and tapping it gently, we measured its natural period of vibration. All objects have a unique and characteristic vibrational response to an applied force. This informs how they may start to rock, and eventually overturn, in response to the wavelike motions of an earthquake. The sensors fed this data into a computer that calculated appropriate parameters for a base isolation system to protect the sculpture and pedestal.
With the installation issues resolved, we turned to the conservation treatment. The surface of the Norton Simon’s Bird in Space, while in overall good condition, had once been coated with a clear lacquer, now partially worn, the remnants oxidized and yellowing. This lacquer was not original—Brancusi strongly disliked lacquer on his polished bronzes because of the way it hid the natural character of the surface. This sculpture had been coated around the time Mr. Simon acquired it in 1972. The coat of lacquer was very thin, hardly visible at first—and not very effective—so much so that it was apparently forgotten. The surface had been polished with commercial creams afterward, lacquer and all. The end result was a surface that differed significantly from Brancusi’s original intent. There were also some superficial scuffs and scratches, as well as tarnishing concentrated around the many small pits in the casting.
I was particularly concerned to see what was happening inside and around those pits before deciding on a course of treatment. Analysis of samples of debris inside the pits showed it to be mainly old polishing compound, rather than the product of active, aggressive corrosion. Because this residue was alkaline, it did have the potential to attack the copper alloy if activated by moisture. The tiny vesicles, or chambers of air trapped within the casting, were very complex, sometimes separated with a delicate, tissue-thin layer of copper alloy between them. Once the sculpture was fully cleaned, applying a new clear lacquer to its surface might help preserve the bright, mirror-like sheen for a long time, but it could not penetrate and protect these pits. Rather, even under normal gallery conditions, the presence of lacquer on the exterior could accelerate corrosion deep inside.
Careful stripping of the old, cloudy and yellowed lacquer remnants revealed a gleaming, consistent surface. I decided to install our Bird in its newly elevated, protected position after a thorough cleaning and polishing without any fresh lacquer. I’ve been watching it closely ever since. A decade later, it still gleams beautifully, only slightly less golden than before. If our Bird needs polishing only every 10 years, that I can live with.
John Griswold is the Conservator of the Norton Simon Museum, where he leads efforts to preserve and care for the Simon collections. This article is from the series "Dispatches from the Conservation Studio."