In Focus

Constantin Brancusi's Beginning of the World

_The following essay by Dorothy Kosinski was originally published in 2003 in _Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

Lillian Clark, along with her husband, James H. Clark, was the donor of Constantin Brancusi's sculpture Beginning of the World in 1977. Above, James Clark is pictured with the sculpture sometime during the 1970s. This was not a single gift but rather one of a series of important modern and contemporary works of art given by the Clarks that enriched the Dallas Museum of Art's collections. Within a few years of my meeting her in 1995, Lillian was already quite infirm and visited the Museum seldom and only in a wheelchair. During one visit, we stopped as we always did near the Brancusi. Lillian's eyes filled with tears. Her voice trembled as she explained that this was their most important gift to the Museum. She went on to recount her husband's motivation: he wanted to encourage a disheartened staff in the wake of the defeat of the bond election impacting the Museum's move to the downtown Arts District. She stressed that this was the "best thing that [her] Jim" had ever done. Looking up at me with a sad yet impish expression, Lillian asked, "Can I hold it [the egg] in my lap?"

She had an extraordinary bond with the sculpture, rooted, of course, in her memories of any number of events. One thinks of the time the marble portion of the sculpture was toted to the Museum in a gym bag. She must have harbored a clear mental image of the sculpture in their modernist home on St. John's Drive. Surely it had become, over time, a symbol of her husband's acuity as a collector and of his magnificent philanthropic engagement with his community and his museum. Quite simply, the sculpture had come to embody their partnership and her own youth.

The utter perfection of Brancusi's manipulation of form and material summons forth intense personal feelings and elicits, as well, grander metaphysical ruminations. A marble ovoid is balanced on a round, polished surface, provoking a range of associations: a precious newborn resting on a birthing dish, or a severed head on a salver. The elemental forms and eloquent simplicity of materials pull our thoughts to primal themes of beginnings and endings, life and death.

One recalls the cosmic imagery central to world religions and mythologies. An ancient Hindu text about the beginning of the world focuses on the 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; water became the ocean.'" [1]

The spiritual vibration of Brancusi's forms was not lost on his contemporaries. William Zorach wrote: "Brancusi's art is an art of the spirit, an expression of the spirit rather than an expression of the flesh. An expression of the spirit of beauty in the form rather than an expression of the appreciation of the human body itself ... the artist is the only saint left on earth." [2]

In his comments published in 1921 in The Little Review, poet Ezra Pound seems to discover in Brancusi's reductive form a nonobjective equivalent of birth or beginning itself:

"In the case of the ovoid, I take it Brancusi is meditating upon pure form, free from all terrestrial gravitation, form as free in its own life as the form of the analytic geometers; and the measure of his success in this experiment (unfinished and probably unfinishable) is that from such angles at least the ovoid does come to life and appears ready to levitate." [3]

For poet Carl Sandburg in Slabs of the Sunburnt West, Brancusi's reductive poetry results in an icon of a generation that outlasts destruction:

"O Brancusi. . . with your chisels and hammers, birds going to cones, skulls going to eggs—how the hope hugs your heart you will find one cone, one egg, so hard when the earth turns mist there among the last to go will be a cone, an egg." [4]

Brancusi 's countryman, poet Ion Barbu, similarly finds life and death in the form 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.

Self-contained like the world of old,

Trembling within its crystal,

The guileless egg waits patiently

On its nuptial couch and

Catafalque.

For all creation unleashes crime

Weddings are holy, origin sublime." [5]

These poetic meditations on the egg conjure up poignant personal associations: Jim and Lillian Clark's mortality and the enduring power of their generosity to our art museum.

[1] Chandoqqa Upanishad (ancient Hindu sacred literature), 7th-6th century B.C.E.

[2] William Zorach, "The Sculpture of Constantin Brancusi," The Arts (March 1926),143-151.

[3] Ezra Pound, "Brancusi," The Little Review (Autumn 1921),5.

[4] Carl Sandburg, Slabs of the Sunburnt West (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), 53.

[5] Ion Barbu, "Qui dogmatic," in Joc Secund (Bucharest: Cultura Nationalita, 1930), 53.

Excerpt from

Dorothy Kosinski, “Constantin Brancusi's Beginning of the World,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 38.

Web Resources

  • Guggenheim
    Learn more about Brancusi and his work.