The restoration of an outstanding work of art is rarely a simple matter, either physically or ethically. If the object in question is comparatively huge, is made of metal and stands in the open air, then any inherent problems it faces can prove very difficult to solve. And if nationalist politics become tangled up in the process, then the difficulties raised can even prove virtually insoluble. Sadly, all of these possible pitfalls have been made only too clear by the recent restoration of a major work by arguably Romania’s greatest sculptor, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957).
In 1937-8 Brancusi created a war memorial in the small mining town of Târgu-Jiu in Gorj County, Romania, not far from his birthplace, where there had been an important battle during the First World War. The work comprises three sculptures aligned along a purpose-built commemorative mall. This road was created at Brancusi’s behest and is entitled The Avenue of Heroes, a name chosen by the sculptor himself in tribute to the defendants of Târgu-Jiu against German invasion in October 1916.1 The constituent pieces are a low circular table and twelve surrounding stools collectively known as the Table of Silence; a large, free-standing arch, Gate of the Kiss; and the 29.33 metre-high Column without End (Fig.1). This latter sculpture is located on a hillside just over a kilometre to the east of the Table, with the Gate placed within a small park relatively near to the latter. Arguably Brancusi’s Târgu-Jiu ensemble forms the artist’s supreme achievement and, as such, one of the highpoints of twentieth century sculpture.
The Column without End primarily concerns us here. It consists of an elongated module at ground level (Fig. 2), followed by fifteen identical, rhomboid-shaped modules, and a half-module at the top. All of these “beads”, as Brancusi called them, are made in cast-iron and are threaded down a central steel core, resting upon the ones beneath and stabilised with fixings to the spine. The internal spaces between the modules and core are largely hollow. The foundation of the sculpture comprises a subterranean fifteen feet cubic block of concrete which contains a pyramidal steel footing that stabilises the central core.
In order to create the relatively huge Column, two engineers, Nicolae Hasnas and Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan, were employed to make detailed construction drawings. The latter then supervised the casting process and directed the assembly of the sculpture by a team of workers. In July-August 1937, in the industrial town of Petroani north of Târgu-Jiu, Brancusi carved a limewood template module from which the clay moulds required for the casting of the metal modules were made. This casting took place in a local foundry. In late September 1937, after briefly returning to Paris, Brancusi witnessed the first modules being lowered down the spine. Finally, in September 1938, on a third trip to Romania specifically in connection with the project, he oversaw the completion of the Column. During the assembly process the joints between the modules were filled with a sealing compound, to prevent ingress by rainwater, and the exterior surfaces of the modules were thermally sprayed with a metallic finish whose problematic chemical composition is discussed below.
An Initial Defect
By the time the Column without End was completed in 1938, a defect in the piece that would have a bearing upon the 1990s controversy over the restoration of the sculpture had already made itself apparent: the work leaned very slightly.2 Perhaps the concrete block forming the foundation of the sculpture had shifted slightly as the weight of the core and modules was loaded upon it.3 Given that all of Brancusi’s many other (albeit smaller) columnar sculptures are completely perpendicular, the sculptor may well have been unhappy about this deviation from the vertical. However, by the time it became visually apparent it may well have been too late to rectify this slant, short of starting all over again, which would surely have proven financially impossible. As a result, a subtle but perceptible tilt to the entire column is still visible to this day.
Communism did not assist the straightness and absolute verticality of the Column without End either. In the early 1950s the civic authorities in Târgu-Jiu naturally shared the prevailing Stalinist hostility to modernism that was then rampant throughout the eastern bloc. As a result, they viewed the Column without End as a piece of western formalist junk and, thinking its metal content would be better used for the creation of peoples’ tractors and the like, they accordingly tried to pull it down. But after horses (or, according to variant accounts, a tractor or a tank) had pulled on guy-ropes for three days, the attempt was abandoned. Fortunately the strong column resisted such exertions. Yet it does appear likely that the top third of the sculpture became slightly bent by this crude attempt at destruction, although fortunately none of the upper modules appear to have been cracked or damaged in the process. We shall return to discussion of this bend, and of the larger overall lean that contains it.
The material history of the Târgu-Jiu ensemble in other respects after 1938
Because the table, stools and gate are made of travertine stone, their condition has not significantly deteriorated since the late 1930s, even though they have been slightly damaged in parts. However, the Column without End has fared badly down the years. As the seals between the modules inevitably perished, rainwater began running down their interior surfaces, severely rusting them in the process. Moreover, industrial development in and around Târgu-Jiu created acid rain which radically darkened and dulled the colour of the sculpture, as well as pitted and more generally corroded its exterior. These latter deteriorations led to re-metallisations of the outer surfaces of the work in 1965-6 and 1975-6.
However, by the late 1980s it had became apparent that drastic action was needed once again to preserve the Column without End for posterity. Accordingly, in March 1991 a charitable organisation, the International Brancusi Foundations, which had been set up by Dr Radu Varia, reached an agreement with the government of the day led by President Razvan Theodorescu to undertake the restoration of the Târgu-Jiu ensemble. This agreement was signed by the-then Minister of Culture, Andrei Pleu, and ratified by the Prime Minister, Petre Roman. Subsequently the restoration project outlined by the International Brancusi Foundations was carefully considered by the Romanian National Commission for Historical Monuments during the 1994 to 1996 period, and finally approved by that body. With this permission the International Brancusi Foundations was empowered to lift off all of the modules for individual conservation, and to wrap the central core in plastic sheeting for its protection while the next move was decided on the basis of information gained about the state of the spine following the removal of the modules. Such initial work was completed in November 1996.
The following month saw a change of government in Romania, the new Romanian Peasant’s Party administration being headed by President Emil Constantinescu. The incoming President appointed a new National Commission for Historical Monuments, and this body subsequently approved a radical proposal proffered by the International Brancusi Foundations on the basis of its close look at the core once the modules had been removed. For reasons we shall explore below, the International Brancusi Foundations now recommended that the original central spine of the Column without End be replaced entirely, with the original outer modules subsequently being put back into position and re-metallised with an alloy that would solve the problems inherent to the type of outer coating that had previously been used on the sculpture. This proposal was not only approved by the National Commission for Historical Monuments, but the document granting authorization for the ensuing work was countersigned by the new Minister of Culture, Ion Caramitru.
With hindsight it is easy to see that by November 1996, when Radu Varia had disassembled the Column without End, he had already committed a major blunder in the field of Romanian art politics: he had failed to consult widely enough about what precisely needed to be done to restore the sculpture. It was one thing to consult an official body like the National Commission for Historical Monuments, but quite another to discuss matters with Brancusi admirers more generally. Sadly it became very evident that Varia should also have convened an international conference to allow both local and international Brancusi scholars and technical experts to openly debate (and hopefully resolve) the ethical and technical issues involved in what would clearly be the most radical restoration of the Column to date. His failure to do so generated much disquiet among Brancusi scholars in both Romania and elsewhere (not least of all by the present writer). Far more damagingly, anxiety was also generated in the Romanian Press and in many ordinary people who convinced themselves – without necessarily knowing too much about the finer ethical and technical points concerned, let alone anything at all about Brancusi – that if the core were to be replaced, then their supreme national modern art masterpiece would be intrinsically destroyed (the non-visible central core being thought to be an artistic part of the sculptural entity rather than simply an armature).
To make matters worse, intense nationalism now also stoked up the fires of controversy. Thus right-wing journalists either accused Varia of being an old communist (which he wasn’t) or of wanting to employ foreign ‘experts’ rather than local specialists to restore the column (which was patently untrue, as he had already taken onto his team a number of leading Romanian metallurgists). Varia was even accused of secretly conspiring to replace the original Column without End with a replica, in order to sell the original work abroad, which was patent nonsense. But Minister of Culture Ion Caramitru soon took note of the scholarly disquiet and journalistic mendacity, and he used such fears and distortions to fuel his own desire to gain political capital from the restoration of the Column. As a result, he reversed his attitude towards the International Brancusi Foundations and subsequently blocked Varia’s moves to restore the Column. Because of all this a number of complex problems that had beset the work before 1991 still await resolution.
Certainly, by 1996 Radu Varia had consulted non-Romanian experts about what to do with the Column, but these ‘foreigners’ did happen to include some of the world’s leading authorities on sculpture conservation and metal technology. One of the sculpture experts was Dr David Scott of the Getty Conservation Institute in California, while the leading metallurgist was Dr Vladimir Kucera of the Swedish Corrosion Institute. The involvement of Dr Kucera and his organisation was particularly relevant to a large metal sculpture standing on a hilltop, for because of the harshness of Nordic winters, the Swedish Corrosion Institute unsurprisingly possesses what are surely unrivalled insights into the deterioration of metals in the open air. In order that the cast-iron modules might possibly be later metallised with an outer coating and lacquer protective skin that would resist corrosion far more lastingly than had previous finishes, Dr Kucera created a large number of metal and lacquer test-samples which he methodically exposed to the elements over several seasons at Târgu-Jiu itself, thus exploring actual conditions as accurately as possible.
By the time the disassembly of the Column had been completed in November 1996, Dr Varia had invited yet another major organisation to become involved in the restoration of the sculpture. This was the World Monuments Fund, which in May 1996 agreed to put the Column without End on its List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. As the result of such listing, in 1998 the World Bank consented to lend the Romanian government one-and-a-half million dollars to effect the restoration of the Column. However, by June 1999 the Romanian Minister of Culture, Ion Caramitru, had succeeded in almost completely separating Varia and his team of experts from the restoration process. Understandably perhaps, neither the World Monuments Fund nor the World Bank wanted to be drawn into the quagmire of Romanian politics, and so they sided with the government of the day in deciding what to do about the restoration of the Column, rather than with the International Brancusi Foundations which were legally empowered to carry out the work.
In order to advance the conservation process, in early June 1999 the World Monuments Fund convened an international technical symposium in both Târgu-Jiu and Bucharest to consider all the conservation issues and to make a further set of ‘final’ recommendations for the restoration of the Column. This forum was attended by 32 official participants, who included architects, engineers, conservators and – almost as an afterthought on the part of the organisers – just three art-historians (the Curator of the Brancusi Atelier at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, Dr Marielle Tabart; Dr Varia; and the present writer). However, although unanimity was apparently reached at this conference, such agreement was highly pressurized and the debates leading up to that accord were conducted in a decidedly rushed and unsatisfactory manner.4
In combination, the forcing of the issue by the World Monuments Fund in 1999, and the marginalisation (and subsequent ignoring) of the expertise amassed by Varia, enabled the Constaninescu political administration to award the contract for effecting the conservation work in 2000-1 to an organisation which possessed no experience whatsoever in the field of sculpture conservation, namely the Romanian Union of Artists. In turn, that body commissioned a helicopter company – which also enjoyed no sculpture conservation expertise – to carry out the actual task of restoring the Column without End. This it accomplished in the incredibly short time of just 50 days, a period which should, in itself, set off alarm bells about the standard of the conservation work attained. By working so fast the conservationists appear to have been attempting to meet a deadline, and it is not difficult to work out what that date might be, for by a curious coincidence the conclusion of their labours just happened to coincide with the final stages of a Romanian General Election campaign, during which the ruling Romanian Peasant’s Party claimed credit for the restoration of the Column (ironically, it was utterly wiped out in the polls.) Given the conservation problems involved, such a hasty carrying out of a complex task resulted in a renovated object that necessarily generates disquiet on many levels.
The Steel Inner Core
One of the main causes of controversy in the post-1996 period concerned the Column’s central steel core. Not only did this lean and curve, but being made of unkilled (rimming) steel – which metal would never be used today for important works of art, due to its mediocre quality – it had also suffered badly from the elements; as the World Monuments Fund reported to the Romanian Minister of Culture in 1997, “water-activated rusting to the spine has reduced the average sectional plate thicknesses by 10-15%, thereby weakening it to 70% of its original load-bearing capacity”.5
The response of Varia and his technical advisors to this problem was to suggest a total replacement of the original core which, they argued, is merely a non-visible, poor-quality armature. In its place they proposed to erect a new spine made from the highest quality Swedish stainless steel, arguably the best steel in the world. (Such a core was in fact offered without charge by a consortium of leading Swedish steel companies, and it was likely that a major Scandinavian haulage company would have transported the eight-and-a-half ton load across Europe for nothing.) The suggested substitution, which would have enjoyed a guaranteed lifespan of more than five hundred years, fully accorded with item 10 of the 1964 Venice International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites.6 This document states that “where traditional [restoration] techniques prove inadequate, the consolidation of a monument can be achieved by the use of any modern technique for conservation and construction, the efficacy of which has been shown by scientific data and proved by experience”.
Perhaps understandably, a complete replacement of the inner core of the Column disturbed some conservative-minded Brancusi scholars who thought it would take a step too far in the restoration process. After all, they argued, even a non-visible, defective but original armature forms an integral part of the art-historical identity of a sculpture. Accordingly, every possible step should therefore be taken to retain it, at least until it becomes evident beyond doubt that it will physically fail (although how, in the case of the Column, such a moment could ever be determined short of what would necessarily be a catastrophic collapse, remains a moot point). To this argument Varia replied that, given the loss of almost a third of the original load-bearing capacity, the impossibility of examining the subterranean triangular metal fixing because of its solid concrete surround, and the fact that it is equally impossible to ascertain the complete extent of corrosion within the full inner length of the spine (for this could only be attained by taking the entire structure apart, which would constitute an irreversible process7), an enormous risk is being taken with the future survival of the sculpture. Thus any extraordinarily ferocious gale, of the type with which we are sadly becoming familiar in an age of possible global warming, could easily topple the work, ripping apart its modules and thereby necessitating the replacement of the entire sculpture with a replica.
In the event, the International Brancusi Foundations were overruled and the original leaning and curving spine was retained, with only some of its lower, most visibly corroded lengths of outer, 20mm-thick metal plating being replaced by new sections of plating that are exactly double that thickness. The risk of toppling therefore persists and, given the high probability of further corrosion in time, it can only increase, which is extremely worrying.
The Outer Coating: The Column without End Condemned to Endless Restoration?
As touched upon above, between 20 June and 25 July 1938 the outer surfaces of the cast-iron modules were coated with a thermally sprayed metallic finish. This work was undertaken in accordance with the only directive that Brancusi ever apparently gave to Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan, namely that the sculpture should be “yellow”.8 But evidence which only came to light comparatively recently makes it clear that when the engineer chose the precise type of metal coating to be used to obtain that yellow, he was undoubtedly aware that he was going completely against the prevailing wisdom on the metallization of outdoor sculptures, and that he had certainly imparted that knowledge to Brancusi.
In letters dating from 12 and 18 October 1937, although only published in 1986, Georgescu-Gorjan wrote to Brancusi in Paris that “The plating [i.e. the metallisation] will be done with bronze, not brass” (bronze being an alloy of copper, zinc, tin and lead, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc). He then went on to inform the sculptor that “When I asked the engineer from the Metalizator Company for information, I was told in person and in writing…that the column must not be coated with brass because it turns dark in the rain, the way pig iron does. Mrs Tâtârâscu [the person who had commissioned the Târgu-Jiu ensemble] was for using bronze. Her opinion notwithstanding, I ordered both bronze and brass wire. However, upon receipt of the order, the people at the factory advised me not to use anything but bronze. I stressed that it had to be the yellowest bronze possible, not dark bronze, and I hope you’ll find the colour to your liking. I started the plating just this morning, and I hope to have it finished in three or four days.”9
Yet despite this knowledge of the much stronger water (and corrosion) resistance of bronze by the suppliers of the coating to be used for the Column, by the person who was paying for the work to be undertaken, by the engineer who would oversee its application and, not least of all, by the sculptor whose work it would adorn, brass was employed for the Column without End in 1938. Naturally, the question arises as to why this curious decision was taken in the face of such an awareness?
There seems to be only one possible answer. It cannot have been cost, for the choice of brass would only have made a fairly negligible saving, brass being about five per cent cheaper than bronze (and Aretia Tâtârâscu’s lack of concern about using the more expensive alloy, as attested in the above quote, supports this contention). So there has to have been another motive behind such a choice of coating, and only one alternative presents itself, namely colour; in the final analysis the Metalizator Company must have been unable to supply a bronze finish that was yellow enough for the sculptor’s liking. This is because, although bronze can produce a fairly bright yellow colouring, brass is capable of appearing even more yellow, albeit at the expense of darkening more rapidly over a short period of time. So Brancusi must have chosen brass because he liked its immediate effect, and not been too worried about its rapid deterioration of colour.10 However, his 1938 choice of brass over bronze has unfortunately condemned the Column to an apparently endless cycle of frequent restorations.11
In order to be historically accurate, Georgescu-Gorjan naturally adhered to the original brass formulation when he oversaw the restorations of the Column without End in 1965-6 and 1975-6. The latter restoration must have reminded him forcibly just how fugitive a colouring brass provided, for two restorations within ten years is not a healthy state of affairs. And because the restorers in 2000 felt an identical and wholly understandable desire for historical authenticity, they also used brass for the finish of the Column.12 In this most recent metallization the modules were sprayed initially with 0.15 mm of zinc, and then with successive layers of 0.5 mm of brass.
The new coating is therefore entirely congruent with the original coating of the Column, and is utterly correct historically. But undoubtedly it will just as surely fail again, for the very reasons given by Georgescu-Gorjan in his 1937 letters to Brancusi.13 Sadly we can therefore be certain that yet another re-metallisation of the Column without End will soon become necessary. When that does happen, all of Brancusi’s admirers will once again be forced to confront an extremely difficult issue of conservation ethics: to what extent should conservationists follow the sculptor’s wishes, rather than opt for some more durable form of yellow metallisation?
Morally and physically this is not an insoluble problem for, to take the latter aspect of this question first, in 1997 the International Brancusi Foundations suggested sidestepping the entire bronze versus brass issue altogether by nominating for use an alloy coating for the Column without End that would prove both far more yellow than either bronze or brass, and far more permanently yellow as well. Such an alternative alloy is copper-aluminium, an alloy that produces a much richer yellow than either brass or bronze and, no less crucially, is far more corrosion-resistant than both (which is why the metal, known colloquially as ‘aluminium bronze’, is most commonly used for ship’s propellors). Here, surely, resides the ultimate means of supplying the “yellow” colouring that Brancusi wanted, and simultaneously ensuring that the Column without End will remain that colour for the lengthiest possible time. Certainly there can be no opposition to such a substitution on ethical grounds, for the Venice Charter does permit such a change of materials in a work of art, as can be ascertained from the passage from item 10 of the international agreement that is quoted above. Naturally, a material change will have been effected in the Column by the substitution of brass by copper-aluminium but how physically ‘accurate’ to its original form does a work of art have to be if that concordance condemns it to a state of perpetual deterioration?
Colour, Depth of Finish and Joins
Naturally, if the Column without End were to be re-finished with a copper-aluminium alloy, it would have to match the colour of the original. But what was that colour? Regrettably, no colour photographs have apparently come down to us that can provide even a hazy idea of the original colouring of the Column. All that we know is that Brancusi wanted his sculpture to be “yellow”. But it is certainly not yellow today, less than three years after it was last metallised (Fig.3). Instead, it is a drab khaki green except where the sun directly reflects off its surfaces, in which case the brightly lit areas look – at least from close-to – as though they are covered in cheap gold paint (Fig. 4). Moreover, the opacity of the new coating is so dense that the sculpture enjoys no deep lustre whatsoever, such as may be found on all of Brancusi’s other metal sculptures, whether they be highly reflective or less shiny in appearance.
Nor is this the only deficiency created by the new finish. That application is extremely streaky and uneven (Fig. 5 – see back cover). Some metallurgists in Romania think that the recent coating should have been effected robotically, in order to attain the kind of precisely even deposit of metal across the surfaces that cannot be achieved manually. Clearly a robotic metallisation was not an option in 1938. Yet the recent plating shows the major drawback of a non-robotic application, namely its patchiness, and one must severely doubt that Brancusi would ever have been happy with such a poor finish. It can certainly not be witnessed on any of his other metal sculptures.
A related aesthetic problem devolves from the degree to which the surfaces of the modules have frequently become pitted by acidity and the like (Fig. 5).14 Should these unsightly blemishes be allowed to remain as evidence of the history of the Column without End, or should something approaching the sublime smoothness of Brancusi’s other metal sculptures be attained by means of careful repair and polishing? After all, in every one of his sculptures made in yellowish or golden metal the artist consistently aspired to achieve a phenomenally smooth surface perfection that was fully at one with his stated Platonic idealism; Brancusi needed surface perfection because his art is supremely concerned with the creation of perfect forms.15 Such a smooth finish was hardly possible with a large sculpture that was thermally sprayed manually in the open air in rural Romania in 1938. But it does not seem inappropriate to hope that one day the Column might indeed look smooth and brilliantly reflective, like one of the polished bronzes, rather than dull, streaky and pitted, as it looks at present.16 A happier balance needs to be struck between the evidential aspect of a work of art and its aesthetic qualities. Yet how far can we ever attain such an aim with a large metal sculpture that stands in a fairly hostile outdoor environment? Would the sacrifice of just a little of the evidence be justified, in order to attain slightly more of the art? Again the Venice Charter provides guidance, for although item 9 of the document states that “The process of restoration…must stop at the point where conjecture begins”, item 3 declares that “The intention in conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historical evidence”. Given the amount of brilliantly polished metal sculpture by Brancusi that has come down to us, it hardly seems necessary to employ conjecture when determining the type of “yellow” and its degree of metal reflectivity that the sculptor must have wanted in 1937-8. Yet today the baleful effects of history seem to be just a little too much in evidence, while the wondrous radiance enjoyed by Brancusi’s many other “yellow” sculptures in metal is nowhere to be seen.
Then there are the new inter-modular seals. There can be no doubt that in 2000 these were crudely applied and accordingly are very ugly. However, they also arouse severe conservationist concern. Photographs taken less than six weeks after the restoration work ended in December 2000 demonstrates that parts of the sealant had already perished in that short space of time (Figs. 6 and 7). Naturally this bodes extremely badly for the entry of water to the inner surfaces of the modules once again.17
The lacquer that was recently applied to protect the outer metal coating also causes disquiet. As we have seen, Vladimir Kucera spent several years testing different lacquers for this end, but in its rush to complete the job the helicopter company performed no long-term on-site tests of possible lacquer coatings, as they were obliged to do contractually.18 Instead, they simply applied a protective lacquer which they believed would best do the job. Specialists who watched the coating being applied observed that unfortunately this preparation was put on much too thickly, and was therefore impossible to thin down because of rapid hardening and subsequent rigidity. For these reasons the coating could not be properly polished, which also adds to the surface dullness of the recently restored Column.19
The Brancusi with a Spike on Top
Yet from the purely aesthetic point of view the very worst feature of the recently restored Column without End is undoubtedly the new lightning conductor that today surmounts Brancusi’s masterpiece (Fig.8). The original sculpture contained four lightning conductors, all of which were hidden from sight internally.20 Now, a conductor rod, complete with visible section of electrical cable, protrudes about half a metre out of the top of the Column. It is safe to claim that Brancusi, with his phenomenal awareness of the most minute niceties of form, would have reacted furiously to such an appalling excrescence. But it is impossible to imagine why it was put there in the first place, for if a work has demonstrably survived lightning strikes for over half a century merely by means of internal conductors, then what need does it have of an external one?21
To make matters even worse, the top of the Column without End has been reshaped, obviously to help water drainage. Now it is distinctly pyramidal, rather than flat, as formerly. Such a sloped shape utterly distorts the meaning of the sculpture, for when it was flat the topmost module seemed to be cut in two, with its implied upper half continuing the rhythm of its lower half, and therefore the pulsation of the entire column towards infinity. By making the top of the sculpture triangular, the recent ‘restorers’ have totally destroyed the illusion of formal and metaphysical continuity and rendered the Column without End utterly finite and earthbound. There is surely something exceedingly deficient in the aesthetic awareness of restorers who can protest against any material changes to Brancusi’s masterpiece on the one hand, and yet who can wilfully alter its form on the other, let alone put an unnecessary and inartistic spike on it so that the apex of the column now looks more like a First World War German military helmet than a sculptural form by Brancusi.22 What price respect for the integrity of a work of art here?
The Present State of the Other Târgu-Jiu Ensemble Works
Criticisms of the present state of the other Târgu-Jiu ensemble works – whose restoration was also discussed at the 1999 World Monuments Fund conference – can be made more briefly. By the time of writing (July 2002) nothing at all has been done to repair and protect the stonework of either the Table or the Gate, the latter of which still suffers from patching in places with lumps of disfiguring cement. Moreover, three stools that were damaged or destroyed by trees in the park between the Table and the Gate have not been replaced, even though it was recommended in 1999 that, having been made simply as pieces of park-furniture to designs by Brancusi (rather than as sculptures by him), they could validly be replicated by some local stonemason.23 The two parks in which the three sculptures stand are in a very neglected state,24 which hardly seems to accord with either local avowals of love for a ‘national treasure’ or with item 14 of the Venice Charter which states that “The sites of monuments must be the subject of special care in order to safeguard their integrity and ensure that they are cleared and presented in a seemly manner”. A “seemly manner” should necessarily include some explanatory signs to indicate that the Târgu-Jiu ensemble forms a war memorial, but no such signs are anywhere in evidence. Yet Brancusi clearly made his ensemble and connective road as a war memorial,25 so surely it needs to be experienced as such.
All of the criticisms contained in the preceding paragraph could be dealt with relatively easily and at no great cost. Far more difficult to solve will be the question of what to do with the Column. It is just not true to claim, as did the President of the World Monuments Fund last year,26 that the recent restoration preserves original elements “which were in sound condition”, for a warped spine that, by the 1997 admission of her very own organisation, has lost almost a third of its original strength can hardly be considered “sound”, no matter how much it has been shored up. Nor does it seem entirely wise to boast that the exterior “replicates exactly the artist’s original finish”, if that finish is certain to deteriorate in colour very quickly once again, thereby both negating the beauty of the Column without End and necessitating yet a further restoration of the sculpture.
The government that has been in power since December 2000, led by President Iliescu, seems to be very aware of the deficiencies of the recent, hurried and politically-sullied restoration, so perhaps something will be done to remedy these shortcomings. Certainly it seems a good thing that a conservative-minded approach to the restoration has been tried, for now it can be tested. If, as seems sadly probable, it will rapidly be found to be wanting, then further validity will be lent to another, necessarily more scientific, aesthetically thoughtful and less rushed restoration attempt. Undeniably the sculpture looks better than it did, say, ten years ago but whether it is as safe and appears as impressive as it could (and should) be remains another matter. In any event, one can only pray that the natural elements stay their hand where the core is concerned, so that Brancusi’s potentially beauteous Column might survive, if not endlessly, then at all.
1. For a detailed iconographic analysis of the sculptures see Eric Shanes, Constantin Brancusi, New York, 1989, pp. 82-97. The use of the word “mall” in the main-text sentence above relates to the fact that it is the author’s contention (loc.cit.) that Brancusi received his inspiration for the “Avenue of Heroes” from the Mall in Washington D.C., which partially commemorates heroes.
2. In much of the recent Brancusi literature the Column without End has been said to lean seven degrees from the perpendicular. However, this is roughly one-and-a-half degrees more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa deviated from the perpendicular when it was in its least vertical position until recently. The seven degree deviation is therefore clearly erroneous. On the other hand, measurements undertaken by Mihai Radu, the Architectural Project Manager for the recent restoration, appear to have established that the lean is merely 19 centimetres from the perpendicular, or that it therefore leans just 0.3715 degrees from true vertical. I find these figures equally impossible to accept, for such a small deviation would surely not be discernible to the naked eye (whereas the lean of the Column without End is very apparent). Some mistake was surely made in the recent measuring process.
3. Close scrutiny of many of the photographs taken of the sculpture in 1938 suggests that it was leaning away from the perpendicular even before the construction scaffolding had been removed, for the piece is not entirely parallel with the vertical sides of that scaffolding.
4. At the beginning of the proceedings, on the morning of 3 June 1999, John Stubbs of the World Monuments Fund stated that recommendations would have to be finalised by 4 p.m. that day, which short timespan hardly allowed for a thorough exploration of the complex issues involved. Moreover, the two major debates that then took place – on the spine and on the exterior metallisation – were scheduled simultaneously, which meant that anyone interested in both of these vital issues could only be present at one of the discussions. At the end of the forum on the spine the decision as to which recommendations should be made was taken by a vote, which democratic process meant that the views of highly trained specialists such as metallurgists were placed on a par with laypersons who knew nothing about the technical problems involved; needless to say, this hardly seems a judicious way of arriving at crucial decisions.
5. Letter of 22 December 1997 from John H. Stubbs and Laurie Beckelman of the World Monuments Fund to the Romanian Minister of Culture, Ion Caramitru (photocopy in the author’s archive). It is impossible to reconcile this 1997 finding with the claim made in a letter to the author by Architectural Project Manager Mihai Radu that the 2000 restoration team found that “The general level of corrosion of the spine was negligible” (letter of 26 June, 2001). Nor has Mr Radu responded to my further invitation to explain this contradiction.
6. The entire Venice Charter is available on the Internet at http://www.icomos.org/docs/venice_charter.html.
7. The central core is made up of unalloyed steel plates laminated together to obtain the maximum strength. In time the lamination strength inevitably diminishes because corrosion separates the laminations. We know for sure that corrosion has taken place within the central spine of the Column; it is therefore certain that its structural weakness will continue, and it may even increase.
8. Brancusi telegraphed Georgescu-Gorjan in either late August or early September 1937 “The plating [i.e. the metallisation] must be yellow”; see Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco and Alexandre Istrati, Brancusi, London, 1986, p.226; and Sorana Georgescu-Gorjan, Amintiri despre Brâncui, Bucharest, 1999, pp. 135-6.
9. See Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op.cit., pp.226-7. Georgescu-Gorjan (op. cit.) must have been undertaking some test plating “just this morning” (i.e. on 18 October 1937), with the full plating taking place when the sculpture was fully in position at Târgu-Jiu the following July (see main text).
10. In choosing brass over bronze, Brancusi was going against his usual practice, for he had only ever used bronze for his other metal sculptures – he never made a single sculpture in brass or even used that metal as a coating.
11. I am grateful to Mr David Valance of the Morris Singer Foundry in Lasham, Hampshire, for advice on the various alloys discussed in this essay.
12. The exact constitution of the alloy that was applied in 2000 derives from the chemical analysis of small traces of metal found on the areas around the joins between the modules by specialists from the Romanian Union of Artists. These traces are undoubtedly remnants of the original, 1938 metallisation. As the Architectural Project Manager of the recent restoration, Mihai Radu, has written:
“…the previous two metal plating interventions [i.e. the 1965-6 and 1975-6 re-metallisations] were done on the Endless Column when it was fully assembled (as opposed to ours [i.e. the 2000 restoration] which we did after dismantling the Column). Prior to each of these re-platings, restoration workers removed (or attempted to remove) the previous layers of plating mechanically. However, their efforts, luckily for us, were not entirely successful, especially at the joints where the modules meet. In some of these areas, the restorers were able to find three distinct layers of plating material separated by layers of zinc. This finding, along with historical research performed by the restoration experts that uncovered some of the original material purchase orders, confirm that [the] original brass alloy had been found.” (Letter to the author, 17 July 2001).
The 1938 remnants comprise a layer of zinc covered with a layer of brass whose chemical constituency was 63% copper and 37% zinc.
13. Certainly it cannot be thought that advances in technology over the past sixty or so years will prove of any assistance in ensuring a permanent colouring to a brass-coated sculpture, for as has recently been written:
“…even today there is not really the technology available to apply a brass coating over…cast iron panels without noticeable darkening of the brass finish [taking place] in a relatively short period of time [such as] two years.” (Letter to the author from Dr David A. Scott, the Senior Scientist of the Museum Laboratory at the Getty Conservation Institute, 20 December 1996.)
14. In a letter both reproduced and transcribed in the Bucharest newspaper Adevârul on 29 May 2001, a group of leading Brancusi scholars claimed that “…the metal coating…[is] thin enough to let appear [the] irregularities [of the cast iron] dating from the cast and moulding of the wooden model directly carved by Brancusi in 1937”. This statement cannot validly refer to the many surface pittings, for if the pittings visible through the recent metallisation were carried over from Brancusi’s original wooden module, they would necessarily appear in exactly the same positions upon each and every module. The letter to Adevârul was written by Marielle Tabart and signed also by Sanda Miller, Jonathan Wood, Sidney Geist, Alexandra Parigoris, Paola Mola, Doina Lemny, Ingo Glass, Ioana Vlasiu, Gheorghe Vida, Matei Stârcea-Crâciun and Mariana Vida. An apparent signatory, Lars Nittve, has confirmed to the author that he has not seen the Column in its recent, fully-restored state, and that he did not give permission for his name to be appended to the Adevârul letter, thus casting doubts as to its authenticity as a whole.
15. In 1925 Brancusi told a visitor to his studio that he had “tried to make of his sculpture a working philosophy”, and that he called it “the philosophy of Plato” (see Dorothy Adlow, ‘Brancusi’ in Drawing and Design, London , pp.37-41). For an interpretation of Brancusi’s work in light of this invaluable insight, see Shanes, op.cit.
16. Of course it would be important to retain any pittings caused in the original casting process in 1937, but these would need to be differentiated from the subsequent pittings and other defacements caused by pollution and the like.
17. In the letter reproduced in Adevrul on 29 May 2001 (see note 14 above) the signatories, presumably basing their remarks upon information provided by restorers involved in the recent renovation, state that the joints “are well protected by an internal thick silicone layer which is not visible from the exterior.” This may be so, with the internal layer having been applied to the butted interior edges of the modules as they were gradually lowered down the core, but as there is now no way of obtaining entry to the inside of the Column it will impossible to ascertain that the internal seals have remained intact. Certainly, thickness is no guarantee of their durability, especially if the seals prove to be as chemically brittle as the exterior fillings, so possibly they have partially broken down already.
18. To be undertaken properly such a process would require a minimum of five years. The company involved, Turbomechanica, did not perform the tests because of their (presumed) need to complete the restoration work before the coming Romanian General Election.
19. In order to attempt polishing, the lacquer was partially removed with acetone, which has also significantly contributed to the dulling of the surfaces.
20. The information that the Column originally contained four internal lightning conductors derives from Hulten, Dumitresco and Istrati, op. cit., p. 314, cat. 205. Presumably they based that statement upon documentation contained in their archive of original Brancusi material. Fortunately that archive will soon enter the holdings of the Brancusi Atelier in the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris.
21. The report of the 1999 colloquium held under the auspices of the World Monuments Fund to discuss the restoration of the Column states on page 40 that “…in effect, the [entire] monument is a large, grounded lightning rod. A lightning protection system could be completely hidden from view”.
22. Ironically, Brancusi’s Târgu-Jiu war memorial ensemble came into existence to commemorate a victory over German forces whose members might well have worn spiked helmets.
23. Another irony is that one of the stools has been repaired and is now on display as a sculpture in the room devoted to Brancusi’s work in the National Museum of Art, Bucharest. The irony arises from the fact that Brancusi did not make the work, and in any case would only have considered it to be park furniture, not sculpture.
24. Some cutting of the grass around the Column had just taken place when the photograph appearing as Fig. 1 was taken but the less immediate surroundings of the sculpture still looked very unkempt at that time (May 2001).
25. See Shanes, loc.cit.
26. Letter from Bonnie Burnham, New York Times, 20 April 2001.