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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Brancusi ‘Bird in Space’ Captures Attention in the Hood’s Front Window

The loan incites debate about the authenticity of posthumous art.

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Courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art

When John Stomberg was the chief curator at the Williams College Museum of Art, the museum’s board told him he was crazy for inquiring about obtaining a work by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, who is considered one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, for the museum’s collection. Now, as director of the Hood Museum of Art, Stomberg can look back on the encounter as a fond precursor to what he has achieved today.

Since September 2021, a slender golden sculpture by Brancusi has been perched in the Hood’s front window, capturing the eye of passersby as it glistens in the Hanover sun. 

“Oiseau dans L'Espace,” or “Bird in Space,” is a modernist abstraction of a bird in flight. The bronze cast is a part of a themed series of works on the movement of a bird, a theme that captivated Brancusi for over 20 years, from the 1920s to the 1940s. 

The original series was composed of just seven marble sculptures and nine bronze casts. The most recent sale for one of these works was in 2005, when a marble rendition of “Bird in Space” (1923), one of the marble sculptures of the series, sold for $27.5 million at auction.

So, how does a rare sculpture, crafted by one of the most famous modernist sculptors of his time, appear in Hanover, N.H., in the window of the Hood?

That’s where things start to get complicated.

Upon taking a closer look at the plaque that accompanies the “Bird in Space” — located within the foyer of the Hood — reveals a puzzling formality: While the sculpture was modeled in 1927, it was not cast until 2000, 43 years after Brancusi’s death in 1957. 

The work is part of the phenomenon of posthumous art. Legally blessed by the estate of the deceased artist, or whomever else may hold the copyright to an artist’s work after they pass away, posthumous art is made from the original molds, instructions or blueprints of an artist but are completed by the hands of another after the artist’s death.

In the case of the Brancusi sculpture on loan to the Hood, the cast was made legally with the approval of the estate of the deceased artist. The work was cast from plasters of the original sculpture, which were found in Brancusi’s studio. 

Posthumous art is not without its share of controversy. In 2014, when five posthumously produced bronze casts of original Brancusi sculptures were shown at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York for the first time, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “Growing Furor over Brancusi show in New York — Critics say posthumous casts of sculptor's work at New York Gallery are replicas and not authentic.”

“Sometimes I worry, if Constantin Brancusi was standing in front of our building, would he get mad?” Stomberg said. 

Stomberg acknowledged the contention in the artistic community surrounding the posthumous casts, but cites the importance of teaching as validation for the display of the work. He hopes that the controversy will elicit debate and spark conversation in students.  

“To me, it’s a posthumous cast, that’s exactly what it is,” said Stomberg. “I avoid the value judgment stuff because that has a lot to do with market value. But I’m hoping that students get involved and take an opinion — I would love for students to say ‘it’s fine!’ or ‘it’s not fine!’ because if art in our window can spark a conversation like that, that’s awesome.”

Amelia Kahl ’01, curator of academic programming at the Hood, is well-versed in facilitating those kinds of conversations with students. At the core of her position, Kahl connects Dartmouth students and faculty with the museum’s collections.

Recently, Kahl worked with a studio art class that was reading art historical scholarship about Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” and she was able to show them the work at the Hood. 

“To be able to show them the ‘Bird in Space’ and have it here, to talk about the scale of it, to talk about the materiality [which] is so important for Brancusi, the different textures between the sculpture and the bases — it was really amazing to be able to make that direct connection,” said Kahl.

Having the sculpture in the Hood allowed Kahl to facilitate a discussion about the work as a posthumous cast with the students and have them think critically about just what they were looking at.

“To bring those questions up for the students and to hear their thoughts — is it authentic, is it not, does it matter — to think about those nuances, for me it was learning as much from the students as the students were learning from being in front of the piece,” Kahl said.

The sculpture’s artistic history is not the only thing that makes it such a curious and discussion-worthy addition to the museum. Typically, a work is acquired by a loan to be a part of a particular show or exhibition. The Brancusi in the window of the Hood is a part of neither. 

According to Stomberg, he received a phone call from Matthew Slaughter, a dean and professor at Tuck School of Business, simply asking, “Would you like to borrow a Brancusi?” 

Stomberg added that, to his understanding,  Slaughter was in conversation with an individual, who chose to remain anonymous, when the Brancusi was brought up. The work was then offered up as a potential loan.

“Out of the clear blue over a cocktail party or something, someone says, ‘Hey, I’d lend you a Brancusi for a year,’” Stomberg said.

The turnaround between the work being offered and the Hood acquiring it as a loan was quick; there was no time to construct a show or exhibition involving the sculpture. The secluded front window of the museum was therefore the perfect location for it to be displayed.

Alice Crow ’22, a campus engagement intern at the Hood, thought the work’s placement was curious until she found out about the circumstances of its acquisition. Crow views the Brancusi as a way to draw people to the museum.

“You can’t actually really see it from the museum. It’s in the window but there was a show behind it,” Crow said. “The pieces that are in the window are interesting because they really are seen by the most people. They reach the greatest audience.”

Stomberg advocates for transparency about the nature of the sculpture, emphasizing its importance for the education of the surrounding community. 

“Because we are a teaching museum, as long as we are 100% transparent about what it is, I thought, ‘that’s a pretty cool teaching opportunity,’” Stomberg said. “Here’s this gorgeous thing in the window, but it’s complicated.”

Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” will remain perched in the window of the Hood until June, when its loan comes to an end. The controversial work will be replaced by a large aluminum artwork by an Australian aboriginal artist in July.

Correction appended (May 31, 6:18 p.m.): A previous version of this article implied that Stomberg felt teaching justified the creation of the work. This is not what he said; he believes that teaching validates the loan and display of the work.