A sculpture by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi is the subject of a long-running legal battle. The case has prompted French authorities to hide the masterpiece under a wooden box at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
The French state has now won the right to refuse an export licence
The French state has now won the right to refuse an export licence from the Russian descendants of a grave that it adorns. Last July, a French court declared the marble sculpture, titled The Kiss, a historical monument.
In December, the Administrative Court of Appeal in Paris saw in favour of the heirs of Tatiana Rachevskaïa, a student who committed suicide in 1909. However, after the family were refused an export licence to take it to Russia, it prompted a return to court. This court has now stated that the statue must remain in France.
Commissioned in 1909 for two hundred francs, the sculpture is now valued at $40- $50 million. Brancusi’s sculpture ‘Bird in Space’ sold at Christie’s in New York for $27 million, making it (at the time of sale) the most expensive sculpture ever to go under the hammer.
The Kiss is an early example of Brancusi’s proto-cubist style, a non-literal figurative representation. This sculpture is considered one of the first modernist sculptures of the twentieth century. A version of the statue was exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show and published in the Chicago Tribune on 25 March 1913. It depicts a symbolistic image of two lovers embracing a theme in numerous contemporary artworks, from Auguste Rodin, Edvard Munch to Gustave Moreau. Other examples in plaster exist dating from 1907–08.
The embracing figures in The Kiss merge into a single form. Two eyes make the oval of a single eye, hairlines sweep into a continuous arch, and arms join to encircle the cubic block. Rather than modelling clay like his peers, Brancusi carved his work directly from wood or stone or cast it in bronze. Simultaneously, he rejected realism, preferring that his sculptures evoke rather than resemble the subjects named in their titles. Brancusi made bases for many of his sculptures, themselves complex constructions that became part of the work. He often moved works from base to base or placed them directly on the floor of his studio so that they lived in the world alongside ordinary objects and among people.
Born in rural Romania, Brancusi moved to Paris in 1904, where he established his studio and quickly immersed himself in avant-garde art circles. He embraced a modern experimental spirit in his adopted city, including an interest in modern machines and popular culture. With his friend Man Ray, he made films that captured his life in the studio—working with his materials and muses, activating his artworks through movement and recombination, and revealing his sources of inspiration such as animals at play, light in nature, and dance. Yet until his death, he proudly presented himself as an outsider—cultivating his image as a peasant, with a long beard, work shirt, and sandals. The contradiction also informs his art-making, which was dependent on ancient techniques and contemporary technologies.