A visit to Montparnasse prompts a reflection on the refined abstraction and complex romance of a famous sensual sculpture
A quintessential Paris moment for me, one I have repeated several times over the past decade, is a visit to the remote corner of the Montparnasse Cemetery where Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss marks a young woman’s grave. Even as it ages with exposure to summer heat and winter storms, The Kiss remains essentially the same.
How wonderful and reassuring are these beautiful objects and places in the French capital that never change except in response to the elements. The incursion of high-end fashion boutiques can alter immeasurably the neighborhood where Giacometti and Sartre once lived so modestly; a Ferris wheel can impose its silliness in the middle of what should be the sublime view from the Louvre straight through the Tuileries to the Arc de Triomphe; kitschy sculptures can clutter the otherwise impeccable pathways through the Luxembourg Gardens; but The Kiss remains reliably where it belongs. Uniquely beautiful in its simplicity and poignancy, it is exactly where Brancusi placed it, at home among other grave monuments in its modest and straightforward setting. Without pomp or ceremony, it is ineffably powerful.
Only the seasons vary. I have wandered to this sculpture, which meets you at eye level, when it was covered in a dusting of snow, when it was darkened by summer foliage in the trees overhead, when it was bathed in sunlight, and when it was being washed by a cold drizzle. It stays constant, the wonderful kiss and embrace never ending, the forms unfailingly bold and soothing. Even as its limestone surface alters with age, the pitting and fading do not mar the majesty of the forms. Nothing will pull those arms away from one another; nothing will affect the love of the two figures merged into one.
This past July, however, I went to the Montparnasse Cemetery not to look at art but to attend the funeral of a beloved friend, the gallerist Denise René. When I went through the cemetery gates, The Kiss was far from my conscious mind. I was too much in the modern world and concentrated on thoughts about the 99-year-old woman who had died.
Denise was unlike any other art dealer I have ever met in her fidelity to a particular artistic approach. Her life’s cause was geometric abstraction—the French sometimes use the term art construit—but I think of it as “École de Denise René.” I cannot name another category that links her best-known artists—Le Corbusier, Jean Arp, Josef Albers, and Victor Vasarely—with Aurélie Nemours, Yaacov Agam, George Rickey, Richard Mortensen, and Jesus Rafael Soto, as well as a number of lesser-known abstract artists, many of them still quite young.
Starting more than 50 years ago, Denise developed a loyal client base, and she worked like a dynamo to get her artists into museums, to put their work in front of the critics, and to make a decent living not just for herself but for her painters and sculptors, without ever following a trend or compromising her judgment. This is why she is the only gallerist whose vision has served as the basis of a major exhibition at the Pompidou Center, and why more than one minister of culture awarded her the official honors that the French are so good at.
In 1943, when Resistance members she knew wanted to hold a meeting, Denise offered them her gallery on the rue La Boétie. It was in the center of a neighborhood where there were SS and gestapo officers at every turn and therefore, she reasoned, was the most unlikely spot for such a meeting and would not be suspected. She stood guard at the entrance that evening, and although she never actually met Jean-Paul Sartre, he was one of the people who filed past her to participate in the effort to liberate France.
I arrived at the cemetery for Denise’s burial about 45 minutes early, so I decided to go for a walk just to be alone with my memories and to try to understand how I could feel sad about a death that was clearly not tragic. Then I remembered that The Kiss was at the other side of the cemetery, and I went to pay it a visit.
In front of the pale limestone sculpture, I realized, in a completely unexpected way, a truth I had long known via Denise. Refined abstraction and complex romance, rather than being antithetical, make perfect partners. I had never before put together the way that intellectual rigor and playful flirtatiousness can be allies. Denise embodied that pairing as a mortal human being. The Kiss exemplifies it for all time.
Brancusi—like Arp, Albers, and the others in Denise’s stable of artists—relished simplicity. Who else could articulate an embrace in so few forms? Who else could reduce the lines to such an absolute minimum and render the weight of stone ethereal in its lightness while depicting a human relationship with all its complexity? What Brancusi did with the intertwining of human arms, rendered in the lean vocabulary of Cycladic art, speaks volumes, wordlessly.
Sidney Geist, a sculptor and Brancusi scholar, once wrote, “In the total embrace of the Montparnasse Kiss, we witness a scene so sweet and stately that it is often not recognized for what it is. In all except primitive art, there is probably no representation of the sexual act that is at once so undisguised and so discreet.”
This is the purest of geometric sculptures, yet the bodies are completely lithe, and the eyes, which are represented so sparely, meet with an infinity of emotion. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster wrote as the first words of Howards End. This stylized sculpture, a cube of stone, is the essence of connection. So was Denise René. A love of simplicity is the perfect companion to a love of love.
Beneath the sculpture is an ivy-covered tombstone. On the stone is an old photograph of a young Russian anarchist, Tania Rachevskaia, and a worn inscription in Cyrillic. Brancusi carved the sculpture in 1907, three and a half years after his arrival, at age 29, from Romania, a journey he had made mostly on foot. It was his third variation on the theme but the first to include the entire bodies of the two figures. A friend of the sculptor’s, a Romanian doctor, asked Brancusi for a work to put on Rachevskaia’s grave after her suicide, in 1908, over an unhappy love affair with him. Brancusi told him to take what he wanted, and The Kiss was his choice. Brancusi would make further variations on the subject, but for me, this one in situ is the most moving.
For 15 minutes, I stood transfixed. The sculpture gave me a feeling of equilibrium I had not expected that day. Then I walked back to the spot where Denise’s funeral procession was about to begin. A crowd of artists, museum directors, collectors, and family members had assembled, and there was a bit of social hobnobbing. We heard some fine speakers talk about the breadth of Denise’s achievements and her personal charm and watched as her casket was lowered into the ground. Then the mourners, led by family members, formed a line. As we approached the grave, each of us was handed a red rose to drop on the casket.
Just after Brancusi’s funeral, Henri-Pierre Roché, who had been a close friend of the sculptor’s for 40 years, wrote an account of the event for those who were unable to attend. “In the Montparnasse Cemetery, on that beautiful spring day . . . we filed past his open grave, and let drop upon him, one by one, the white flowers that a hand put into ours,” Roché wrote. “We all went together, to the furthest end of the cemetery, at the corner of the Boulevard Edgar Quinet and the Boulevard Raspail, to see the statue made by him that stands there. In its soft patina of time. It is naked, simple, overwhelming and calming. It represents not one couple but all the couples who have adored and gripped each other tight on this earth. It had been, he said, his road to Damascus. For the first time, he had expressed the essential in himself.”
Symmetry and balance can be the best friends of lust and tenderness.
Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, is writing a biography of Mondrian.