Maiastra is among the first sculptures by Constantin Brancusi to address the abstracted form of a bird. The work is inspired by the legendary bird of Romanian folklore, the Pasarea maiastra (Master bird), a mythic creature known for its golden plumage and arresting song. Brancusi may also have been influenced by the Ballets Russes' production of L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), based on the Russian version of a similar mythic bird; it premiered at the Théâtre National de l'Opera in Paris on June 25, 1910, with music by Igor Stravinsky.
Maiastra appears perched on its base, radiant in its golden color, its breast swelling and beak open as if about to sing. Brancusi stated about the pose, "I wanted to show the Maiastra as raising its head, but without putting any implications of pride, haughtiness or defiance into this gesture. That was the difficult problem and it is only after much hard work that I managed to incorporate this gesture into the motion of flight." The subtlety and refinement of Brancusi's sculptural language are seen in the treatment of the eyes, the arch of the neck, the slight turn of the head, and the highly polished reflective surface of the bronze, as well as the dialogue between organic and hard-edge surfaces and lines and between the materials and shapes of the sculpture, its base, and its pedestal.
In his obsessive search for "the essence of the work," Brancusi's Maiastra series represents the first step in a journey that would continue in the Golden Bird (L'Oiseau d'or) series and be fully realized only in the Bird in Space series (two examples of which are in the National Gallery's collection). In each series, the subject of the bird becomes further refined, simplified, and reduced to its purest formal essentials. Poised between reality and abstraction, between the material and the transcendent, Maiastra perfectly embodies Brancusi's aspirations as an artist. In 1926 he wrote: "In art, one does not aim for simplicity; one achieves it unintentionally as one gets closer to the real meaning of things."
bottom right, back: CIRE / C. VALSUANI / PERDUE
Marks and Labels
Purchased from the artist 1911/1912 by Agnes E. [Mrs. Eugene, Jr., 1887-1970] Meyer, Mount Kisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.; gift 1957/1958 to her daughter, Katharine Meyer Graham [1917-2001], Washington, D.C.; gift 1980 to NGA.
- Possibly [Brancusi exhibition], 291 Gallery, New York, 1914, no. 6.
- Venice Biennale, Venice, 1982, no. 2.
- Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001, no. 38, repro. as Maiastra (Bird Before It Flew).
- Jianou, Ionel. Brancusi. New York, 1963: 97.
- Geist, Sidney. Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture. New York, 1968: 43, pl. 70b.
- Spear, Athena. Brancusi's Birds. New York, 1969, no. 3, pls. 5 and 6.
- Arnason, H.H. "Review of Athena T. Spear, Brancusi's Birds." Art Bulletin 56, no. 1 (March 1974): 145-147.
- Geist, Sidney. Brancusi: The Sculpture and Drawings. New York, 1975, no. 77, repro.
- Hyland, Douglas K.S. "Agnes Ernst Meyer, Patron of American Modernism." The American Art Journal 12, no. 1 (Winter 1980): 73.
- Strick, Jeremy. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture: Selections for the Tenth Anniversary of the East Building. Washington, D.C., 1989: repro. 22, 23.
- Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994: 33, repro.
- Niven, Penelope. Steichen: A Biography. New York, 1997: 379, 730-731.