Endless Column Restored

Constantin Brancusi, Endless Column, 1938. Cast iron and steel, 98 ft. high. View of newly restored work.

It has been just over a year since restoration work was completed on Brancusi’s Endless Column in Târgu Jiu, Romania. The project, which began in May 1996 when the World Monuments Fund listed the sculpture on its World Monuments Watch List, involved, in addition to the WMF, the Romanian Government, the World Bank, UNESCO, and funds from the Henry Moore Foundation and numerous private donors. The restoration, “by far the simplest structure WMF has ever dealt with,” according to John Stubbs, WMF Vice President for Programs, was an unusually drawn-out affair, punctuated by a number of technical symposia.

The protraction and delays had nothing to do with politics as understood in the great debates that have divided commissions in the past; rather, they resulted from practical considerations that arose during the project—above all, the realization, in 1999, that the controversial initial restoration scheme proposed by Radu Varia was based on false assumptions. Another factor was doubtless the monument’s location. Even today, Târgu Jiu is not easily accessible, and it is tempting to think that in 1937 its remoteness facilitated the erection of such an uncompromisingly hermetic monument, far from the conservative mindsets that inhibited commissions in larger centers.1 One cannot help thinking that many of the restoration’s unhappy moments might have taken a different course in a larger, more public arena. What follows is a summary of events marking this important and successful restoration project.2

The call to “save the Column” was initiated by the Romanian Radu Varia, who, in the early 1990s, set up the Constantin Brancusi International Foundation, with offices in New York and, from 1992, in Bucharest. By 1996, he managed to have the Column listed on the WMF Watch List, in the hope of attracting international financial support.

Endless Column before dismantling.

This initial success enabled him to push forward a restoration program that was controversial from the outset. Varia proposed to replace the central spine, with its three-part cantilevered steel structure, with a new one in stainless steel, claiming that the original was corroded beyond repair.3 However, in September 1996, Varia’s competence to administer this project, as well as his methods, came into question. The Column is composed of a series of cast iron modules “threaded” onto a carbon steel spine. Although the term “threaded” suggests lightness, the massive units require a crane to displace. The first mishap occurred when Varia failed to order a crane of the appropriate height and damaged some of the modules that were being dismantled. The situation worsened when he had a 12-centimeter disk cut from one of the modules and square sections cut from the spine, allegedly in order to carry out metallurgical studies. No results ever surfaced, but the pieces were never seen again. Replacements had to be re-cast and soldered into place to patch the holes.4

Detail of surface damage.

By spring 1997, responding to the insistent concern voiced by Brancusi specialists, the WMF intervened directly. Promising much-needed financial support and entering into discussions with the Ministry of Culture, the WMF took on Varia’s project. In their initial discussions, the WMF and the Ministry accepted Varia’s contentions regarding the advanced degree of corrosion in the spine.5 Faced, however, with continuing controversy over the restoration, Ion Caramitru, then Minister of Culture, called in experts from UNESCO in November 1997, writing to Mounir Bouchenaki, Director of Cultural Heritage.6 In a report published in May 1998, UNESCO declared that the Column was an engineering feat and recommended that every effort be made to preserve the integrity of its fabric. The Romanian Government then ordered new tests on the spine, which confirmed the UNESCO observation that the spine was in no way as deteriorated as claimed. Quite the opposite—with only two-percent corrosion detected, the spine was found to be in sound enough structural condition to be preserved.7

Detail of module showing disk removed for testing

Apart from the spine, UNESCO experts also considered the various options available for the restoration and metallization of the modules. Here, the problem facing the restorers was how best to balance “repair” (since some modules clearly required mending) with the preservation of the original surface of the iron modules. Questioning the merit of seeking to make “as new” a 60-year-old monument, the UNESCO report cautioned against excessive restoration of the surfaces.8 For the metallization, it recommended using methods respecting the limitations of technical procedures available in 1938 and choosing an alloy in keeping with the color of the original.9

View of the sculpture under scaffolding.

With Varia’s original restoration scheme now considered groundless, the WMF was faced with redefining the project from scratch. Thankfully it did so, unhesitatingly, at the risk of being held responsible for delays. In keeping with UNESCO recommendations, the WMF convened a conference of experts in June 1999 to decide on a new, less invasive restoration scheme.10 It was at this venue, that Marielle Tabart, curator of the Atelier Brancusi at the Centre Georges Pompidou, argued persuasively that one should not omit considering the evidence provided by Brancusi’s own photographs of the Column taken shortly after its completion, as these showed the original aspect of the finish.11

Detail of internal base structure.

Following this conference, further testing was carried out, the project redefined, approvals secured, and World Bank-mandated phased bidding organized. Finally, work began in earnest on October 1, 2000, under the supervision of WMF-appointed project manager Mihai Radu, a Romanian-born architect from the New York firm Lauster & Radu, using the Romanian contractor SC Turbomecanica Bucharest, and proceeded smoothly until completion in December 15, 2000.12

International Brancusi scholars at Târgu Jiu for a symposium in the spring of 2001 felt that the WMF made the right decision by carefully balancing conservation and restoration. It had succeeded in restoring the Column as far as possible without attempting to obliterate the passage of time and had made sure that nothing carried out was irreversible.13 For these reasons and many more, the restoration was commended as a brilliant success.

Detail of restored module ready to be repositioned.

Now that the Column is happily back with us, Mihai Radu faces the challenge of landscaping the area around a sculpture whose proportions had already outgrown integration with nature the day Brancusi decided to create a work that required the participation of an engineer. To the art historical community, this underscores the extent to which the history of so-called Modernist sculpture is caught up in a web of inadequate definitions. For on that day a work of art, which had been conceived in the studio and further explored in a friend’s garden, now entered an entirely different domain—that of the monument. Does keeping the original spine mean being fetishistic about its make-up? Certainly not, if one considers that it represents a creative as well as technical solution arrived at by the successful partnership of Brancusi and the engineer Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan in the original project. For those who saw the Column dismantled, it was quite fascinating to see the inventiveness and simplicity of the scheme. But for all who make the journey to see this monument, it is clear why the Column had such an impact on later generations.

Illusionistically rooted because of that initial half module, giving the appearance of being embedded in the soil, the Column of Târgu Jiu is a work that makes us look differently. Devoid of all distraction, it forces us to take in the space it fills, to contemplate the sky, and to come to terms with the experiential aspect of looking, involving the body and the senses.

Alexandra Parigoris, formerly Henry Moore lecturer in the history of sculpture at the University of York, now lives in Chicago and works as an independent scholar.

1 It was commissioned in 1935 as a memorial to soldiers who had sacrificed their lives during a decisive battle on the Jiu river in World War I. After its dedication in 1938, it was officially donated to the Municipality of Târgu Jiu, which remains its legal owner. In 1992, the entire ensemble at Târgu Jiu was declared a monument of “public utility and national interest” by the Romanian government.
2 This report was drawn up after on-site visits to the dismantled Column in August 2000, before restoration work had begun, and a visit in 2001 on the occasion of the conference “Brancusi, At His Zenith. And What Next?” organized by UNESCO and the Romanian Academy. It was greatly helped by documentation provided by Maria Berza, Secrétaire d’Etat, archival records kept by Marielle Tabart at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and information provided by Virgil Calea, Director of Programs at Turbomecanica SR in Bucharest. For this valuable assistance, I wish to express my profound gratitude.
3 See Susan E. Milligan and Judd Tully, “Endless Problem,” ARTnews, October 1995: p.126–130. In June 1996, Sorana Georgescu-Gorjan, the daughter of the engineer who had worked with Brancusi on the Column in the 1930s, wrote to the Romanian Cultural Heritage Office criticizing the proposal to “dismantle the Column.” (See Berza documentation.)
4 The Ministry of Culture reported the violation in January 1997, but it never got international coverage. Much later, Victor Nita published photographs reporting the damage in an article in the Romanian magazine Flacara, July 2000. The module in question was the 15th, near the top of the monument.
5 Oral communication from Dr. Lois Patison de Menil who, as the WMF representative, stepped in to help negotiations in Romania in 1997. Her efforts secured the support of World Bank in 1998.
6 A UNESCO delegation went to Romania from November 30 to December 5, 1997, including Claude Forrières, who, with Marielle Tabart, produced a preliminary report in January 1998.
7 The Romanian government provided funds to pay for research and tests. SC Vulcan SA performed magnetic particle and ultrasonic testing on the spine to assess the status of cracks in the metal plates and welds, and ICEM analyzed metal coupons. It was found that the original steel spine was made of a low carbon steel, which has a low propensity to cracking and is easily weldable. It was concluded that a good steel material had been used in 1937. See “Treatment Recommendations for the Brancusi Monumental Ensemble,” session report from the technical symposium “Brancusi—Solutions and Responsibilities,” sponsored by the World Monuments Fund, which took place in Târgu Jiu and Bucharest, June 2–4, 1999.
8 Varia’s project had proposed sanding them down. See the letter addressed to the Minister of Culture, Ion Caramitru, dated June 3, 2000 in the Berza documentation.
9 Composition of this alloy was established from traces of the original metallization. Oral communication from Mihai Radu. Surviving correspondence suggests that Brancusi was hoping for a golden surface but was dissuaded because of technical limitations. See documents published in Pontus Hulten, Natalia Dumitresco, and Alexandre Istrati, Brancusi (New York: Abrams, 1991) p. 221–227.
10 The international symposium “Brancusi—Solutions and Responsibilities,” (op. cit.) was led by Mihai Radu and John Stubbs and brought together technical and museum experts, representatives of the Romanian Union of Plastic Arts, Varia’s International Constantin Brancusi Foundation, as well as Brancusi specialist art historians.
11 See the session report from “Exterior finishes” in the proceedings of the 1999 technical symposium, op. cit. These images show that the finish was far from the mirror-like surface advocated by Varia. The photographs are published in La Colonne sans fin, Les carnets de l’Atelier Brancusi (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998).
12 Certain items remained to be tidied up: the opening of the top plate was visible from the ground and felt to be too wide. This feature was added to ensure ventilation down the spine and avoid condensation. And the unsightly concrete foundation still needs to be covered up.
13 For this reason, in keeping with the original construction, the modules have not been soldered back into place, only sealed with silicon joints in order to better withstand wind and movement, since Târgu Jiu lies in an earthquake-sensitive zone. See Georgesco-Gorjan’s letter to Brancusi dated October 18, 1937 in Hulten, op. cit., p. 227.