The Endless Column of Targu Jiu

In 1934, sculptor Constantin Brancusi was asked to erect a memorial to honour the heroic deeds of Gorj people and especially the resistance of the Târgu-Jiu townsfolk during World War I. He had always wished to do something for his native Romania and he willingly accepted the commission, which he felt to be the climax of his career. In February 1935, Brancusi wrote to sculptor Milita Petrascu – a former student of his, who had advised Aretia Tatarescu, the president of the National League of Gorj Women, to apply to him: “I am like a workman’s apprentice on the eve of getting his papers. So the proposal could not fall at a better time”. Brancusi had addressed himself to a great many public projects but – with the single exception of the Târgu-Jiu sculptures – they had come to nothing. Some of his projects were rejected by the very people who had commissioned the monuments, as they were unable to grasp Brancusi’s symbolic meaning. The Archaic Fountain, meant to honour the memory of the late minister of education, scientist Spiru Haret, was refused in 1914 by V. G. Mortun, the then minister for internal affairs. The fountain, intended as a memorial to playwrightIon Luca Caragiale, was rejected by the Ploiesti initiatory committee in 1931. The fountain and smoking hearth, proposed as a funeral monument for poet Octavian Goga in 1938, was not accepted by the writer’s widow. Neither did the gate or fountain meant to commemorate the heroes slain during the First World War meet the consensus of the local authorities of his native Pestisani commune in 1923. Brancusi’s insistence on material perfection made him abandon some projects of large-scale sculptures placed outdoors. Since he would not accept the risk of shortcomings in execution, in 1927 he gave up the idea of erecting a stainless steel Bird in Space (fifty meters tall), commissioned by Charles de Noailles for his villa at Hyères, in the south of France. Frustrated by technical difficulties, he rejected the idea of a large Endless Column, to be executed in welded stainless steel in 1939 by the Budd Company near Philadelphia. According to Isamu Noguchi, “it went against everything he believed in”. An unfulfilled commission of 1949 was also recorded for a giant stainless steel version of the “Cock”, for the Philadelphia Museum. The artist’s perfectionism also thwarted a 1955 project for a monumental “Bird in Space” on the forecourt of the Seagram Building in New York and a 1956 projected open-air sculpture in front of the UNESCO building in Paris. For various reasons, none of his architectural projects for a building in the form of an Endless Column ever came to fruition. The Endless Column, a recurrent motif in Brancusi’s oeuvre, is considered as “the most radical sculpture in the history of classic modernism”. Yet, neither a metal apartment house in Central Park (New York, 1926), nor a 400-meter tall stainless-steel skyscraper (Chicago, l939) ever materialized as Endless Columns, as he had wished. The Endless Column to be erected in 1930 in Romania’s capital, or the colossal Endless Column of polished stainless steel meant to stand on the shores of Lake Michigan as “one of the wonders of the world” (1956) never progressed beyond the stage of plans. The reasons which prevented Brancusi from achieving another architectural project of his – The Temple of Meditation, at Indore, India – in 1938 are not yet elucidated. One fact is certain: Brancusi produced only one public project – the world acclaimed ensemble of Târgu-Jiu. Located in his native Gorj county, it is said to be one of the major sculptural achievements of the twentieth century, the only sculpture of the modern era that will bear comparison with the great monuments of Egypt, Greece and the Renaissance. On the bank of the Jiu river, in the municipal park, there stands a round stone table, surrounded by twelve round stools – the Table of Silence. An alley bordered by thirty square stone seats leads to the stone Gate of the Kiss, with stone benches on either side, close to the entrance of the park. Walking along the Street of the Heroes, the sightseer who passes past the church of the Saint Apostles has a glimpse at the outline of the monumental Endless Column, made of cast-iron and steel. Its impressive beauty is revealed only when standing close to it. •The motif of the Endless Column had long obsessed the sculptor, who first carved it in wood. This special structure differs from classical columns with bases and capitals, as it has neither beginning, nor end. It consists of an endless succession of identical modules ( truncated pyramids joined by their large bases), with half – modules at either end. Views of the studios of Impasse Ronsin, taken by Brancusi between 1917 and the late twenties, show images of columns made of oak or poplar, with two, three, six and nine full modules, ranging from 1.30 to 7.17 meters in height. In 1926, when Brancusi first visited New York, the city’s architecture conveyed to him the sensation of “a great new poetic art”. He perceived it as his studio on a large scale and felt the urge to make columns of truly ambitious proportions. This long-cherished dream came true only in his native Gorj county. In the artist’s opinion, the Târgu-Jiu Column attained a character of definitive perfection. •Brancusi decided that a monumental Endless Column was the most appropriate war memorial for Târgu-Jiu and he was fortunate enough to be given free scope with the project. Aretia Tatarescu, who had provided the commission, did not interfere with his plans and helped him get the necessary financial support. It is worth mentioning that her husband, Gheorghe Tatarescu, who headed the liberal cabinet between 5 January 1934 and 28 December 1937, supported her initiative. The span of time when the memorial was conceived and materialized largely coincided with the term of office of the liberal cabinet. It was a period of economic thriving, prosperity and creativeness. Brancusi had also requested that all technical aspects of the execution of the monument be entrusted to a person who enjoyed his full confidence: Stefan Georgescu-Gorjan. That young man was chief engineer and assistant director in the Petrosani-based Central Workshops of “Petrosani” Society He headed the designing office, foundry and laboratories and was well acquainted with the highly skilled working force. The “Petrosani” Society was a companywith liberal stock-holders and director general Ioan Bujoiu was a prominent member of the liberal party and a minister in the Tatarescu cabinet. At the premier’s request, the Society agreed to cover the cost of the execution and mounting of the monument and to provide the skilled manpower. They also gave free scope to engineer Gorjan to supervise the whole operation. Why did Brancusi trust Gorjan? The young man was the son of an old friend of his from Gorj, who had helped him in his youth. As a token of his affection, Brancusi had made the plaster portrait of Ion Georgescu-Gorjan in 1902, when he graduated from the School of Fine Arts. In December 1934 and January 1935 Stefan visited the sculptor in his Paris studio and they talked a lot. Brancusi was pleased to find out that Stefan’s professional proficiency as an engineer was matched by a thorough command of foreign languages and great interest in philosophy, history, literature and the arts. The young engineer was aware that the sculptor was a genius and he succeeded in grasping his meaning relative to the Endless Column. He supplied the technical solution to the problem posed by the construction of a large-scale metal structure: “To fix the base of a solid steel pillar in a massive concrete foundation and to thread onto it giant hollow beads – the repeated identical modules of the column. The perfect superposition of the modules would provide the impression of continuity.” The Column would spring stem-like towards infinity. This technical conception met with the artist’s approval and he invited the engineer to assist him with the Târgu-Jiu project. The birth date of the technical conception is inscribed on a catalogue presented by the artist to his future technical assistant: 7 January 1935. The sculptor and the engineer met again in Paris, in December l936 and May 1937, to discuss several details. Brancusi specified that cast iron should be used for the modules (which he called “elements” or “beads”), as it was most enduring. A brass coating would provide a golden-yellow aspect. In June 1937, Brancusi arrived in Bucharest and got in touch with the board of “Petrosani” Society to discuss financial and organizational matters. He went to Poiana-Gorj and stayed with the Tatarescus and he visited Târgu-Jiu with Aretia, to select the sites. The memorial eventually included three components: the Table of Silence, close to the Jiu bridge, where the townspeople had defended their home against the enemy in October 1916, the Gate of the Kiss, near the entrance to the town park, and the Endless Column on a hillock, east of the town, with the Parâng Mountains in the background. In late July, Brancusi and Gorjan met in Târgu-Jiu and visited the site selected by the artist for his Column. Gorjan took a photograph of the place. On that small snapshot, Brancusi sketched the outline of a twelve-module column, a lawn, alleys and some poplars. He drew this sketch using thefountain pen of the engineer, with a blunt pen and blue ink. Brancusi’s drawing is the gem of Gorjan’s collection… Throughout August 1937, Brancusi stayed in Petrosani, in Gorjan’s house. For two weeks, the artist and the engineer endeavoured to establish the dimensions of the monument, by reconciling the sculptor’s artistic vision to the range of technical possibilities and to the financial limitations. Brancusi also requested the observance of his law of plastic harmony relative to the dimensions of a module: the total height of a module (or element, as he called it) should be four times the side of the narrow base and twice that of the central width. The formula is (1) : (2) : (4). Days and nights of endless discussions, calculations and sketches eventually resulted in the selection of the ideal dimensions: (450 mm): (900 mm) : (1800 mm). The column was going to have 15 full modules and two half modules, observing a socalled slenderness formula: 1/2+15+1/2. The bottommost half-module was to stand on a square prism, like some of the wooden columns. The total height of the column was to be 29,35 meters. In mid-August, Brancusi started carving the rough softwood model with bulging faces, made by the model carpenters of the Petrosani Central Workshops. In the meantime the inner structure – the steel core of the Column – was designed in the designing office. Engineer Nicolae Hasnas made detail calculations for the spine, double checked byengineer Gorjan. Shop drawings were made by the best draftsman of the Workshops, Gavrila Somlo. Acording to Gorjan, the sculptor patiently carved one side of the wooden model, “to snatch away fiber by fiber, shaving after shaving, in order to remove the chrysalis cover which concealed the expected surfaces”. He seemed to officiate like a priest, like an initiate. In the end he obtained an almost imperceptible curvature of the surface, in contrast with the pronounced curvature of the rough model. The other sides were carved by the excellent model carpenter Carol Flisek. In late August, Brancusi was called back to France. The foundry model was completed on September 1, the same as the plan of the spine. As the artist came back only in early November, the whole responsibility of the operations devolved on engineer Gorjan. The engineer made sure that rolled steel shapes and plates be supplied in record time by Resita steel-mill. The core was fabricated in the Metal Structures Department by a skilled crew headed by foreman Ion Romosan, an unsurpassed specialist.The spine was designed in three sections, to permit transportation from Petrosani to Târgu-Jiu on the winding Jiu defile. Electric welding was performed by master welder Victor Borodi, the best expert of the Jiu Valley. Two coats of red primer were applied on the spine sections in the shop, to protect steel against corrosion. In the Foundry the casting of the modules was performed by a team headed by Emeric Szabo and Gheorghe Anastasiu. A preassembly was performed in the shop, with order numbers punched on the modules to ensure accurate mounting on site. Metallization tests were also made, using brass wire and a special metal-spray gun. In October, at Târgu-Jiu, the foundation was excavated by a crew headed by foreman Augustin Perini. Free services were provided by Brasov-based Wildmann enterprise. The excavation was shaped like a truncated pyramid, five meters below grade,with a base 5 meter square. Seventy-five cubic meters of concrete (165 tons) were poured inside. A special structure – a three-meter long “cross-trestle” – was anchor bolted to the bottom of the concrete block by two-meter rag bolts. The thirty-five- meter high scaffolding was erected in stages. It was kept till the following summer when brass metallization was completed in Brancusi’s presence. Engineer Gorjan took photos of the main stages of the erection of the monument. Together with photos taken by some of the workers, they provide the “film” of the operation. Photos show that the structure of the upper spine section is simpler than that of the other two, which require greater strength. The organization of the erection site is also presented: horse- and ox- driven carts for gravel and a water tank, asteam-heating locomobile, an electric engine coupled with a belt. A wooden portal with a hand-operated hoisting block, used to unload the modules brought by truck from Petrosani, is seen in some photos. Trucks also appear in some photos, proving that they were the means of transportation used for the heavy steel and cast iron components of the monument. An ingenious device, used in threading the modules, is also visible: a collarband bolted to the module, four rings and two pairs of rigid rods. The “film” starts with the image of the site selected for the future monument. The next image is the drawing made by Brancusi. There follow photos taken in Petrosani: the rough model, the trial mounting. At Târgu-Jiu, the main stages of the erection are documented: the lower spine section is seen lying on the ground, then being hoisted. Concreters are seen in action. The painting of the spine with a third layer of red primer is visible in a photo. The way joints between modules were filled with a sealant and modules were fastened to the spine by means of thin metal wedges may be witnessed as well. Pulleys and jacks were used to hoist the spine sections. They were welded on site by Victor Borodi, not present in photos. Foreman Francisc Hering, who supervised the mounting operations, and foreman Augustin Perini, in charge of thefoundation and scaffolding, are the main characters of the “film”. Engineer Gorjan is not visible, as he took the photos. Brancusi is seen from the back in only two images. The sequence of operations in Târgu-Jiu was the following: • embedding of underground structure (cross- trestle) • joining of lower spine section to embedded structure • threading onto the spine of the bottommost half- module with its prismatic base, to be placed on a square steel frame supported by the cross- trestle fins • threading of modules I to III onto the lower spine section • hoisting of middle spine section and welding to the lower one • threading of modules IV to IX onto the middle spine section • hoisting of upper spine section and welding to the middle one • threading of modules X to XV and of the upper half-module onto the upper section • fastening of a lid to the upper half- module The whole process was completed by mid November. It had lasted three months and there were no accidents.Brancusi had been kept informed of the progress of the work by engineer Gorjan’s letters. This genuine “log”, kept in a Paris archive, may provide valuable information for researchers. The artist had come to supervise the mounting of modules II and III in early November, then had to leave for India. He came back in June 1938 and supervised the operation of brass coating, performed by a Bucharest-based branch of a Swiss firm. The whole ensemble was dedicated in October 1938. The presence of the artist at the ceremonies is still controversial. Engineer Gorjan was abroad at the time. Brancusi left the country in 1938, never to return. He left a priceless treasure to his fatherland – his only public project ever realized. His dream of a column able to support the arch of the firmament had been materialized in iron and steel by a team of dedicated specialists, headed by a young engineer.  * Communications for the “Brancusi” Colloguium, Milan, 3 May 1996

Go To Top