When Constantin Brancusi was asked to remove his sculpture Princess X from the Salon des Indépendants in Paris—he was shocked and devastated. He felt, “like someone who’s been knocked senseless in the dark.” Brancusi's bronze had been shown in New York at Society of Independent Artists and had caused no ruckus, though the display of a urnal on a pedestal had stolen a large portion of the lime light. But at the Salon, an impending visit from the Prime Minister saw curators begging Brancusi to remove Princess X, after all “you could not march the Minister past a pair of balls.”
So tell me, dear reader, when you look at Princess X, do you see a portrait, or do you see a phallus? I think its fair to say that this bronze shaft arching over a pair of glossy ovoids and topped with a pendulous head couldn't look more like a penis if the artist had an advanced degree in male anatomy. And yet a furious Brancusi was stunned by the association. In an interview with the journalist Roger Dévigne, Brancusi claimed a much more ambitious subject of the work:
“My statue is of woman, all women rolled into one, Goethe’s Eternal Feminine reduced to its essence … For five years I worked, I simplified, I made the material speak out and state the inexpressible. For indeed, what exactly is a woman? Buttons and bows, with a smile on her lips and paint on her cheeks…That’s not woman. To express that entity, to bring back to the world of the senses that eternal type of ephemeral forms, I spent five years simplifying, honing my work. And at last I have, I believe, emerged triumphant and transcended the material. Besides, it is such a pity to spoil a beautiful piece by digging out little holes for hair, eyes, ears. And my material is so beautiful, with its sinuous lines that shine like pure gold and sum up in a single archetype all the female effigies on Earth.”
Big claims for a sculpture that looks like a giant dong.
For all Brancusi's grand claims of archetypal womanhood, Princess X was a bust of a real woman, at least, sort of. In 1909, Princess Marie Bonaparte, the great grand-niece of Napoleon, commissioned a bust from Brancusi. The sculptor hated bust sculpture, and spoke of the princess with disdain, saying “she had a beautiful bust, but ugly legs and was terribly vain. She was looking in the mirror all the time, even during lunch… discreetly placing the mirror on the table, looking furtive.”
Two years before the commissioned bust, Princess Marie had been united in arranged marriage to Prince George of Greece and Denmark—a chilly partnership since George was in love with his uncle Waldemar. Marie Bonaparte would go on to live a polymath life as a writer, translator, psychoanalyst, and pioneering sex researcher. She also took multiple lovers and eventually underwent a series of surgeries attempting to correct her perceived sexual 'frigidity.' In other words, a brilliant, complex woman reduced by Brancusi first to a simplified narcissus, in his 1909 sculpture Woman Looking in a Mirror, and six years later she has been relentlessly scrubbed of all identifying traits leaving an archetype of “all women rolled into one.” It's easy to tire of portraiture, but in Princess X we see its opposite, and it's hard not to feel some meanness in it.