I am pleased to announce a new installation I curated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened November 2019. It presents a self-portrait by Margit Pogany beside two works by Constantin Brancusi related to Pogany and her work. Pogany was a Hungarian-Jewish painter who met Brancusi in Paris around 1910 and commissioned a portrait from him, which he called Mademoiselle Pogany and which brought him international fame when it debuted at the 1913 Armory Show. Pogany then translated a poem about Prometheus and mailed it to Brancusi, prompting his creation of a sculpture on the subject, which is featured in the installation as well. Pogany returned to Budapest in 1911, was documented after the war as a survivor of the Holocaust, and resettled with her family to Australia, where she died in 1964.
We are excited to present this painting in the Brancusi gallery, where it provides unique insight into an artistic dialogue and relationship behind one of the best known works of modern art. The stars aligned here — I believe the PMA is the only museum outside Hungary or Australia to own a painting by Pogany and this painting is her only known self-portrait. Immense thanks to her family for their generous assistance in my research, particularly to Andrew Forgas, and to my colleagues at the PMA for the collaboration to make this installation a reality.
‘Mademoiselle Pogány’ as Artist and Patron
An essay by Alexander Kauffman, January 2020
The Hungarian artist Margit Pogány is best known today as the sitter for Constantin Brancusi’s enduring sculpture series Mademoiselle Pogany. A previously unpublished letter and little-known painted self-portrait by Pogány provide new insights into her commissioning of Brancusi’s sculpture and its significance to Pogány’s artistic career.
Margit Pogány’s name and likeness became synonymous with everything scandalous about modern art in 1913. In that year, a portrait of her, titled “Mademoiselle Pogany,” was one of five works Constantin Brancusi displayed at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known popularly as “The Armory Show.” Debuting there as a plaster cast, Brancusi’s abstracted egg-like depiction of Pogány quickly became a cause célèbre, and its image reproduced and discussed widely in the press. The marble bust [Fig. 1] and its plaster and bronze casts circulated widely in exhibitions and publications in the following years. Their impact was multiplied by two additional marble variants and their own multiple casts. The ubiquity was such that Jean Arp would later claim, “Mademoiselle Pogany is the fairy godmother of abstract sculpture.”
The enormous fame around the sculpture seriesdid not extend to Margit Pogány herself, who commissioned the original portrait and was an artist who had exhibited in both Paris and her native Budapest at the time of its debut. In fact, if anything the immense fame of the sculpture and Pogány’s identification as its sitter and Brancusi’s muse occluded her recognition, or as one art historian has observed, “completely absorbed” it. Acknowledgement took four decades, and Pogány’s concerted action, to arrive. Now, more than a century later, a new installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a previously unpublished letter from Pogány to Brancusi demonstrate that elements of her story remain untold.
Pogány asserted her role publicly in 1953, when she sold the bust to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and accompanied it with an explanatory letter. As the museum announced in its press release for the acquisition, “Over a year ago the Museum received a letter from a lady in Camberwell, Australia. She wrote that almost forty years ago, before the first World War, Brancusi had made her portrait in Paris. The bronze might be for sale if a museum were interested. This Museum was very much interested, for the letter was signed Margit Pogany.”
Pogány’s letter to MoMA, subsequently published in full by Brancusi scholar Sidney Geist, asserted her status unequivocally: “For several years I studied painting in Paris, as I am an artist.” In that and a second letter, she proceeded to detail her meeting Brancusi in a Montparnasse boarding house dining room, and the budding friendship that led her to commission and pose for a portrait shortly before she left Paris and returned to Budapest in January 1911. She was thirty-one years old; he thirty-four. She learned of the bust’s completion two years later, when Brancusi sent her a letter offering it in marble or bronze. Pogány let Brancusi choose and he sent the bronze cast [Fig. 2] that she now offered to the museum.
In connection to the Brancusi portrait, Pogány also mailed MoMA a reproduction of a painted self-portrait she had made in 1913 [Fig. 3], implying the museum might consider it as well. She encouraged the pairing, writing, “You will note the coincidence of the pose…” but clarified that she had completed it “some months before I saw the bust by Brancusi.” MoMA purchased only the Brancusi, which it announced as “possibly the most famous portrait bust of the 20th century.”
Pogány continued to seek ways to display her self-portrait beside Brancusi’s portrait bust until her death in 1964. In 1966, her sister and grand-nephew realized her wishes by selling the self-portrait to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had in recent years formed the largest collection of Brancusi’s work outside of France and established a gallery for its display. In November 2019, Pogány’s self-portrait went on view in that gallery for the first time, where it can be seen in direct juxtaposition with Brancusi’s bust and another of his sculptures, Prometheus (1911), in which Pogány played a role.
The display provided insights unrecognized since the self-portrait was first published in the 1960s. Discussing it then, Sidney Geist treated the painting as straight documentation of Pogány’s appearance, presenting it with a period photograph and arguing, “[They] permit us to see something of the workings of his imagination.” Comparing these documents against Brancusi’s original marble showed, he argued, that Brancusi had “distilled” her appearance through “memory” and “personal sentiment,” with the effect of exaggerating her “salient features.” Geist’s conclusion was echoed by other scholars. In the catalogue of the major retrospective the Philadelphia Museum of Art co-organized in 1995, Margit Rowell too reproduced the self-portrait and photograph as evidence “that Brancusi set out to capture the essence of his sitter.” A more recent exhibition dedicated to artists and their muses recognized the aesthetic character of the self-portrait, and emphasized its contrasting depiction, which it called “entirely representational” while allowing some unexplained commonalities in the compositional approach.
The sight of the self-portrait beside the Brancusi busts encourages further reassessment of their relationship. Pogány’s self-portrait is not merely a document of Pogany’s appearance. Nor is it “entirely representational” and its connection purely aesthetic. Instead, it is a moody, quasi-expressionistic portrait whose correspondences to the Brancusi bust implicate it in the commission and creation of that work. Both Brancusi and Pogány fixed on certain of Pogány’s features—the plane of her cheek, the shape of her eyes, the line of her hair. But they also made distinctly different choices in depicting them: Brancusi with hard, clean lines, in pristine white marble, and Pogány with untidy, agitated brushwork in oil on cardboard. Pogány portrays herself with a lock of hair hanging loose, cascading over the right side of her face and casting it in shadow. Lines swirl over the surface, mottling her skin in pale pinks, gauzy whites, and some more imaginative purples, greens, and blues. They embed her in a shallow bedroom scene, a deep red wall pulsating around her. She sits on the edge of a bed, staring off beyond the frame. The correspondence between the poses and studied contrasts, as well as the fact that the painting is her only known self-portrait in a career otherwise dedicated to landscapes and still lifes, implies a motivation directly related to Brancusi’s bust, which she had commissioned and sat for but not yet seen. Ultimately, it suggests ascription of singular authorship to certain motifs seen across the two works may be futile, or even misguided, considering the two artists’ close engagement in the years around their creation.
This reading is affirmed in the correspondence Pogány sent to Brancusi, most notably by an undated letter that preceded or coincided with her self-portrait. The letter is one of around twenty documents from Pogány in the Constantin Brancusi archives gifted to the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 2001. It was briefly quoted in the catalogue accompanying that gift, but with a proposed date more than a decade later that disassociated it from the commission and subsequent self-portrait. The contents of the letter, handwritten in neat script over the front and back of a single folded sheet, provide instructions to Brancusi with the clear supposition that the bust, dated 1912, was not yet complete, permitting a re-dating: “I regret having told you that I would offer my bust to my mother and pray that you do not make it for her…or for anyone else. Let it be for you and for me only.” It goes on to encourage Brancusi to embrace the bold experimentalism that prompted the Armory Show response: “If the others do not understand it, too bad for them. Maybe little by little they will come to understand in scratching at it, true art.” Finally, it positions Brancusi’s sculpture as a challenge to Pogány herself: “If you make it so beautiful, its design so great, that even I could not understand it, too bad for me….I would try to grow to arrive, if not at the level of its creation of which perhaps I am not capable, at least of its comprehension.”
By all appearances, the self-portrait was Pogány’s answer to the challenge she perceived. She created it as a personal experiment, leaving it out of her exhibitions in the period, and employed a style and palette absent from other extant works. Moreover, its importance and origins in her dialogue with Brancusi is affirmed by her careful preservation of the painting alongside the bust over a tumultuous later life that included surviving the Holocaust in Budapest and emigrating after the war to the Hungarian expatriate community in Camberwell, Australia. (She was Jewish-Hungarian, and adopted the surname Pogány early in her artistic career. She was born Margit Pollatsek). Before her death, she conveyed wishes that the painting be united with the Brancusi bust. And most notably, she herself indicated the connection by creating a postcard bearing its image and mailing it to Brancusi in July 1931, evidently providing his first and only glimpse of the painting. Continued research into Pogány’s career may further illuminate its significance to Brancusi, who completed the third and final version of the Mademoiselle Pogany bust the same year he received the postcard.
1. Charles H. Caffin, “Is She a Lady or an Egg? An Analysis of Expression,” New York American, February 24, 1913, 8; Anon., “Art Extremists, In Broadsides and Lurid Color, Invade New York and Capture an Armory,” New York Herald, February 17, 1913, 10.
2. Jean Arp, “Endless Column,” in Arp on Arp: Poems, Essays, Memories, ed. Marcel Jean, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Viking Press, 1972), 330.
3. Kenneth E. Silver, Paris Portraits: Artists, Friends, and Lovers (Greenwich, CT: Bruce Museum, 2008), 46.
4. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., “New Acquisitions – Check List with Notes by Alfred H. Barr, Jr.,” in Museum of Modern Art, “Newly Acquired European and American Painting and Sculpture to be Exhibited,” February 11, 1953, 3.
5. Margit Pogány to the Museum of Modern Art, 1952, in Sidney Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture by Sidney Geist (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1983), 190.
6. Margit Pogány to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., August 4, 1953, in Geist, Brancusi, 192.
7. Geist, Brancusi, 192.
8. Museum of Modern Art, “Large Group of Paintings and Sculptures Recently Acquired by the Museum,” February 11, 1953, 1; quoted in Cathy Lowy, “Losing Brancusi,” Meanjin 64, no. 1-2 (2005): 64.
9. Bernard Smith to Evan Turner, October 13, 1965, 1, Curatorial object file, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
10. Natalia Dumitresco and Alexandre Istrati, “Brancusi: 1876-1957,” in Pontus Hulten, Brancusi (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 84-86.
11. Geist, Brancusi, 42.
12. M[argit] R[owell], “Mademoiselle Pogany [I],” in Friedrich Teja Bach, Margit Rowell, and Ann Temkin, Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995), 120.
13. Abigail D. Newman, “Margit Pogany,” in Silver, Paris Portraits, 129.
14. Margit Pogány to Constantin Brancusi, undated, Archives Mnam-Cci, dation 2001.
15. Marielle Tabart and Doïna Lemny, La dation Brancusi: Dessins et archives (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2003), 211.
16. Andrew Forgas, email to the author, November 27, 2019.
17. Margit Pogány to Constantin Brancusi, July 7, 1931, Archives Mnam-Cci, dation 2001; Marielle Tabert and Doïna Lemny, Le Portrait? (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2002).
List of Illustrations and their sources:
Figure 1.Constantin Brancusi, Mademoiselle Pogany [I], 1912, White marble; limestone block, 17 1/2 x 8 1/4 x 12 3/8 inches (44.4 x 21 x 31.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Figure 2. Constantin Brancusi, Mademoiselle Pogany, version I (after a marble of 1912), Bronze with black patina, 17 1/4 x 8 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches (43.8 x 21.5 x 31.7 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Figure 3. Margit Pogány, Self-Portrait, 1913, Oil on cardboard, 14 7/8 x 18 1/16 inches (37.8 x 45.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.