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According to Constantin Brancusi's own testimony, his preoccupation with the image of the bird as a plastic form began as early as 1910. With the theme of the Maiastra (1910–18), he initiated a series of about thirty sculptures of birds.
The word maïastra means "master" or "chief" in Brancusi's native Romanian, but the title refers specifically to a magically beneficent, dazzlingly plumed bird in Romanian folklore. Brancusi's mystical inclinations and his deeply rooted interest in peasant superstition make the motif an apt one. The golden plumage of the Maiastra is expressed in the reflective surface of the bronze; the bird's restorative song seems to issue from within the monumental puffed chest, through the arched neck, out of the open beak. The heraldic, geometric aspect of the figure contrasts with details such as the inconsistent size of the eyes, the distortion of the beak aperture, and the cocking of the head slightly to one side. The elevation of the bird on a saw-tooth base lends it the illusion of perching. The subtle tapering of form, the relationship of curved to hard-edge surfaces, and the changes of axis tune the sculpture so finely that the slightest alteration from version to version reflects a crucial decision in Brancusi's development of the theme.
Seven other versions of Maiastra have been identified and located: three are marble and four bronze. The Peggy Guggenheim example apparently was cast from a reworked plaster (now lost but visible in a 1955 photograph of Brancusi's studio).¹ This was probably also the source for the almost identical cast in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center.
1. Reproduced in Athena T. Spear, Brancusi’s Birds (New York: New York University Press for the College Art Association of America, 1969), p. 55.