Devoting his spare time to working on the artistic carving skills which displayed themselves at a young age – he spent much of his youth working shapes from the wood that was plentifully available at his parents' home – he soon found a patron and graduated with honours from the Bucharest School of Fine Arts. Throughout his youth and early adulthood, Brancusi was consumed with curiosity, not about the shapes or aesthetics of his subjects, but about their essences: what was it, he wondered, that made a bird birdlike, or a fish fishlike. Even his work at the Bucharest School of Fine Arts shows early signs of his later fascination with reduction of subjects to their purest elements.
Much like Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian, the more assured and practised Brancusi became, the more deceptively simple became his works. And this can be seen clearly with Phoque II (Seal 2) which is part of his extensive Animaux series in which the lively movements of penguins, seals, birds and fish are captured in impressions and feeling and not in detail. In fact, Brancusi's work was almost single-handedly responsible for the definition of sculpture in art. Famously, a border official refused to accept one of his other animal sculptures as a work of art, trying to impose a forty per cent tariff on the work, such as would imposed on kitchen utensils and similar tools. Brancusi put in an official complaint which was upheld, leading the entire art world to redefine the definition of sculpture.
And indeed, it is not hard to see the point of that long ago official: some of Brancusi's works are so very streamlined so as to be unrecognisable even with a discreet information placard nearby to offer a clue! This sculpture, happily, is not one of these despite being a highly stylised rendition of a seal. This is because Phoque II captures perfectly the essence of a seal, basking nose-up in the sun. Brancusi made excellent use, as so often, of the marble's internal veining, using it to delicately indicate the seal's flippers. This, combined with the distinctive pose of the seal, ensures that even the most unsophisticated viewer will readily recognise this charming animal sculpture for what it is.
The seal can be found, along with many of its peers, in the George Pompidou Centre of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. It is surprisingly big, as are many of his works, measuring 110.5 centimetres by 121.5 centimetres by 34 centimetres. It stands on a solid stone base which is designed to turn on a ball-bearing pivot. However, the motion has been deactivated in the interests of best preserving the work.