PARIS — The Cimetière du Montparnasse is at risk of losing one of two of its most distinctive occupants. A famous Constantin Brancusi sculpture of a couple embracing, “Le Baiser” (“The Kiss,” 1909), has crowned Tatiana Rachewskaïa’s tomb for more than a century. Rachewskaïa, a young Russian student, committed love-tortured suicide in 1910; her lover, a Romanian doctor named Solomon Marbais, was a friend of Brancusi’s and purchased the sculpture directly from the artist to place on Rachewskaïa’s grave. It has been on view just inside the cemetery’s Rue Émile-Richard entrance since the very end of 1910 or early 1911. But, for at least six months now, the sculpture has been covered up and mysteriously concealed from public view.
“The Kiss” has long been an easily accessible and attractive public art jewel, and one of the main attractions to the Cimetière du Montparnasse. The sculpture compliments the famous reconstitution of Brancusi’s studio that sits on the public piazza alongside the Centre Pompidou. Together, they have made Paris the Brancusi destination par excellence for art-inclined visitors; the artist, who is also buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse, bequeathed his entire studio to the French state at his death in 1957. The mystery is why this designated historical monument (since 1992) — which appears to belong to the city of Paris and has long been protected by video surveillance — has been unavailable to the public for six months now? And, more urgently, what lies ahead for it?
This isn’t the first time questions have arisen about the Brancusi’s future. Seven years ago, concern for “The Kiss” was sounded by Didier Rykner, who reported in La Tribune de l’Art that it had been the subject of an application for an export certificate initiated, allegedly, by a descendant of the deceased, a member of the Rachewskaïa family. Ironically, in 1910 the Rachewskaïa family did not appreciate this eccentric funerary monument and proposed it be changed, but Brancusi himself overruled their suggested modifications.
The good news is that, in 2011, Rykner interviewed the department of the Ministry of Culture in charge of National Treasures and was told that the Rachewskaïa tomb was registered in full as an historic monument on May 21, 2010. More precisely, the registration order stated then that, pending a ruling of the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, the Rachewskaïa funerary monument belongs to the city of Paris. Hyperallergic has been unable to discover any ruling by the Tribunal that contradicts the 2010 registration.
Six months before being incarcerated in their box, an inelegant coffin of sorts, Brancusi’s stone kissers were already completely obscured by plastic wrapping and some light wood support. Back then, Hyperallergic inquired with the Cimetière du Montparnasse guardian, who responded that the tomb was being renovated. This seemed like good news; there has been some weather wear on the arms and knees of the lovers and possibly some cracking under the bust of the female figure.
When the plastic wrapping was replaced by a solid box, Hyperallergic contacted the administrators of the Cimetière du Montparnasse. The official line was that Cimetière du Montparnasse had no idea why the sculpture had been boxed up, nor what lay ahead for it, only that it was “the family” who was doing this, and thus beyond the cemetery’s control. The administration offered no further details. This perplexing explanation of private family control, regardless of public ownership by the city of Paris and listing as a historical monument, was confirmed to Hyperallergic by Sylvie Lesueur, the conservator of Cimetières Montparnasse, who gave no further details other than confirming that the Rachewskaïa family is behind the boxed Brancusi. For now, “The Kiss” sits covered in secrecy by a very solid wooden box with a tiny hole, ostensibly serving to confirm that the sculpture is indeed still there — for now.
What awaits this beloved sculpture and bittersweet testament to a tragic romance remains unknown. However, a far smaller version of “Le Baiser” was sold at Christie’s in New York in 2014, surpassing its pre-sale high estimate to hammer down for $8.565 million. A later, brass sculpture by Brancusi is headed to Christie’s in May with a pre-sale estimate of $70 million.