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Gaudier-Brzeska | Plastic Soul

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska arrived and thrived in London during the high noon of English modernism, leaving an extraordinary legacy behind him on his death at the front, aged just 23. Our new catalogue raisonné of Gaudier’s sculpture, due to be published this winter, traces the steps of an all-too-brief life.

On his death in battle at Neuville St Vaast on 5th June 1915, Henri Gaudier was not yet 24 years old; he was survived by his soulmate, Zofia Brzeska, and some hundred sculptures or more, the best of them modelled and carved in the last year of his life, and more than 2,000 drawings, pastels, and ink sketches.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska The Dancer

The Dancer, 1913, posthumous bronze, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge

The work he left behind affirms his enterprising place in the British sculptural canon of the early 20th century. His career, brief though it was, highlights pre-war London as a kind of anti-Paris, a city whose art was defined as much by its immigrant population as was its French opposite, and which, in its much-delayed response to the thrill of art movements then already well accepted in France, was provoked to respond in its own, unique way. Modern sculpture has since flourished in this country: from the generation of Epstein, Gaudier and Gill to Dobson, Moore, Hepworth, Hermes, Underwood, Skeaping, to the ‘Geometry of Fear’ generation, to Paolozzi, to Frink, to Caro and beyond. If that chain was first forged in the crucible that was pre-war Britain, Gaudier was among its earliest links.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Self-Portrait

Self Portraits, 1913 in pastel, 1912 in charcoal

Exactly what place Gaudier occupies or what role he serves in the history of 20th century European sculpture is more difficult to say. A rising star of the Vorticist movement, he had shown he was capable of much more (he was an exceptional animalier, as works on paper and in stone attest). His reflective and often critically self-aware correspondence, his exquisite drawings that crackle with life – perhaps a more coherent and demonstrable contribution to art than even his sculpture – reveal him as an artist who could adopt, adapt and parrot dogma when it suited him, but felt no obligation to live or practise by it exclusively. A boisterously political animal too, surrounded by a bourgeois circle of aristocrats playing at artful poverty, he was the real, pathetic, Bohemian deal, scarcely able to afford food and materials on top of his rent, filthy and underfed, reliant on favours and pilfered stone offcuts: a true dervish, who worked himself to sinew in pursuit of great sculpture.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Woman Kneeling

Woman Kneeling, c.1913, pencil

When he left for the front, he had only just begun his life’s work. Only in the summer of 1913 had he given up his job as a clerk at a timber exporting firm to carve and model full time. Before that, he had been working late at night and into the early hours of the, after walking the six miles and back every day to work from his studio in Fulham to the City, unable to afford the fare for the recently introduced bus route. From the minute he decided to be an artist, he had lived in abject poverty until his death. A self-professed anarchist and anti-militarist, he threw himself into soldiering with gusto until he joined Boccioni, Duchamp-Villon, August Macke and Franz Marc among what Ezra Pound termed ‘the war waste’, and ‘this poor, fine, beautiful spirit’, as Ford Maddox Ford described him, went ‘out through a little hole in the high forehead.’

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Composition with Three Figures

Composition with Three Figures, c.1914, black crayon, McMaster Museum of Art, Ontario

It was almost exactly a hundred years on, in the summer of 2015, that Roger Cole – author of the very first catalogue raisonné of Gaudier’s sculpture, published in 1978 – approached the Goldmark Gallery with the idea of publishing a new catalogue (the last, by Evelyn Silber, emerged in 1996). The original manuscript bears little resemblance to the text we have now. Like Gaudier’s work, it soon gained a pace of its own, adopting influences and drawing on different sources. And, like Gaudier too, constrained by inaccess to good stone, tools, materials, and studio space, our project has been an essay in trial and error, often unhelped by institutional inaccessibility to work that, thanks to Gaudier’s untimely death, is now in public domain. We have made discoveries – among them an early marble relief, considered ‘lost’ in publications as recently as 2010, hiding in plain sight in a Dutch museum.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Crouching Lion

Crouching Lion, c.1912-13, ink

One of the great strengths of the book is the wealth of early material we have been able to draw upon from Roger’s archive (an indispensable collection that includes Gaudier’s original, handwritten will). Sketches from Gaudier’s earliest years, including his Wanderjahre in England and Germany, learning the skills for an intended future in commerce, manage both to demonstrate his natural talent and youthful enthusiasm for drawing while contrasting wildly with the immense strength of line and form he found later, the result entirely of his own, self-directed tuition and an obsessive desire to draw whatever was around him. When he arrived in London after a year in Paris, he brought with him Zofia Brzeska, the Polish emigré twice his age whom he had met at the St Geneviève library. Where he was ambitious, naïve, quick tempered, she was impatient, skittish, neurotic. Her aspirations were literary where his were sculptural. They shackled themselves to one another, spiritually and in name, adopting a combined surname of ‘Gaudier-Brzeska’, their relationship somewhere in the disastrous, unconsummated space between sister, lover, companion, wife, and even ‘mon fils adoptif’. In many respects, all were true.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Stags

Stags, 1914, red-veined alabaster, Art Institute Chicago

Gaudier’s London years, from January 1911 to late 1914, coincided more or less exactly with the crisis of British Liberalism (and of British politics more generally): a time of trade unions emboldened by Syndicalist action in France, national strikes (viciously suppressed), and suffragette action, all amid attempts by the Asquith government at widespread social reform. This was also the high noon of British Modernism, when the vigour of disenfranchised workers taking to the streets was echoed by the in-fighting among the disparate factions of the art world, both establishment and underground. This fractious climate produced a boom in Modernist publications, the ‘little reviews’ tackling the big questions in contemporary art, and their editorial space proved a perfect battleground for internecine warfare. ‘Like the protozoa,’ Roger Fry declared, the art cliques of London ‘are fissiparous and breed by division.’ Writing in March 1914, he was speaking from personal experience: Omega Workshops, the Post-Impressionist boutique he had established the previous year, had imploded just six months ago and he now found himself in a bitter, largely one-sided rivalry with the artist Wyndham Lewis, who had stormed out of the organisation with his disgruntled colleagues. During the same period, Lewis had been party to the coup within the Camden Town Group that had quietly dispatched the old guard of Walter Sickert and Lucien Pissarro and installed a new generation of youngsters, including Gaudier. Sickert – the man who had declared the business of his paintings to be ‘gross material facts’ – took umbrage at the obscenity he saw loosed his parting salvos in the pages of The New Age, with Gaudier and colleagues in his sights: ‘We hear a great deal about non-representative art. But while the faces of the persons suggested are frequently nil, non-representation is forgotten when it comes to the sexual organs. Witness Mr Wyndham Lewis’s ‘Creation’, exhibited at Brighton, Mr Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawing in last week’s New Age, and several of Mr Epstein’s later drawings… The Pornometric gospel amounts to this. All visible nature with two exceptions is unworthy of study, and to be considered pudendum. The only things worthy of an artist’s attention are what we have hitherto called the pudenda!’

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Red Stone Dancer

Red Stone Dancer, 1913, red Mansfield stone, Tate

Almost as impressive as his best sculpture (and by 1914, he was turning around such extraordinary carvings as Stags, illustrated here, in a matter of weeks) was Gaudier’s ability to insinuate himself in this febrile climate into its various groups, despite his waspish temperament and often, as in the case of Fry and Lewis, in directly competing camps. The breakthrough had come in 1912, when Gaudier approached the now little-known critic and ex-soldier Haldane Macfall, with the hope of finding a sympathetic supporter. Macfall brought new and wealthy contacts: Claud Lovat Fraser, Enid Bagnold, and Gaudier’s first patrons. Prostrate before the temple of Rodin, and now with his foot in the door of high society bohemia, he contributed drawings to Rhythm, sculpted the Ballets Russes, befriended Jacob Epstein, made portraits of fellow artists Horace Brodzky and Alfred Wolmark, and finally exhibited for the first time in the summer of 1913, where he caught the attention of Ezra Pound and Nina Hamnett (the latter was his introduction to Roger Fry and his ticket to Omega).

Like a loose comet, Gaudier was scarcely drawn into one sphere of orbit before he immediately spun to the next, never pulled so tight as to prevent his satellite of a new acquaintance nor drawn so long as to slow his advance. By late 1913, the Rodin influence shed, he had discovered something ancient and alien in the world sculpture of the British Museums, had experienced firsthand the work of (and met) the likes of Epstein and Brançusi, and was ready to introduce a whole new synthesis of abstract form in his work. Zofia described his Red Stone Dancer – carved immediately after the supremely svelt and elongated The Dancer in late 1913 – as a ‘monster descended from the stars’. Here, months ahead of the official launch of Vorticism – before the word have even been used in relation to the art of his contemporaries – is something far removed from Futurism, from Cubism even, a hybrid, cultural distillation of its own: here is the Vortex, the concentration of movement, energy, rhythm, dance, torque, to a single point, the ‘circle of solitude’, as Rilke described the sculptor’s plinth.

Gaudier-Brzeska carving Portrait of Ezra Pound, 1914, by Walter Bennington

Gaudier-Brzeska carving Portrait of Ezra Pound, 1914, by Walter Bennington 

In Gaudier’s largest works, among them the portrait of Ezra Pound and Birds Erect, and even in the smaller Maternity, Gaudier demonstrated he had a feel for monumentalism. We can only speculate as to what he might have been capable of had the war not interrupted his pace, had the Omega Workshops and Fry brought larger commissions, had he gained the equipment, the reputation and the capacity to work at the kind of scale Epstein was then already known for. The artist Matthew Smith said of Epstein that he could make a heavy stone look heavier; Gaudier by contrast seemed able to make a small, thin, and insignificant scrap of stone seem infinitely larger and more generous. It is one of the peculiar attributes of his work in reproduction, to be confronted with the diminutive scale of the thing in the flesh. But ultimately, his lasting legacy, as Evelyn Silber pointed out almost thirty years ago, was the way Gaudier changed our perception of what small sculpture could be. With Torpedo Fish, perhaps his most famous work, and with the many cut metal and marble handheld carvings he produced, freestanding yet intended to be handled and polished with use, Gaudier aimed to put us back in touch with what he described as the ‘PLASTIC SOUL’ of anonymous African and Oceanic sculptors: to thrust back into the smooth, unlabouring palm of the 20th century citizen a fetish from the new age.

Portrait of Ezra Pound (Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound), 1914, marble, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Portrait of Ezra Pound (Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound), 1914, marble,  National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 

Young, inexperienced, and without direction from mentors or tutors, the catalogue of Gaudier’s sculptural output is by its nature stylistically diverse, varied in quality, sometimes baffling in nature. In later life, at a time when he was publicly disavowing his early, abstract period, Epstein recalled that Gaudier followed, and quickly – too quickly. He was a man of ‘any amount of talent and great energy’ who ‘wished to be always in the vanguard of the moment’ and whose ‘volatile nature caused him to change his style from week to week...far from innovating, Gaudier always followed. He followed quickly, overnight as it were, and in the short period of his working life, he tried out any number of styles, not sticking long to any one.’

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Omega Tray Wrestlers

Wrestlers, Omega Tray, wood, 1913

It would be truer to say that Gaudier chased. The constant, throughout his all-too-short career, was a Bergsonian impetus, instilled by reading the philosopher’s Creative Evolution in 1910, that drove him to look for the rhythm of life (the ‘élan vital’) in everything he drew, modelled or carved. It remained his lodestar, despite the demonstrably anti-Bergson attitude of Wyndham Lewis and T.E. Hulme, friends and collaborators who shaped the output of the Vorticists’ publication BLAST. Gaudier was a major contributor, on paper and through his sculpture, which gave an otherwise disparate collective of ‘individuals’, as BLAST advertised them, a three-dimensional presence. Besides the ‘Vortex’ manifesto, Gaudier’s two articles, composed for the only two issues the movement produced, are perhaps the enduring pieces of writing within it (alongside Michael Sadler’s translations of Kandinsky), if only for their direct honesty and endearingly disjointed style. The second and last issue of BLAST, a wartime special, included his famous proclamation that the conflict raging across Europe – which he performed in with relish – was a tonic that killed the individual ego and reaffirmed the power of ‘life, the moving agent’. In this last piece of writing he described how he had refashioned the butt of a mauser rifle, seized from a dispatched foe, into a maternity scene. An addendum at the top of page, in a small, black-rimmed box, read: ‘Mort pour la patrie’.

Our book should have ended here – except that the Gaudier story goes on, for after his death, and after Zofia’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum, where she perished, Gaudier’s work was transferred to the state. It was the enterprising Tate assistant H.S. ‘Jim’ Ede who watched a select few sculptures make their way into public collections before he purchased, ‘for a song’, the remainder of the estate. Thirty years later, that same material was monetised in order to establish Kettle’s Yard and finance its 1970 extension from sales of new bronze editions and drawings. This story, Ede’s part in it, and the ethical debate that surrounds it and Gaudier’s legacy, like a thick, invisible fog, has been told before by Roger – but with more information at our disposal now, it is one that should be heard again.

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Omega Tray - Wrestlers

Wood
Regular price £4,950
Regular price Sale price £4,950