Henri Gaudier-Brzeska suffered from the same complaint as Nietzsche – what his friend, the poet Ezra Pound, described as “an appalling assembly of consonants”. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Gaudier-Brzeska chose his name, linking his family name “Gaudier” with that of the Polish emigrée almost twice his age, Sophie Brzeska, with whom he also chose to share his life.
Gaudier-Brzeska died at the age of 23 whilst fighting for France in the First World War. His influence as an artist – a sculptor – has an importance out of all proportion to the length of his short life. He represented the climax of the move towards the future that would be carried on by sculptors such as Henry Moore and his own work showed his progression from nineteenth century to twentieth century ideas.
Born near Orleans in 1891, the son of a carpenter, he won a scholarship at the age of 14 which took him to London. Another French scholarship returned him to England, to Bristol, and in 1911 he moved to England for good to escape the scandal of his living arrangements and to live with Sophie in a relationship that was apparently never consummated but which nevertheless bound them together as acknowledged soul mates in a sado-masochistic dance where he exploited her insecurities. A dance that slowed to a rythmn of mother and son and which endured for all of the rest of his short life. He wrote from the trenches of his intention to marry her but died too soon.
In France Gaudier-Brzeska had been influenced by Rodin in his sculptures and by Gauguin and Asian art in his paintings. Once in England, he met up with a group of avant-garde aggressively modern artists including the philospher, T E Hulme, the sculptor, Jacob Epstein, and the poet, Ezra Pound and he admired Brancusi and Modigliani. A group of these thinkers joined together as the Vorticists, in open revolt against the Futurist movement in France at the same time. The Vorticists published their manifesto in a large red magazine called Blast which favoured heavy black types and capital letters and which only appeared twice, the second issue being a pale image of the first and an inadequate elegy to Gaudier-Brzeska after his death. His statement of values in the first edition encapsulates the arrogance of a young man who represented “the climax … of all the artistic anarchy, all the wild aesthetic isms and cults that occupied the minds of the dilettanti of the capitals of Europe in the days immediately preceding the great war” *.
Jacob Epstein’s Maternity
Pound described his first meeting with Gaudier-Brzeska as being with a young man who was “like a young well-made young wolf or some soft-moving bright-eyed wild thing”.
Gaudier-Brzeska’s letters and Sophie’s diaries form part of a collection of their writings held by the Albert Sloman Library of the University of Essex. His letters cover the period from 1910 to 1913 and have been published in part in H S Ede’s biography, A Savage Messiah, published in 1931.
During his time in England, Gaudier-Brzeska defied convention and set out to shock. Together with his fellow Vorticists he confronted sexuality that was happier hidden, and turned over the furniture of older ideas. With Ezra Pound, he published an attack on Hellenist sculpture in the Egoist in 1914. They decried its caressability. Pound wrote “Regarding all this bother with the Greeks, some of us have at last been liberated from the idea that the BEAUTIFUL is the caressable, the physically attractive”. Art was not particularly concerned with the caressable, and Gaudier-Brzeska cried that he and his friends, the Moderns, had mastered the elements and turned the sphere into a cube (from his Vortex Manifesto):
“The knowledge of our civilisations embraces the world, we have mastered the elements.
We have been influenced by what we liked most, each according to his own individuality, we have crystallised the sphere into the cube, we have made a combination of all the possible shape masses – concentrating them to express our abstract thoughts of conscious superiority.”
For all the youthful aggression, Gaudier-Brzeska’s work is often full of vulnerability. His Fawn (left) is without any protection, openly sweet and beguiling. His Maternity (above) is a rounded cleaving of mother and child without any clear division between the two, too private to be on public view.
Ken Russell made a film about Gaudier-Brzeska in 1971 with set designer Derek Jarman. Russell apparently identified with the energy of the sculptor, but the film flopped and is not available on DVD. The film borrows the title of the 1931 biography, A Savage Messiah, written by the man who owned most of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work and who displayed it in the gallery-cum-museum that was his home in Cambridge. H S ‘Jim’ Ede had retired from working in museums (he was a curator at the Tate Gallery in London) at the age of 41 but acquired, mainly from gifts, a magnificient collection of works, principally by Gaudier-Brzeska but also by Alfred Wallis, Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miro, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. He used to open his house to students in the afternoon, welcoming them with tea and beautiful music.
An extension was built on to the three joined cottages in which he lived with his wife, and opened with a concert by Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim. The extended house and a separate gallery are still open to the public in the afternoons. The door is unlocked for each group of visitors but there is sadly no tea. Visitors may sit on the chairs and read the books, and there are occasional concerts and drawing schools.
Joyce Kilmer wrote a thoughtful review of the development of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work in the New York Times only a year after his death. Her article includes extracts from letters written from the trenches and she builds a strong case for the reality of war having marked him and moved him away from the characteristics typical of artistic revolutionaries that she lists him having displayed : hatred of the conventions, love of the most primitive and obscure forms of art, love of violence for its own sake, and passionate arrogance – arrogance, indeed, displayed as a virtue and an artistic principle in itself.
Gaudier-Brzeska wrote “THIS WAR IS A GREAT REMEDY” and “IN THE INDIVIDUAL IT KILLS ARROGANCE, SELF-ESTEEM AND PRIDE” and in a later letter says that much will be changed “after we have come through the blood bath of idealism”. In a letter written on May 14th 1915 he writes from the trenches:
“Our woods are magnificent. I am just now quartered in trenches in the middle of them: they are covered with lilies of the valley. They grow and flower on the trenches itself. In the night we have many nightingales to keep us company. They sing very finely and the loud noise of the usual attacks and counterattacks do not disturb them in the least. It is very warm and nice out of doors: one does not mind sleeping out on the ground now.”
He goes on to bemoan the absence of beautiful classical music, his favourite composers Chopin and Beethoven:
“Needless to say that here we can have nothing of the kind: we have the finest Futurist music Marinetti can dream of, big guns, small guns, bomb throwers’ reports, with a great difference between the German and the French, the different kinds whistling from the shells, their explosion, the echo in the woods of the rifle firer, some short, discreet, others long, rolling &c: but it is all stupid vulgarity, and I prefer the fresh winds in the leaves with a few songs from the birds.”
When he returns, he says, he will return to more figurative sculptures, since he is convinced that there is not much further than he can go with geometric shapes, planes and forms.
“Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was experiencing much the same change of heart and mind when a German bullet laid him low: had he lived there is no doubt that his sculpture would have shown the vigour and imaginativeness of his early work, and, in addition, would have been comprehensible and serious in purpose, marked by that directness and sanity which, paradoxically, seem to come to art from the insanity of war.”*
* Joyce Kilmer, ‘How the War Changed a Vorticist Sculptor’, New York Times, June 25th 1916