Manifesto for a Modern World, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska:Vorticist!, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Text by Leaf Arbuthnot

Vorticist!, Kettle’s Yard’s latest show, draws deserved attention to a sculptor whose career was as important and impressive as it was brutally short. The exhibition showcases a small but intense core of some of the most striking sketches, ink drawings and sculptures of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), key exponent of the Vorticist movement that began in London, 1914. The group was distinctive for its interest in the machine age and its reactionary attitude to the Victorian civic setup, regarded by its members as disadvantageous to individual sovereignty and maturity.

Born in Saint-Jean-de-Braye, France, to a carpenter father and wheelwright grandfather, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska arrived in Britain in January 1910 with Sophie Brzeska, a Polish woman twice his age whose presence the couple sought to justify by presenting themselves as siblings. Lacking in official artistic training and living off wages as a clerk, Gaudier spent his four years in London in unanticipated creative ferment, rethinking his artistic ideals and reformulating his creative style with astonishing rapidity and comprehensiveness. This flourish was partly stimulated by the remarkable circle of friends that swiftly assembled about him, including the writer H S ‘Jim’ Ede, philosopher E. H. Hulme and American poet Ezra Pound.

Though Gaudier’s autonomy of spirit remained pristine throughout this four-year period, as is testified by the perennial singularity of his work, he nevertheless absorbed many of the most valuable principles promoted by his contemporaries. His development of a sparse and economical drawing style hints at an empathy for Pound’s well-articulated regard for calligraphy. Stag (1913), perhaps the exhibition’s most memorable drawing, captures the distinctive physical essence of its subject with just a few ink strokes and is indeed highly evocative of the traditional Chinese style. Following Gaudier’s introduction to Jacob Epstein in 1912, the former’s sculptures became increasingly geometric and primitive, with some boasting visible tool marks as insignia of their human beginnings. Gaudier’s artwork continues to intrigue partly thanks to its almost schizophrenic ensemble of influences and allegiances which might ordinarily feel immiscible or contradictory, but which are united intelligibly by the artist.

This coherent incoherence plays out particularly in Duck (1914), a fist-sized marble sculpture that arouses the animal’s singular physicality with rudimentary, even brutish, geometric shapes. Deceptively simple looking, Gaudier’s carving retains its bestial verisimilitude while reminding the viewer of the tools perhaps used in its creation, evoking the mechanical age to which the Vorticists bore witness. Moreover, while Gaudier’s contemporaries might be accused of a certain hyperbolic solemnity, his own works are shot through with wit and joie-de-vivre that the exhibition exposes with proficiency. A sexually entwined couple are soon discerned as the subjects of the 1914 brass Doorknocker (1914), betraying Gaudier’s artistic playfulness and trumpeting the youth and insouciance key to his creative drive.

Gaudier’s eclectic circle of friends was not only to stimulate him intellectually but also financially, with Pound buying many of his sculptures and sometimes providing him with the raw materials needed for sculpture. Despite this aid, the artist remained reliant on the off-cuts of a neighbouring studio and was purportedly prone to scavenging for more in local stonemasons’ yards. As Vorticist! shows, the poverty with which Gaudier grappled forced him both to restrain the size of certain sculptures and to open himself to experimentation with different materials – two fortuitous constrictions, however, which would lend great diversity to his creative output. Perhaps as a result of the imposed variety of materials, Gaudier displayed a growing desire to stay true to the inner, irreducible qualities of different stones by leaving sculptures unpolished and thus invigorating them with a visceral rawness that remains hugely appealing.

Just as Gaudier’s financial circumstances demanded that he work according to laws of parsimony by “sculpting small”, so too is the exhibition space the current subject of physical constraint, though in this case because of building works. Nonetheless, the quality of the drawings and sculptures displayed and the serenity of the room itself more than make up for the cramped space. Moreover, the restrictive size of the rooms are balanced by an admirably thought-out gallery plan that deals especially skilfully with the bulky sculpture Bird Swallowing a Fish (1914), mounted in the centre of the principle room. The two walls banking it initially appear awkwardly imposing until it is noted that one bears a preparatory sketch of the then uncreated sculpture, while the opposite wall shows an ink drawing of the sculpture that probably made after it had been completed.

While celebrating the accomplishment of Henri Gaudier-Brzseka, Vorticist! also quietly mourns his untimely demise in the War. It does so not explicitly nor sentimentally, but more powerfully by the virtuosity of the works themselves, which gesture tantalisingly towards a promising future that was interrupted by the very weapons by which Gaudier and his fellow Vorticists were so intrigued.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: Vorticist!, 14/01/2012 – 01/04/2012, Kettle’s Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, CB3 0AQ.


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Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Sketch of Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1914
Courtesy of the artist and Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.