This was a mimeographed typescript found in a book on World War 1 art. Many thanks to J. Wood Palmer.
|Self Portrait 1913|
INTRODUCTION TO THE GAUDIER-BRZESKA EXHIBITION AT
4 ST. JAMES'S SQUARE, LONDON IN 1956 BY J.WOOD PALMER.
Gaudier-Brzeska was born Henri Gaudier at St Jean de Brays, Loiret on October 4th 1891. He was killed in action with the French army, after twice being decorated for bravery, at Neuville St Vaast on June 15th 1915. For any man this span of life would be counted brief; for the average artist it must preclude any significant development in this work as well as physically limiting his output. Gaudier-Brzeska was not an average artist; for him the three or four years of his working life as a sculptor were sufficient in which to pass through the phases of promise and arrive at a maturity, producing during this period so astonishing an array of sculptures and drawings that his achievement must be unparalleled in our time.
Enough has been written already about his early life in France, his visits, made possible through scholarships, to England and Germany, the variety of incongruous employment which he was obliged to take in Cardiff and London and Paris and Munich in order to live, and above all the almost pathological association with his 'sister', Sophie Brzeska. Inasmuch as heredity may play some part, it is worth remembering that his father was a carpenter and wood-carver and his forbears were said to have carved some of the figures on Chartres Cathedral. This may have some bearing on him as an instrument of creation but, equally, might be quite irrelevant to one whose qualities as a man and as an artist clearly marked him out as a creature apart.
Critics of art with only a superficial equipment for their jobs often manage to convey in their writings a flavour of the derogatory when they mention an artist or s particular work as influenced by something that has gone before. A sudden drop in the temperature of interest is implied as soon as the prototype is tracked down and remarked. For these sleuths Gaudier provided a Roman holiday. In his sculpture from 1912 until 1915 he ran through a bewildering gamut of influence - archaic Greek, Assyrian, Inca, Negro, Polynesian, Chinese, Gothic, Rodin. Like Picasso, he took unashamedly from the past, as every artist must, anything that he required to inform and infuse his own vision. What is important, and what constitutes the difference between an ordinary artist and a Picasso or a Gaudier, is the ability to digest these influences and adapt them to the creation of a personal work of art. In this process of digestion Gaudier showed a degree and rate of metabolism that is nothing short of phenomenal.
Before he reached what seemed likely to remain his own personal style of sculpture, if death had not intervened, he produced everything from the classical torsos, such as the marble in the Victoria and Albert Museum, conventional portrait busts Major Smythies and the archaic La Chanteuse Triste to the extreme of abstraction, the cactus-inspired Birds Erect. In between were outbursts of Vorticism in the sculpure and drawings, and of fauvism in the pastels reminiscent of the Mme. Matisse of 1905. In some quarters too much emphasis has been laid on his Vorticist work, notably in Ezra Pound's Memoir. This book uses Gaudier, not quite justifiably, as a peg on which to hang the theories of the author and of the Vorticists and Wyndham Lewis, and ignores the obvious evidence which points to him being fundamentally a humanist sculptor. Many artists in England, during the period immediately after Roger Fry's post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910, were driven by enthusiasm in their revolt against Impressionism to extremes of 'construction'. Gaudier was no exception; but since he came of age too near the era of austerity and streamlining to feel much affinity for the tempo of Greek urbanity or the exhausting complexities of Michelangelo, in another way, and because he was so vital a human being, he was bound to reject in the end the arid formulas implicit in any 'ism'.
In the publication Blast to which Gaudier contributed, perhaps from belief in its ideals but equally possibly because he needed money, he states that 'sculptural' feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation. Sculptural ability is the defining of those masses by planes.' These maxims he applied most of all in his later works which show him to have passed through the period of various influences and to have emerged capable of creating sculpture of originality and great beauty. In Stags and the Red Stone Dancer the ordered relation of forms, achieved only after constant and intense practice in abstraction, is a sequence so logical that it seems as if there could have been no possible alternative. This sense of inevitability, which is instinct only in great art, and the vital force arising from so complete an understanding of the sculptural problems involved, makes each work a finite law unto itself, unalterable as in music.
In his drawings, of which some hundreds remain and as many hundreds must have been destroyed or lost, Gaudier produced a body of work that would have placed him very high even if he had never sculpted at all. The pastels, ranging from the near-caricatures of A Labourer to the later fauve portraits, are very rare. The charcoal figures and heads, in which, the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum is especially rich, are patently a sculptor's drawings and reveal the most profound anatomical knowledge as well as his passion for the reduction of form to planes. The drawings in line are in a sense of three kinds: those of animals in the Chinese manner which are, as their influence would suggest, decorative; animals and nudes in which the line, at once strong and delicate, is so exactly placed that the weight and substance and character of the subject are made instantly apparent, but with the utmost eccnomy of means; and various figures in thicker line directly planned as studies for sculpture.
The artist himself has written 'La ligne est une chose purement imaginative, elle ne vient dans le desin que pour contenir les plans de la masse, recevant la lumière et crèant l’ombre, les plans convoient la seule sensation artisque et la ligne ne leur sert de cadre'. And faithfully he lives up to this difficult standpoint. In the revelation of their individual good or evil his animals disturbingly cross over the frontier and invade our own world; his nudes are not the nudes of lesser artists and the art school, models who have just taken off their clothes, but within the flawlessly accurate suggestion of 'cadre' are magnificently three-dimensional and pagan in the freedom and opulence of the flesh. The Riders in the Park are also worthy of mention, not only as magnificent studies of horses in the Park are also worthy of mention, not only as magnificent studies of horses in movement, so clearly in some instances anticipating Marino Marini, but as revealing the artist's lively sense of the absurd. It is not too much to say that among drawings of the last hundred years, Gaudier-Brzeska's line is unequalled in fluent sensivity except by Ingres, and in its powerful control and panache except by the Picasso of the series 'L'Atelier du sculptor'. Although there is no doubt that he must be considered first and foremost as a sculptor, his line drawings are nevertheless an important part of his whole oeuvre.
It is incomprehensible that the French, normally so astute in discovering talent, should, with the exception of a few individuals, have remained blind to this artist for forty years, but their loss has been our gain. Much of Gaudier's sculpture, and indeed some of his best, is unfortunately scattered about America, but enough remains here for posterity to judge its value. His gifts were many: a strange beauty, vivid intelligence, enormous vitality, an uncanny appreciation of form, the power of concentration, and that one thing absolutely essential to a sculptor, great physical strength. Perhaps it is that seen in context with Sophie Brzeska, a creature so dogged by disaster as to be straight out of Euripides, it seems aIl the more unsafe to have been endowed with so much. An so it proved to be. When he was killed at the age of twenty-three he had worked for little more than three years as a sculptor, but even that pitifully short time was long enough for him to take his place among the very few artists in our day and age who can with certainty lay claim to genius.