It’s exactly a hundred years since John Lane published Ezra Pound’s ‘memoir’ of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died in action at Neuville-Saint-Vaast on the Western Front on 5 June 1915, aged 23 years.
I first came across Gaudier-Brzeska and his work as a student in the early 1970s. I’d got into the habit of visiting Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, still lived in by its founder, H.S (‘Jim’) Ede. Most afternoons you could walk over the river and across Chesterton Road, turn left before St Peter’s Church, and ring the bell beside the side entrance to a row of four seventeenth century cottages. Jim had joined them together in the late 1950s to form what was at once his home and a kind of informal gallery housing his remarkable collection of modernist art. Finally in 1966 he succeeded in persuading the University of Cambridge to take the house and the collection under its wing.
Jim himself, a tall and thin figure, would usually answer the door. Then the space and the time were yours. You could wander as you wished, up and down stairs, past the paintings, sculptures, white stones and flowers that Jim had collected and placed with immense care at every turn. (Nothing was labelled: this was a home, not a gallery.) Or you could sit down and leaf through the library of art books. Or you could talk to Jim, who could tell you almost anything about the art and artists of the first half of the twentieth century, and let him lead you through the house, stopping to talk about particular works.
Born in Penarth in 1895, Jim had spent fourteen years in the Tate Gallery, buying works for the collection, and his knowledge was vast. He had his preferences – he was particularly fond of Brancusi, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, David Jones, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and Bryan Pearce – and those tastes were reflected in his personal buying and therefore in the Kettle’s Yard collection. It was there that I first became aware of the art of David Jones.
But the artist he’s most associated with is Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. When his widow Sophie died in 1925 she left no will and Gaudier’s surviving works, now in the care of the Treasury, surfaced in Jim Ede’s room at the Tate. He succeeded in persuading the Tate and the Contemporary Art Society to purchase a few, but ended up buying the remainder. He thought it his duty to make the world aware of what an exceptional artist had died so young in the First World War, ‘incalculably great in promise and in the hopes of his friends’, in Pound’s words. Using the archive he’d acquired with the art works he wrote an account of Gaudier and his partner and published it as A life of Gaudier-Brzeska (1930) (republished as Savage messiah in the following year). Relying heavily on her diaries and his letters, the narrative struck me, when I read it several years later, as reticent, stiff and stilted. It gives only limited insight into the urgency and intensity of the artist’s search to find a new language in sculpture, entirely free from the academicism of the prevailing styles.
Turn to Pound’s memoir and you move from a warm room to a cold shower. It’s not a memoir in any conventional sense, but a collection of short pieces by Pound and by Gaudier himself, some previously published in periodicals like Blast. They include Vorticist manifestos, letters to Pound and others, articles, tracts and recollections. The memoirist is almost as prominent as Gaudier, and Pound’s arrogance and bombast are well to the fore, sometimes echoed by Gaudier in his few manifesto writings. But you can’t miss here the restless spirit and experimentalism of a hugely gifted artist. Pound’s tributes are heartfelt, and he gives a far more generous selection than does Jim Ede of reproductions of Gaudier’s works.
Gaudier met Sophie in Paris in 1910. They shared similar restless, unbalanced natures, and formed a lasting, though it seems platonic, partnership. He added her family name on to his own. With Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska moved to London in 1911. By summer 1913 he was strongly under the influence of Pound and his fellow Vorticists. Pound’s famous maxim ‘make it new’ could have been coined specially for him. He constantly strove to abstract and to strip forms down to their simplest. But he tried to make sure that the cold stone or carved metal retained raw energy and drive – what clearly appealed to him in Pound’s teaching. ‘The great thing’, he wrote to Sophie, ‘is that sculpture consists in placing planes according to a rhythm.’ Within a few years he completed dozens of works, mainly in stone worked directly with the chisel, on the basis of many preparatory drawings. Gaudier was almost as gifted as a draughtsman as he was as a sculptor. Many of his drawings have the power and grace of Chinese ideograms (which he discovered in tandem with Pound).
Dancers, combining force, form and movement in equal measure, gave Gaudier his ideal subject. A series of variations on the theme produced one of his finest works, Red stone dancer (1913-14), in the Tate. It’s a small object, but powerful and impossible to ignore. Made of polished red Mansfield stone, it’s a chunky, geometric composition but contains within itself a powerful potential energy that might explode at any moment. Jim Ede (Savage messiah, p.255) says that Gaudier ‘likened [the Red stone dancer] to Ezra Pound’s poems, and when Zosik [Sophie] asked for an explanation of this, he said: ‘Well if you can’t understand it, I can’t explain it to you. I just feel it, and there’s an end to it’.’
In early 1914 Pound, never slow to aggrandize himself, commissioned Gaudier to sculpt a stone portrait of him. Gaudier took the task seriously. He made about 100 preparatory drawings, of which ten survive, and Walter Benington took a series of photographs of the carving in progress. The finished work Gaudier entitled Hieratic head of Ezra Pound. On the face of it this is the iconoclastic poet as god, fierce and stern in aspect as he stares directly at us. Pound’s features are reduced to simple geometric planes in an attempt to expunge the human and elevate the divine. The helmet-like hair gives him a violent, military look. You feel it seeks the stamp of approval of the Vorticist theorist. But maybe everything is not quite as it appears. Gaudier had an impish sense of humour. Some of his works, like Bird swallowing a fish, are anything but po-faced modernism. His view of Pound may have more detached than it seems. There seems something mildly comical about deifying, Pharaoh-style, a wild-eyed young American at loose in bohemian London. Others have pointed out that the shape of the sculpture, especially from the back, unambiguously resembles a phallus.
Pound himself devotes a section of his memoir to the making of the portrait: ‘… some of my best days, the happiest and the most interesting, were spent in his uncomfortable mud-floored studio when he was doing my bust.’ He ends the section in semi-agreement with the absurdity of the Egyptian comparison. ‘And we joked of the time when I should sell it to the “Metropolitan” for $5000, and when we should both live at ease for a year … some two or three decades hence.’ The work is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
But Gaudier remained true to the pioneering modernism of Pound. From the trenches of France in 1915 he wrote to Dorothy Shakespear of Pound’s collection of poems from the Chinese, Cathay, that, ‘I keep the book in my pocket. Indeed, I use [the poems] to put courage in my fellows. I speak now of the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘North Gate’… which are so appropriate to our case’. As Gaudier hints, there’s little doubt that Pound had in mind the futility and waste of the world war when he translated and adapted the words of an anonymous Chinese author to write ‘Song of the bowmen of Shu’. It ends with the lines:
We have no rest, three battles a month.
By heaven, his horses are tired.
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them.
The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arrows
and quivers ornamented with fish-skin.
The enemy is swift, we must be careful.
When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,
We come back in the snow,
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?
On Sundays I would sometimes go to chamber concerts held in Kettle’s Yard, in the open space occupied by a piano, with behind it the copy of Gaudier-Brzeska’s carved plaster relief, Wrestlers. I remember thinking that the sculpture’s intertwined arms and legs, rendered in a flat, stylized, almost clumsy way, seemed a perfect metaphor for the complex movements of the arms and feet of the pianist playing just feet away.
Jim Ede and the artists he knew and whose works he loved are all gone. Jim moved to Edinburgh in 1973 and died in 1990. But Kettle’s Yard is still there, as a reminder of a lost age and a very particular sensibility. And Gaudier-Brzeska survives too. Pound has a vivid sentence about how the man looked: ‘His stillness seemed an action, such was the daemon of energy that possessed him or served him’. The same sprung power in his sculptures and drawings has the capacity to surprise us today.