The noisy infancy of modernism

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Despite the claim in the title of this new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was not quite in at the birth of modern sculpture, although he was an important figure in one of the earliest and noisiest splits in British modernism.

In 1913, aged 22 and still a novice sculptor, he had been a member of London’s Omega Workshop, Roger Fry’s design studio founded to forge a single art movement out of post-impressionism, “primitive” tribal art and cubism. Within a few months he had joined Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Jacob Epstein and others in rebellion against Fry’s particular didactic, replacing it with one of their own. Pound christened this vorticism.

Fry’s ideas were too static for Lewis and his friends. They saw art as a powerful force, by which a nation’s creative effort sucks in energy from the natural world, the machine world and traditional art forms, to generate a whirling “national vortex”; and also as the force by which an individual epitomises the process, forming a “personal vortex”. For more than a year, Vortex Gaudier whirled faster and brighter than most, before being cut off by a German bullet at the Western Front in June 1915.

When he was born in 1891 near Orléans he was plain Henri Gaudier; he tacked on the name of his Polish lover Zophia Brzeska, two decades his senior, after they had moved to London in 1911. It was then that he decided to exchange the life of a clerk for that of an artist and bohemian. A determined social misfit, Gaudier rarely missed an opportunity to affront public manners and morals (he and Zophia lived together pretending to be brother and sister) but he was also a deeply earnest self-taught artist, whose style evolved with great rapidity. And although he died seeing himself as a paid-up member of the English Vortex (from the Western Front he posted two vorticist essays to Lewis’s magazine Blast) his influences and contacts, and the work that came out of them, were always more various and more international in scope. Kettle’s Yard, which acquired Zophia Brzeska’s art collection after her death, has successfully conveyed this wider context.

In their three years together Gaudier landed few paid jobs but two portrait-bust commissions, made in 1912, are shown here. Gaudier had decided to be a sculptor only the previous year, so these are precocious efforts. One rather unlikely patron, Major Raymond Smythies, is portrayed as a stiff-backed, stiff-moustached military man, as if in the act of bristling at Gaudier’s bad manners and anti-bourgeois jibes. In a catalogue essay by the curator Sebastiano Barrassi, the style and characterisation of these bronzes are linked to Gaudier’s respect for Rodin.

The exhibition invites further comparison between Rodin’s “Aphrodite” (c.1885) and Gaudier’s “Dancer” (1913). Both bronzes are nude figures stepping mid-dance from a dais or down a step, but it is clear that, by this time, Gaudier had paid off his debt to Rodin. The latter’s dancer is deliberately unbalanced, almost falling, while Gaudier’s figure, with her smoother surface and confident bearing, appears perfectly poised.

Clay modelling was cheaper but direct carving in stone was what Gaudier really wanted to do. From his friend Jacob Epstein he learned about tribal-style carving, in token of which Kettle’s Yard has Epstein’s “Flenite Relief”, the double-sided serpentine stone tablet showing a woman giving birth that was bought last year by Leeds City Art Galleries. But Gaudier’s magpie eye also took in an array of pan-European influences, including the work of Matisse, Picasso (in his few cubist sculptures), the Ukrainian Aleksander Archipenko, the Lithuanian Jacques Lipchitz, the Hungarian Josef Csáky, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi and the Italian Modigliani – all
of whom are represented here. Unsurprisingly, there is no outstanding singular manner, no Gaudier signature, evident in this show. It may be brilliant but it has the eclecticism of student work.

Some things, however, can be said about the unique nature of Gaudier’s art, the still centre within his creative vortex. “Sculpture consists of placing planes according to a rhythm,” he wrote, and although his figures – he was almost always a figurative artist – are far from exercises in symmetry, they display balance, assurance, rhythm and grace. “The Dancer” is early evidence of this. A fine relief, “The Wrestlers” (1913), in which the combatants’ arms and legs are interwoven with almost the complexity of a celtic knot, shows it also, while the following year’s sensuous minimalist drawing “Seated Woman” is fluent and graceful enough to suggest Gaudier might have rivalled Matisse in this manner.

In his poverty Gaudier rarely had the chance to lay his chisel to a purpose-bought chunk of marble, usually having to content himself with masonry off-cuts. But he had an instinct for marrying material with idea, whether for a human or an animal subject. The drawing just mentioned is a study for one of Gaudier’s strongest carvings. From paper to stone “A Seated Woman”, lent by the Pompidou Centre, morphed into something appropriately more monumental, not to say beefier. But what most pleases the eye is the way the sculptor exploits the veins in the rounded, silky-smooth marble to provide gentle, spiralling striations that do not simply lie on the surface but are integral to the meaning of the whole piece.

Vorticism much occupied Gaudier’s mind in his last year, even though what is “vorticist” about late work such as “Seated Woman” is never very clear. Not that it much matters. Vorticism, like Gaudier, died in the war, while feeling not theory was the true source of Gaudier’s fast-developing art. In one letter from the front he wrote that he had captured a Mauser rifle – “a powerful image of brutality” – from the Germans and, breaking off the walnut-wood butt, used his knife to carve a counter-image, “a small maternity statue”. After his death the piece was lost in the chaos of war, but it’s hard to believe it looked quite like anything he had made before.

My one reservation about the exhibition is that too many of the Kettle’s Yard works attributed to Gaudier are “posthumously cast” bronzes of original carvings sold in the 1960s to secure this small gallery’s future. Gaudier understood the indivisibility of design and material, and it is important that visitors realise the extent to which these pieces, like a violin sonata played on a trombone, are not authentic.

‘We the Moderns: Gaudier-Brzeska and the Birth of Modern Sculpture’ is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until March 18. Tel 1223 352124

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