The arrival of Vorticism was announced, with great gusto and militant defiance, in a manifesto published in the first issue of Blast magazine, which also included work by Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, William Roberts and Jacob Epstein. Dated June 1914 but issued a month later, this puce-covered journal set out to demonstrate the vigour of an audacious new movement in British art. Vorticism was seen by Lewis as an independent alternative to Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism. With the help of Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska and others, he used the opening manifesto pages of Blast to launch an uninhibited attack on a wide range of targets.
The Blunt Coffer resulted from a hurried commission given to Gaudier by Pound in 1914. The box was presented as a gift to the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt(1840–1922) on the occasion of what became known as the ‘Peacock Dinner’ on18 January 1914. In the years before World War I, Pound worked energetically toestablish modernism in Britain and encouraged the development of an avant-garde subculture in London. Though still in the early stages of his own career, heacted as impresario for the new movement and sought ways to increase itsmomentum on multiple fronts.
Beginning almost immediately after his early death in World War I, there has been asustained attempt to cast Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915) as a prodigy of modernist sculpture. Ezra Pound’s mythologizing memoir of him took the lead andcharacterized Gaudier as the prototypical bohemian artist whose defining trait wasa fierce and uncompromising individuality. Because Gaudier’s death in the trenchesended his short career, the fascination with his maverick reputation has been basedprimarily on the accounts of his life and on a select group of works within hisoeuvre.
Gaudier-Brzeska’s final sculptures can not be described as wholly Vorticist in their implications. One of the finest, Birds Erect (limestone, 667×260×314 mm, 1914; New York, MOMA), is a tall carving that seems to move away from mechanistic rigidity towards a rather more organic language. Its exploration of near-abstraction bears out the analysis that Gaudier-Brzeska gave in Blast, where he explained that ‘Sculptural energy is the mountain./Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation./Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.’
[Gaudier-Brzeska was a] French sculptor and draughtsman. He began sculpting in Paris c. 1910, taking as his model Auguste Rodin rather than the avant-garde artists of his own generation. When he moved to London in January 1911, having previously visited England on a scholarship in 1906 and again in 1908, his knowledge of contemporary developments in sculpture was slight. He was accompanied by Sophie Brzeska, whose surname he appended to his own. A crucial meeting with Jacob Epstein, when the tomb of Oscar Wilde (1912; Paris, Père-Lachaise Cemetery) was still in his studio, strengthened Gaudier-Brzeska’s determination to pursue a more experimental direction. He delighted in pitting himself against the cultures that he admired during visits to the British Museum, and his work ranged from carefully carved Classical torsos to deliberately barbaric painted masks.
[Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, and Gill] sought to escape from the classical tradition. They glorified the primitive, the art of what Gaudier-Brzeska admiringly called the "barbaric peoples of the earth". For Epstein, the Polish Jew from New York, the exotic arts of Africa, Asia and the Oceanic shores provided influences. For Gill, son of a Brighton non-conformist minister, it was India that fired the imagination, especially the sexually explicit Hindu temple carvings.
["Wild Thing"] is taken from Ezra Pound's description of the young French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska padding behind him "like a well-made young wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing". Gaudier-Brzeska is one of three iconoclastic artists chosen by the show's curator, Richard Cork, to demonstrate the strength and daring of the sculpture of the period.
[For the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound,] Gaudier was unquestionably inspired by Hoa Hakananai’a, the great totemic Easter Island figure that used to stand at the entrance to the British Museum. The result is a sculpture which, from the front, clearly looks like Pound. It has his striking features – the goatee beard and thick, swept-back hair. The hair gives Gaudier, I guess, the opportunity to do what he does, which is make the head look like an enormous circumcised penis when you look at it from the back. Pound’s only instruction to the sculptor had been to make the portrait ‘virile’.
The writer Ezra Pound recognised Gaudier’s genius and was keen to promote and support him, and so commissioned the artist to do a portrait bust and bought a block of stone for the purpose. Pound understood the importance of direct carving as a marker of modernism. There are a wonderful series of photographs by Walter Benington in which you can see how simply Gaudier sketched out Pound’s features on the stone.
Gaudier-Brzeska’s investment in the Vorticist fascination with the relationship between animals and machines is also represented in the exhibition, in the sharp angles and aggressive geometrisation of his Bird Swallowing a Fish. The sculpture sits in the middle of the second room, hanging in its moment of suspended animation for a viewer to consider as they walk around – will the fish will choke the bird? Or the bird swallow the fish?
Jim Ede (original owner of Kettle’s Yard) was an avid collector of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – one of the group of artists to form the Rebel Art Centre in 1914. Gaudier-Brzeska, who was primarily a sculptor although many of his most iconic works are in China ink, helped Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein (among others) to found the Centre in opposition to Roger Fry’s autocratic regime at the Omega workshops in London. The group would be baptised ‘the Vorticists’ by Ezra Pound, a close friend and collaborator.