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Soft-Moving, Bright-Eyed Wild Thing

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'Dancer' by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1913).

‘Dancer’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1913).

‘There are few things more difficult than to appraise the work of a man suddenly dead in his youth,’ Ezra Pound wrote in his book about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the sculptor killed in the trenches at 23 whose work Pound had tirelessly helped to promote. Gaudier was mercurial, and many found him difficult to fathom: one friend wrote that he was ‘more like a dagger in the midst of us’; another that ‘it would need but little to set him murdering instead of hugging me.’ He found a protector in Pound, who described him on first meeting as a ‘soft-moving bright-eyed wild thing’. More of a Cubist portrait than a eulogy, the book contains shards of description (the eyes ‘almost alarmingly intelligent’), some romanced biography, a catalogue raisonné, postcards from the front (‘I threw a bomb in a very black night into the German line: all great fun’), and digressions on the Renaissance, pedantry, Whistler, war, Japanese prints and ‘ideals of the caressable’ in art.

Pound’s requiem to his friend, published in 1916 (only a year after his death), was the first in a line of excellent books devoted to Gaudier, who at some point annexed the name of his Polish companion, Sophie, a thicket of consonants which appalled Wyndham Lewis (‘do not ask me how Brzeska is pronounced’) and which Pound liked to shorten to Brzx. There were memoirs by the artist Horace Brodzky and by Sophie Brzeska, who insisted their union was platonic (‘there were no kisses in our programme’). Paul O’Keeffe’s 2004 biography, subtitled ‘An Absolute Case of Genius’, opens with arresting descriptions of the passage of a chisel through stone and of a bullet through flesh and bone. H. S. ‘Jim’ Ede’s Savage Messiah has been reprinted many times since it first appeared in 1930. It was Ede who enshrined Gaudier’s reputation in England: the house he created in Cambridge, Kettle’s Yard, holds the largest collection of his work.

‘I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces,’ Gaudier declared in his second Vorticist manifesto, written in pencil from the trenches. His papers and sketches reveal a restless prodigy, hungry for new images. Dominating a brisk study of athletes is the scrawled imperative: ‘Voir les Néréides au BM.’ Many of Gaudier’s figures seem a concentrate of what he saw at the museum: bronzes, goddesses, masks, hieratic heads, ‘man-headed bulls in horizontal flight-walk’, centaurs and lapiths rolled into one.

A recent exhibition at Kettle’s Yard on the theme of rhythm revolved around two of Gaudier’s sculptures, both called Dancer. Completed only weeks apart in 1913, they could not be more different. One is a graceful study in restraint, all sinuous line and slender limbs, modelled on the artist Nina Hamnett, who told the story in her memoir Laughing Torso. The other is a squat, abstract figure in stone the colour of oxblood, coiled in convulsive movement. The first nods serenely to Rodin; the second crouches, ready to leap into a violent, vital future. The difference between the two works points to Gaudier’s impatience, his easy virtuosity, but it is also a clue to what he might have gone on to accomplish. One dancer is caught shifting her weight from one step to the next, dipping a toe into empty space, suggesting the way that Gaudier disappeared mid-metamorphosis. ‘It is easy to laugh at the exaggerated estimate ‘the artist’ puts upon his precious life,’ Wyndham Lewis wrote. ‘But when it is really an artist – and there are very few – it is at the death of something terribly alive that you are assisting.’

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