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Henri Gaudier-Brzeska - Roughly Made

Words:

Edd Norval
October 31, 2018

Very few artists have exhibited the ability of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in making inanimate objects exude such powerful life. Choosing to fly in the face of the polished Grecian sculptures that had shaped the art-form - he instead adopted more raw and kinetic methods influenced from places farther afield.

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Gaudier-Brzeska created a prodigious body of work and spent his days hanging out around the bohemian circles of Paris. As a young man on a scholarship, he was able to travel, studying languages and business. His desire to be an artist never boded well with his parents. Even from these youthful years, the Frenchman held a unique vision of what life and art should be..


As a figure in art, he has been highly influential. But in his own life, its clear that his influences, his life and his ideas stemmed mainly from two people; the complex love he shared with Sophie Brzeska and his time under the wing of Ezra Pound.


It was as a young man that he met Sophie. He was 18 and she was twice that. The Polish writer and the aspiring artist were inseparable, yet somewhat detached, at least physically. Biographies of Gaudier-Brzeska often tend to gloss over their relationship, but it can be understood that they rarely, if ever, had sex. Instead, coming from a wealthier background, she was able to buy prostitutes for him. Their intimacy came in experience and emotion.

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Although they were never married, Henri chose to adopt her name. He was passionate, wild and unpredictable. Sophie was similarly unpredictable, yet outwardly more callous and dismissive. It wasn't only love that brought them together, but it was their battles with mental illness that was the glue that bound the pair up until his death. Their actions were, at times, difficult to rationalise. With each other there was no need to even try.


The two 'sides' of a person's actions can be roughly broken down into the heart and the head - that is the feeling and the thought. Sophie was all feeling. Ezra Pound then, was all thought. After meeting the American modernist poet, Gaudier-Brzeska's imagination began to reel itself in and approach his creativity as an artist constantly refining.


Under the influence of Ezra, a poet fascinated with Eastern mythology and art, Guadier-Brzeska too began to look further afield for his influences. Primitive and tribal art resonated with his predisposition for raw and unfinished pieces. Incorporating the aesthetic sensibility of the Easter Island's mysterious heads, he carved many similar fagures and adopted the rough aesthetic into his philosophy.

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As a kind of artistic fingerprint or signature, the young Frenchman would leave his carving marks on the figure he was working on. It produced something that had a deeply palpable energy, as if it were created in a frenzy and what we are looking at is the aftermath of the storm - the remnants of a creative outburst beyond our capabilities.


This direct carving had a direct impact on the audience. His erraticness in life and willingness to live freely, with a devil-may-care swagger and youthful outlook all manifested through these creations. Museum trips with Sophie allowed him to absorb the multiplicity of life that, as a young artist, he'd struggle to have access to at that point. A force of nature, his genius was clear for all to see.


Rejecting the academic and theoretical backdrop of stone carving, he embraced the Vorticism movement - recognisable for its clean lines and similarities to Cubism, Wyndham Lewis, the movement's pioneer, focussed on the dynamism of the form. He insisted it had to feel 'alive'. To Henri-Brzeska it made sense. He had a source to focus his abundance of creative energy.

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When the First World War came around, Henri enlisted as a French soldier with expected zeal and took to his duties in the same way as he took to his art. The performative aspect of creation - being entirely absorbed by that which is before you, carried into his military life. With reckless abandon he'd engage with the enemy and for this he was decorated for his bravery.


Sadly, it was this same attitude, the feroacity that he faced life with, that saw him killed in the line of duty. At age 23 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska had left a blazing trail through the art world. His name, spirit and sculptures continue to outlive him. He is remembered as a prime example of unfulfilled genius. His was a life cut achingly short.


The reverberations were felt perhaps most deeply by Sophie. Already struggling with mental health issues, she had a crutch in Henri. Upon the news of his death, she had lost everything - her friend, lover and partner-in-crime. Illness, amplified by deep despair and distress saw her comitted to an asylum and a decade after Henri's death, she too passed away prematurely.

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