Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is an emblem of limitless artistic promise sacrificed to the stupidity of war. Born Henri Gaudier in the Loire Valley of France in 1891, he established his reputation in the energetic London art scene in the years just before World War I. Initially a prolific draftsman, he chose sculpture as his primary art form, at first modeling in clay but then moving to the direct carving of stone. In his late teens and early twenties, he experimented in many different styles, both naturalistic and semi- abstract, attracting the attention of England’s leading artists and writers. He showed every sign of becoming a major sculptor before being killed at the age of twenty-three in World War I. Gaudier-Brzeska: Life and Art uncovers new biographical information on the artist and is the definitive treatment of his sculptural art.
In assessing the life and work of Gaudier-Brzeska, it has been difficult to separate a mythic yearning regarding his promise and his tragic end from a sober evaluation of his actual production as an artist. Gaudier-Brzeska succeeds in acknowledging the power of the myth while setting it aside for an objective and balanced accounting of his brief career.
At the center of the myth was Gaudier’s strange and compelling relationship with Sophie Brzeska. Trying desperately to satisfy his father’s desire that he succeed in business while at the same time making room for his passion for art, Gaudier lived briefly in England and Germany before moving to Paris in 1909. It was his lifelong habit to do sketches of people in public places, and while doing so in a Paris library in 1909 he met the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his short life.
Sophie Brzeska was a thirty-eight-year-old Polish woman who was highly sensitive, tormented, and very lonely. She suffered greatly from the psychological wounds of her upbringing and her failures as a teacher and governess; she was contemplating suicide when she met Gaudier. Harboring secret ambitions to be a writer, she formed an immediate bond with Gaudier despite their very different temperaments.
Silber offers new insights into the nature of this very theatrical relationship. They shared intelligence, honesty, passionately held opinions, and a thorough disdain for conventional middle-class life and values. On the other hand, Brzeska was pessimistic, melancholy, and self-pitying while Gaudier was energetic, self-confident, and wildly enthusiastic about the adventure of life and art.
At Brzeska’s insistence, they were not to complicate the relationship with sex. Gaudier chafed under this but accepted her desire to be as a mother or sister to him, in fact adding her last name to his own and telling people that they were, indeed, brother and sister. Twice his age at the time of their meeting, she seemed to provide for him a kind of maternal nurturing mixed with independent intelligence and criticism that he needed. Their relationship over the next six years was often marked by fighting and separation, but each was entirely loyal to the other and fulfilled an essential need.
The other part of the Gaudier-Brzeska myth has to do with the nature of his accomplishment at a very young age. Still a teenager when he and Sophie moved to London in January of 1911, he managed over the next four years to move to the center of the English avant-garde art scene, to become a friend and co-revolutionary with the artists and writers who were making English modernism, and to produce a body of work in a wide variety of styles that left no doubt about his genius but left open to question his likely direction and his ultimate importance.
Silber’s book is at its best in trying to separate the unrealized promise of what Gaudier-Brzeska would have accomplished from what he actually did. Its final assessments are not greatly different from what others have concluded in recent years, but they are based on a more detailed and thorough analysis of a greater number of works than has heretofore been the case. This analysis is accompanied by the best photographic record and scholarly documentation of Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpture to date.
Gaudier-Brzeska decided to devote himself to sculpture shortly after meeting Sophie. The physical act of working with clay, and later with stone, appealed to his sensuous attachment to the physical world, as is clear in a 1910 letter to a German friend: “I love the sense of creation, the ample voluptuousness of kneading the material and bringing forth...
(The entire section is 1839 words.)