Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir

by Ezra Pound
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1306

Pound’s first encounter with Gaudier-Brzeska gives a clue as to why Pound was attracted to him as a person as well as an artist. Pound and a friend were standing in front of one of Gaudier-Brzeska’s works at a public exhibition. Pound was admiring the work but stumbling over the pronunciation of its creator’s name when a young man, looking “like a well-made young wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing,” appeared out from behind a pedestal and, “speaking with the gentlest fury in the world,” pronounced the name, identified himself as the sculptor, and then “disappeared like a Greek god in a vision.”

Gaudier-Brzeska combined many of the qualities Pound sought in both art and life: energy, daring, passion, intelligence, and precision. Those who knew him testify in the memoir that Gaudier-Brzeska was the most fully alive person they had ever met, symbolized for many by the amazing intensity of his piercing eyes. So poor that he could not afford to buy stone to sculpt, he nevertheless celebrated the life he had and desired no other.

Gaudier-Brzeska’s genius was that he was able to infuse his personal qualities into his art. Energy, precision, intellect, and experimentation with form were qualities Pound was trying to get into his own poetry at the time, and they excited him when he found it in the work of others. In Gaudier-Brzeska he found a young artist of limitless promise.

Gaudier-Brzeska, just past twenty when he first met Pound, had yet to develop a single, mature style. He tried many approaches in drawing, painting, and sculpture—from somewhat naturalistic representation to near-total abstraction—often at the same time. In his last two years, however, he moved toward combining abstraction and rounded, organic forms in an original style that Pound favored and that would prove influential on subsequent modernist sculpture.

The move toward abstraction, or nonrepresentation, in art was one of the primary impulses of the modern art revolution, and one that interested Pound greatly. Gaudier-Brzeska, however, believed that total abstraction was better suited to painting than to sculpture for two reasons. First, painting could incorporate and explore a greater variety of forms than could sculpture, and, perhaps more interestingly, Gaudier-Brzeska thought that machines already embodied abstract form in three dimensions and that sculpture would do better to explore territory unique to itself.

Thus, Gaudier-Brzeska was among the first, and certainly the first in England, to investigate the possibilities of experimenting with abstract planes and masses which at the same time retained suggestions of the natural, organic world. Interestingly, Wyndham Lewis, his fellow vorticist, was doing similar things in paintings such as Timon of Athens.

Perhaps Gaudier-Brzeska’s most famous work in this style is his Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound. Pound admired Gaudier-Brzeska’s preference for chiseling in stone over modeling in clay and scraped together his own meager funds to buy Gaudier-Brzeska the only large piece of stone on which he was ever able to work. Gaudier-Brzeska transformed it into an abstracted but recognizable representation not only of Pound’s external features but also of his inner force. Pound records his own impression of the work in progress in Gaudier-Brzeska: “Before the back was cut out, and before the middle lock was cut down, there was in the marble a titanic energy, it was like a great stubby catapult, the two masses bent for a blow.”

Pound’s primary motivation for compiling Gaudier-Brzeska was to honor and enhance the reputation of his friend and fellow laborer. In the process, however, he put Gaudier-Brzeska in the context of the London artistic milieu and of the larger modernist movement. In so doing, Pound gave the book an importance that goes beyond Gaudier-Brzeska’s own considerable significance. The most important aspect of the English art and literary scene in the second decade of the century was the vorticist movement. Vorticism, named by Pound, represents England’s most important contribution to modernism in the arts. Lewis was the main artistic force of the movement and Pound its chief aesthetician and propagandist.

Although one should not exaggerate the cohesiveness or ultimate effect of vorticism as a movement, it does represent a significant coming together of important artists and writers who at least temporarily shared common concerns and goals. Among their interests were a desire to break with the traditions of the immediate past; an emphasis on formal experimentation; a concern for precision in execution; a valuing of the intellect and the will as well as, and usually in preference to, the unconscious and intuitive.

At the time of his initial public involvement in vorticism in 1914, Pound was associated in the public mind with another movement, Imagism, that was exclusively literary. One of the primary concerns in Gaudier-Brzeska was to help the public understand what vorticism was all about and how it related to his previous involvement with Imagism. Imagism, essentially, was a critical sensibility that rejected the kind of bloated, rhetorical poetry that Pound and others believed was the unfortunate legacy of the Victorian period. It called for a return to classical qualities of brevity, clarity, precision, and directness. Poetry, it said, should center on the clear presentation of carefully articulated sensory images.

Pound argues in Gaudier-Brzeska that vorticism is consistent with his Imagist values but extends them further. The key extension, perhaps, is adding to the Imagist value of clarity and precision the vorticist value of energy. At the heart of the vorticist aesthetic is the vision of the artist as a person possessing tremendous personal energy—emotional, intellectual, spiritual—which he or she infuses in the work of art through the mastery of craft.

A work of art is not static, then, as the Imagists tended to describe it, but is a potent incarnation of the energies of the artist in the medium of which that artist is a master. For the poet the medium is words, for the painter shape and color, for the musician sound, for the sculptor what Gaudier-Brzeska called “masses in relation.” Art, for vorticists, is patterned energy.

No better illustration of both the affinities and the differences of the two movements can be found than in their two definitions of the poetic image. An Imagist in 1913 had defined the image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In 1914, in an article reprinted in Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound defines the image as “a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.” An image, then, is not a static thing but a pattern through which the energies of language, thought, and emotion are constantly flowing.

Pound believed that this conception of art and the creative process best described what he saw going on among those who were trying to create a new art. For Pound, these movements were not merely art politics but also groundwork for the actual making of a new civilization. He quotes one observer who saw Gaudier-Brzeska as trying to do nothing less than give people new eyes with which to perceive the world, and his hopes for Western culture as a whole were no less radical.

Because so much is at stake for Pound in what he called this new Renaissance, the loss of an artist such as Gaudier-Brzeska was a tragedy for civilization as well as a personal grief. It was compounded in that its direct cause was the folly of a war between the great industrial powers. For Pound, as for others, World War I was to become the emblem of the collapse of the aged set of values and power relationships known as Western civilization. Its demise was eagerly awaited by many modernists. Unfortunately, it brought down Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and many of Pound’s hopes with it.

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