Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

Gaudier-Brzeska preserves the record of an artist whose achievement might otherwise have been forgotten. (Important collections of his work now exist in Cambridge, England, and in the most important modern art museum in Paris.) Even though he died too absurdly young to be a major figure in twentieth century art, his influence is acknowledged by those who are. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is the great English sculptor Henry Moore, who as a young man read Pound’s book and was influenced by Gaudier-Brzeska’s work. Moore made famous the use of biomorphic forms, developing a line of thought in modern sculpture first explored in England by Gaudier-Brzeska.

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This memoir is also an important document in the history of modernism. It shows Pound, a central figure in that culturewide movement, as he tries to enunciate his aesthetic vision during the heat of battle. Pound knew even as he wrote that vorticism as a movement was largely dead because of the deaths of Gaudier-Brzeska and others and because of the decline of interest in the arts as a result of the war. His not yet fully acknowledged fear was that the broader movement to renew Western civilization through the leadership of the arts was also in deep trouble, a fear that proved correct.

Gaudier-Brzeska is also a key part of Pound’s own individual career. One finds in it many of the values and concerns that mark not only his London years (from 1908 to 1920) but also the rest of his life. Pound claims that vorticism gave him a new sense of form. Just as painters could focus on the formal relationship of planes and color and shapes to one another, rather than reproducing a representational illusion of a cow in a field, so Pound would begin to explore how words and images could be related to each other in new ways. One result was the ideogrammic method, in poetry the side-by-side placement of seemingly unrelated images or references which depend for their meaning on the active involvement of the reader in perceiving their relationship. This general method of writing poetry informs not only Pound’s lifelong epic, The Cantos (1925-1969), but also great modernist masterpieces such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).

Another preoccupation of The Cantos is a search throughout history, East and West, for individuals who embody the traits Pound found in 1913 in Gaudier-Brzeska: energy, sincerity, creativity, commitment, and the like. The unnecessary loss of Gaudier-Brzeska became for Pound symptomatic of the disease of the West as a whole. Pound later said that it was the sculptor’s death that started him thinking about war and its causes. Thus began Pound’s obsession with economics and politics and ultimately his tragic involvement with Italian Fascism. Gaudier-Brzeska is a testament to a lost friend, a celebration of artistic genius, an apologetics for an art movement, the enunciation of an aesthetic, a significant document in the history of modernism, and a foreshadowing of the career of a great poet and cultural entrepreneur.

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