A short biography of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, gifted sculptor.
The Tate Gallery in London recently hosted an exhibition on the radical art movement the Vorticists. Organise! Looks at the political convictions of one of its members, the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska.
Henri Gaudier was born in 1891 at Saint Jean de Braye on the eastern outskirts of Orleans in France. The district was part rural and part urban. He wanted to become a carpenter like his father but showed great talent at school, immersing himself in books, school work and drawing and becoming a solitary individual isolated from his sisters and mother. The award of a grant meant that he was able to study abroad in England for two years at the age of sixteen, taking on business studies at first Bristol and then Cardiff, all the time drawing and reading more and more. He then continued study at Nuremburg in Germany between April and September 1909.
Returning from Germany he decided to interrupt his studies and moved to Paris where he got a job as a translator with a publisher. He made use of a local library and in his spare time hanged out in student and artistic circles, becoming acquainted with anarchist militants. He took part in the enormous demonstration in Paris on 14th October 1909 against the announcing of the death sentence on the anarchist educationalist Francisco Ferrer by the Spanish state, a demonstration which ended in a riot. The many strikes and demonstrations of 1910 pulled him more and more into the orbit of the workers’ movement and the anarchist movement and he became acquainted with the ideas of syndicalism. Among these demonstrations was the funeral of the anarchist Cler, murdered by the police during a strike in June of that year. Another demonstration attended by Gaudier was the huge demonstration to protest the execution of Liabeuf. This young worker had falsely been accused of being a ponce when he fell in love with a prostitute. As a result he was jailed. Coming out of prison he had decided to avenge himself and had attacked a police patrol killing one cop and wounding seven others. He went to his death crying “ I am not a ponce!”. The demonstration, supported by many workers, artists and writers, also turned into confrontations with the police and Gaudier might well have been involved with these. The fate of Liabeuf was to have an effect on Gaudier, as will be seen.(1)
He began to produce sculptures in this period. In May 1910 he met a Polish woman , Sophie Brzeska, twenty years older than himself and fell in love with her. In an attempt to introduce Sophie to his family, the pair thought it a good idea that Sophie got lodging in a village near his old home. There was an anonymous denunciation to the police and she was accused of being a prostitute, and she was forced to return to Paris. Remembering the example of Liabeuf and the strictures put on free love, Gaudier passed Sophie off as his sister, even to his close artistic associates. His convictions on free love, in addition to his anti-militarist convictions, pushed him more and more towards the anarchist movement, and Sophie herself appears to have had anarchist convictions. He was influenced by Malatesta but most of all by the anarchist theorist Kropotkin. He tried to meet Kropotkin in December 1912 in London , describing him as “the great anarchist”. He wrote to Sophie that he would have been delighted to execute a portrait of Kropotkin. He admired the work of the great illustrator Aristide Delannoy, whose sketches appeared in the libertarian papers Temps Nouveaux and L’Homme du Jour and mourned his death in 1911. He was also an admirer of Steinlen, another noted anarchist illustrator. He himself had an inclination to become an illustrator for the anarchist press to the extent of sidelining his sculpture.
He assiduously read the French anarchist papers and the London anarchist journal Freedom.
Fleeing the draft in 1911 he left France for London in January of that year. There he met up with Sophie again and they attempted to earn a living, often having to be separated for long periods because of work reasons. Henri found a job with a wood merchant in the City, and began to develop his sculptural skills, at first modelling himself on Rodin, and then influenced by his visits to the British Museum, falling more and more under the influence of the tribal arts of Africa and Oceania.
In 1912 his drawings appeared in a magazine of modern art, Rhythm, signed Gaudier-Brzeska.
During 1913 and the first part of 1914 he produced some of his finest work, compared to the most advanced works of the time being produced by Archipenko, Modigliani, Zadkine, Epstein and Brancusi. As a result of several commissions, he was able to open a workshop and to buy supplies of marble. He left his job in autumn 1913 and devoted himself to his art. He became connected with the London Group of avant garde artists , differentiating himself from the Futurist movement . In four texts published after his death in the Vorticist magazine Blast he outlined his differences with impressionism and futurism. He became a participant in the Vorticist group, and a friend of the poet Ezra Pound. Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska had many arguments about the latter’s anarchism. Pound, as is well known, later became a supporter of fascism and was a notorious ant-Semite. Gaudier-Brzeska made an analogy of his technique of directly carving into marble with the anarchist idea of direct action! One of his works, unfortunately no longer existent, Two Women Running , is described by Gaudier-Brzeska as an allegory of the spirit of Liberty urging on Woman to a nobler life.
So what then compelled this committed anti-militarist to suddenly renounce his convictions on the outbreak of the First World War? H Why did he return to France to enlist to be subsequently slaughtered on the front on 5th June 1915. Malatesta was to rage “ Have the anarchists lost their principles?” Gaudier Brzeska, like many socialists, syndicalists and an anarchist minority which included Kropotkin, were to enthusiastically support the Allies against Germany, justifying this appalling about-face with a need for a defence of “civilisation” and “culture” against the forces of a barbarous and authoritarian Germany. Gaudier-Brzeska was to write in 1912 that he was chastened that “the youth of France had not revolted en masse against the abominable conscription” and that he did not “recognise any patriotic duty” to join the draft. Two years later he was to justify his new stance by stating that: “It is a matter of saving civilisation before these bastards destroy all works of Art”.
Further reading: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Guerre sociale: Art, Anarchism and Anti-Militarism in Paris and London, 1910–1915 by Mark Antliff
(1)Victor Serge in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary gives a graphic description of the Liabeuf affair…”Shouts and angry scuffles broke out when the guillotine wagon arrived, escorted by a squad of cavalry. For some hours there was a battle on the spot, the police charges forcing us ineffectively because of the darkness, into side-streets from which sections of the crowd would disgorge once again the next minute… At dawn, exhaustion quietened the crowd, and at the instant when the blade fell upon a raging head still yelling its innocence, a baffled frenzy gripped the twenty or thirty thousand demonstrators, and found its outlet in a long-drawn cry: Murderers!... When in the morning I returned to that part of the boulevard, a huge policeman, standing on the square of fresh sand which had been thrown over the blood, was attentively treading a rose into it”.
The above article orinally appeared in issue 77 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federation