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Art Never Improves: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

"Sculptural energy is the mountain.

Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation.

Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. 1914. Unknown photographer.

“The Paleolithic Vortex resulted in the decoration of the Dordogne Caverns…/ Out of minds primordially preoccupied with animals Fonts-de-Gaume gained its procession of horses carved in rock:" (Gaudier-Brzeska, Vortex, Blast I).

For Gaudier, civilization after this ancient era drained the artistic struggle of its vigorous energy: "The acute fight subsided at the birth of the three primary civilizations." Five years later in 1919, T.S Eliot stood in a cave in southern France and said, "art never improves" (Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era).

In the Divine Comedy, Dante describes Homer, through the character of Virgil, as having surpassed all other poets (Canto IV, l.88). Since Homer was the earliest of the European poets -Dante would only have been thinking of the canon of Western Literature - he won the contest of best poet before any of the other competitors arrived to take part. Furthermore, this accolade was accorded to Homer - assuming he was a single unitary voice - some two thousand years after his death, and four hundred years later, Alexander Pope shared the same sentiment in the preface to his translations of Homer’s poems, and some two hundred years after that, James Joyce was using The Odyssey as the structural framework for his masterpiece Ulysses.

It is said that Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso were once shown around a kindergarten, and on seeing the artworks of these children, Picasso turned to Miró and said: 'Imagine if we could paint like that!' (Roland Penrose, Joan Miró). Although not identical, this example also reflects the notion that there are instances of an artwork arising out of almost nothing and having almost no pre-conditions. Neither the early Greeks nor the early learners have preconceptions to encumber them, nothing interferes with the vitality and confidence of expression. It is likely many oral poets predated Homer, and the small child has some knowledge of representation, but both instances begin unhampered by the weight of tradition and expectation. They have the liberation of being at the beginning.

Bird Swallowing a Fish. Kettles Yard, Cambridge.

Many modern readers will wonder if there is much to be gained from describing one artist as better than another, but the interest here is in observing that we do not see art as improving incrementally, building upon itself as science does. In science, the continuing refinement of the theorem produces a new and revitalised theorem, whose subsequent fracturing will require further refinement in progressive cycles of the advances in understanding. In art, however, refinement appears, in this analysis, to have the opposite effect: what is required is a tearing down of the intervening structures of expression that stand in the way of the original impetus. The modern sculptor, wrote Gaudier, "is continuing the tradition of the barbaric peoples of the earth (for whom we have sympathy and admiration)" (H. Gaudier, The Egoist).

In June 1914, Gaudier had exactly a year to live. In 1909 and 1910, he began to dedicate his life to art, and sculptural expression in particular, but he was only inspired to discover the beginnings of his true artistic direction over the course of 1912 and 1913. Thus, his fledgling career spanned only two or three years, and in that absurdly short time, he helped transform the direction of sculpture. Along with Epstein, Brancusi, Gill, Modigliani, and only a few others, Gaudier renounced the old classical style, which they all saw as a long, moribund tradition. Instead, they transformed the art of sculpture into one of forceful energy, through 'direct carving' and seeking to unearth the true potential of the materials that they used, they expressed their slogan: ‘truth to materials’.

Red Stone Dancer. Tate

Although short, Gaudier’s career and approach as a sculptor had an impact on the modern world of sculpture, greatly influencing artists such as Henry Moore. In The Pound Era , while looking at the plates of Gaudier’s carvings in Ezra Pound’s book Gaudier-Brzeska, HughKenner says of Henry Moore: “his mind was suddenly unclouded by Gaudier’s “Vortex”...immediately thereafter he made his first direct carvings in stone and in wood.” This may be a slightly romanticised version of the process, since Moore seemed to be equally inspired by Roger Fry's collection of essays Vision and Design, which introduced Moore to many other exponents of his fresh approach to art, not to mention Fry's own aesthetic theories. Nonetheless, it would be hard to overstate the influence of Gaudier's energy and invention in the creation of modern sculpture.

Gaudier had no formal training in art. His studies were his own, largely consisting of endless visits to museums. He suffered from extreme poverty: "Gaudier once slept on his studio floor, 'and woke up to find himself inundated with rain and lying in several inches of water.' The floor was normally mud. Trains rushed overhead." (Kenner, ibid.) He only ever had one monumental piece of stone, bought for him by Ezra Pound: all his other works were carved in scrounged fragments cast off by other sculptors or masons. He was a foreigner in London during this period. He had an extraordinary ‘tabula rasa’ of a mind: he could read many Chinese radicals at will - so sensitive were his perceptions - above all, he could see potency in the material, in the stone. Pound described him as a visionary who "'saw' both in waking and in sleep". Fry said he was “too pure an artist” to be “literal or imitative” (Judith Collins, Plastic Form and Truth to Materials).

Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound

Taking all of this into account, do we not discover an artist who is in a sense a modern primitive? This is not to use the word primitive as a pejorative term, but to describe someone less steeped in tradition, of the many sophistications that encrust the artistic process. If indeed that sort of artist and this immediacy of approach is required to renew and revitalise an artistic tradition, then it follows the opposite course than that of scientific advancement. Whereas science finds flaws in its previous advances and must then incorporate rather than abandon, the old understanding into a newer framework of understanding, art may periodically feel an urgent need to set aside its traditions and shed its 'advancements', rediscovering a purity of purpose in its earlier forms - the aim being not to discover anything new, better, or even improved, but simply to rediscover its energy.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska died in the First World War at the age of 23. Twice commended for his bravery, he was shot during a charge forward from the French lines.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. 1914. Unknown photographer.


Blast Magazine. Ed. Wyndham Lewis. Vol I. Page 155-8. June 20th 1914, London, John Lane.

Kenner H. (1972) The Pound Era. London, Faber and Faber

Dante A. (1947) The Portable Dante, Ed. Milano P. New York, The Viking Press

Penrose R. (1970) Miró. London, Thames Hudson

The Egoist, London, Vol I, no.6, 16th March, 1914, p.118

Collins J. Plastic Form and Truth to Materials. Carving Mountains (1998), Cambridge, Kettle’s Yard

Image references:

Kettles Yard, Cambridge. (1914). Bird Swallowing a Fish. [Sculpture]

Tate. Red Stone Dancer. (1913). [Sculpture]

Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound. (1914). [Sculpture]

Unknown photographer. (1914). Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. [Photo]


Author Photo

Oliver Nicholson

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