Richard John Davis
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was at the centre of the movement and in some ways came to represent it, living an equally short existence and producing era-defining art.
The term “vorticism” was first used by Ezra Pound to describe the cutting edge nature of the pre-first world war London art scene. Blast’s editor, Wyndham Lewis, quickly appropriated it in 1913. He used it to define new facets of what was later to be termed “modernism”, referring to artists’ and writers’ fascination with the “vortices” of modern life.
Lewis founded the Rebel Art Centre in 1914. It immediately attracted some of the leading lights of the contemporary arts of the time, including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, an artist who had first visited Britain in 1908.
Originally Henry Gaudier, the artist had met Sophie Brzeska, a Polish writer, while a student in Paris in 1910. They married and Gaudier added Brzeska to his name. The couple moved to the UK in 1911 and settled, while Gaudier-Brzeska – still only 19 – amassed a group of intellectual and artist friends from the London avant garde. These included Pound, Lewis, Middleton Murray, and TE Hulme. Gaudier-Brzeska, primarily a sculptor, found himself at the centre of the vorticist movement.
The Rebel Art Centre was to become a magnet for imagist poets, those interested in German
aesthetics, futurism, expressionism and cubism. Lewis had, in Blast, published a Manifesto of Vorticism, which he saw as Britain’s answer, or perhaps riposte, to Italian futurism. The foremost proponent of futurism, Filippo Marinetti, had himself published the infamous Manifesto of Futurism in 1909.
In the vorticist manifesto, Lewis – clearly intending to provoke – described futurism as “the latest form of impressionism”. Some parts seem like a parody of the futurist document: “Elephants are VERY BIG. Motor cars go very quickly.” But more serious and prescient notes are struck with lines such as “Education… tends to destroy the creative instinct.”
But this was a time of manifestos, which appeared in vast numbers from various cliques of the art and literary realms, many of which are now all but forgotten. Gaudier-Brzeska, meanwhile, got one with producing work and posing for other artists. The painter Alfred Wolmark exhibited a portrait of him in 1914, at the Grosvenor Gallery, which was described by the Observer’s art critic as “a piece of pictorial impertinence that goes beyond a joke. The intention is probably to suggest a certain demoniac fierceness which may or may not be characteristic of the sitter. The result is merely a demon of melodrama…” In it, the tall, gaunt figure of Gaudier-Brzeska menaces the viewer in a wide-brimmed hat against a dramatic red background.
The artist lived with Sophie, who was much older, in Spartan conditions and worked on a huge bust of his friend Pound, named the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (1914). He warned the poet that the sculpture would not look like him, but would rather be “an expression of certain emotions I get from your character”. Pound, in turn, regarded the piece as phallic.
Vorticism was short-lived, lasting from 1914 to 1917. Like the futurists, the vorticists were concerned with the machine – this was now the machine age, after all. In 1914, Hulme wrote that “the specific differentiating quality of the new art [will be] the idea of machinery”. Lewis felt that abstraction, too, was crucial – declaring that artists and writers should avoid and escape the “trappings” of daily life. But, arguably, vorticism was all about movement and energy, as can be seen in Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (1913-14), where movement seems to be defined as a struggle against the forces of existence, but also against the limitations of the self. The artist was fascinated by both dance – specifically the Russian ballet – and wrestling.
Gaudier-Brzeska died while fighting in the first world war in 1915, aged 23. In 1930, Jim Ede published his biography of Gaudier-Brzeska, Savage Messiah. He had collected many of the artist’s pieces – many of which are in collection at the Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge. Pound wrote, in 1916: “A great spirit has been among us, and a great artist is gone.”