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Art & artists

Wild thing - Gaudier-Brzeska's short life in the avant-garde

— September 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Cover of Savage Messiah by H.S. Ede et al.

Savage Messiah: A Biography of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

By H.S. Ede, Sebastiano Barassi, Evelyn Silber and Jon Wood

In 1927 H.S. ‘Jim’ Ede bought the estate of the French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915). Gaudier-Brzeska had moved to London in January 1911 and made an impression on British sculpture through his involvement with the Vorticist movement. Then his career was cut sadly short: he was killed in the First World War in 1915, at the age of just 23. In 1930, Ede published A Life of Gaudier-Brzeska, subsequently re-issued as Savage Messiah, a biography of the artist, which played a crucial role in raising the profile of the sculptor.  Today, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculptures are highly praised for their powerful stylized forms of figures and animals, carved into beautiful stone. His work combines the organic and mechanistic aesthetics dominant at the start of the twentieth century and shows his interest both in modern art, such as that of Jacob Epstein, and the art of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, such as the Easter Island head at the British Museum that inspired his Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (1914). Gaudier-Brzeska’s work has recently featured in the Vorticism exhibition at Tate Britain (closing 4 September 2011) and the Wild Thing exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2009/10. Ede’s collection of Gaudier-Brzeska and other modern artists can be seen at his former home at the Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge.

This volume reissues the latest version of this text, from 1971, drawing on the 1929 original manuscript, held at the Henry Moore Institute archive, in order to embellish the original text with further illustrations and informative notes. Ede structured the narrative around the love story between Henri and his Polish wife Sophie Brzeska, 20 years his elder, whose story becomes thoroughly intertwined with her husband’s. The content of Ede’s book is, approximately, half Henri’s letters, written to Sophie, Dr Benedikt Uhlemayr (one of Gaudier’s first sitters) and others, and half Ede’s commentary upon them, which expands upon and links the letters. Ede insisted that this commentary was based not on his own feelings about Gaudier-Brzeska, but upon what he had read about them in his research.

The degree of insight into his life and artistic development provided by these letters is staggering.  The reader shares with Henri the moment in May 1910 he decides he is ‘not a painter, but a sculptor’, and discovers the exact materials he used, and where they were purchased, and which artists Henri revered – and those whom he dismissed.  When Ede first wrote this book, he imagined it would be read only by those already familiar with Ezra Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, written soon after the young artist’s death in 1916.  For this reason, the focus of his writing is less on Gaudier-Brzeska’s works themselves, which would have been known to the reader. This volume includes many illustrations, including a lot of sketches, but the text has more to say about the artist himself than his work.

As well as Ede’s text, this volume contains essays by Sebastiano Barassi and Jon Wood on how the biography came about and by Evelyn Silber, who charts the sources used by Ede. The thoroughness of the research that has gone into revisiting this text is evident in the lengthy appendices, including a chart of all Henri’s letters, a description of all his sketchbooks, even a list of all Henri and Sophie’s pet names for each other.

This is an impeccably researched and lovingly produced in-depth study into the life and practice of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and of the creation of Ede’s popular biography of him. It is therefore more useful to the student of modern sculpture, or anyone intrigued by the opportunity to get inside an avant-garde artist’s head, than those wishing to become more familiar with the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculptures.

Savage Messiah: A Biography of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska by H. S. Ede, Sebastiano Barassi, Evelyn Silber and Jon Wood is published by Kettle’s Yard and the Henry Moore Institute 2011. 320 pp., 24 colour /64 mono illus. ISBN 978-1-905462-34-6


Rosalind McKever
Art historian and critic

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