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Gaudier-Brzeska by Charlotte Stokes

Catalogue Entry: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Seated Female Nude, Pen and Ink, 442 x 544 mm, Date Unknown.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska occupies an anomalous position in art history, claimed by both the British and the French. This essay will explore Gaudier-Brzeska’s short life, investigate his position within avant-garde groups including Bloomsbury and the Vorticists, and examine how Seated Female Nude, part of the University of Warwick art collection, fits into his oeuvre.

Born in 1891, Henri Gaudier grew up in St Jean de Brayer, a small village near Orleans. He never received a formal art training, but travelled on scholarships to Bristol in 1907 and Nuremberg in 1909. He moved to Paris in 1910, where against his parents’ wishes he looked to forge his career as an artist. His relationship with Sophie Brzeska, whose name he adopted, caused numerous social problems, particularly on his return to St Jean de Brayer, so the pair left France for London, where they lived ostensibly as brother and sister. Gaudier-Brzeska arrived in London in January 1911, in time to witness and affect an exhilarating episode in British art. His untimely death in World War One, has led to a romanticized approach to his work.[1] However, Gaudier-Brzeska’s momentous contribution to modern British sculpture is now widely recognized. Although best known for direct carving, he was also a prolific and highly skilled draughtsman.

Art historians have focused on Gaudier-Brzeska’s role within the Bloomsbury and Vorticist groups. Briefly, the Bloomsbury Group included, among others, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. In 1913 Roger Fry opened the Omega workshop, which employed artists to design furniture, textiles and other domestic objects.[2] Gaudier-Brzeska joined the Omega workshop in October 1913, and produced numerous drawings and small-scale sculptures. Further, he exhibited with the Bloomsbury group at the Grafton Groups Alpine Gallery show in January 1914.[3] However, he quickly abandoned the Omega workshop, to support the Vorticist cause.

Wyndham Lewis, both artist and writer, formed the Vorticist group in London, 1914, centered around the Rebel Art Centre at Great Ormond Street.[4] The group included, among others, Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Ezra Pound, William Roberts, Dorothy Shakespear, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth. Vorticist artists looked to revolutionize English Art, by producing largely abstract compositions charged with aggression. In contrast to the pacifist ideals of the Bloomsbury Group, the Vorticists were pro war, celebrated the machine, and new industrial technology. The group asserted their aggressive, virile ambitions in Blast, 1914.[5] Among Gaudier-Brzeska’s most significant contributions to Vorticism are Red Stone Dancer, 1913 and The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914. Such works illustrate how Gaudier-Brzeska not only witnessed, but shaped twentieth century British sculpture.

This text will ask how Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawing, Seated Female Nude, part of the University of Warwick art collection, fits into his oeuvre. As noted, Gaudier-Brzeska was a prolific draughtsman. In a letter to Sophie Brzeska he described a life class he attended ‘The people of the class are so stupid, they only do two or three drawings in two or three hours, and think me mad because I work without stopping – especially while the model is resting, because it is so much more interesting than the poses. I do from 150 to 200 drawings each time, and that intrigues them no end.’[6] Gaudier-Brzeska sought to capture form with rapid detail, often utilizing only the contour and a few lines, to grasp particular characteristics of an object or figure.[7]

Various issues arise in identifying Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings. It is hard to know when his drawings are studies for, or studies after sculpture. Ezra Pound argued, Gaudier-Brzeska made outline drawings as studies for sculpture, and more detailed drawings, with shading or hatching, as records of his sculpture. Further, he used his sculpture as models, as he lacked funds to hire one. However, he also produced many drawings that do not relate to sculpture.

Dating Gaudier-Brzeska’s work is more complex. His early work is naturalistic, however, even early sketches illustrate a tendency towards simplification. The majority of surviving drawings are thought to date from 1912 and 1913, when the artist attended life classes at Kew Gardens. He wrote to Sophie Brzeska ‘I have done innumerable drawings – about 600 to 1000.’[8] From 1913 to 1914 Gaudier-Brzeska gained greater control of line, his work was more assured, particularly in terms of flow. He described line as ‘a bar, a limit, an infraction of liberty, a slavery – while mass is free and can be multiplied infinitely, treated in a thousand ways.’[9] Further, according to Jeremy Lewison the ‘speed and the certainty of his hand are remarkable features in many sketches of the last two years of his life.’[10] His later drawings are more stylized, using a Vorticist or primitive approach; however, Gaudier-Brzeska produced fewer drawings during this period, concentrating for the most part on sculpture.[11]

Seated Female Nude illustrates Gaudier-Brzeska’s remarkable simplicity of style. The voluptuous contour of this female nude is defined with a single line, suggesting this work belongs to the later part of his career, perhaps circa 1912-1913. Yet her body appears solid, real and tangible, a quality that the works rapid execution ‘might seem to preclude.’[12] The work appears to be charged with an ‘erotic awareness of the human body.’[13] Few further details are given, bar those on the face and hands. Indeed, this work illustrates Gaudier-Brzeska’s belief in the spontaneity of drawing, and his ability to articulate form with lightning speed and improvisation.

Gaudier-Brzeska died tragically during the First World War. He was killed serving in the French army on the 5 June 1915 at Neuville-Saint-Vaast.[14] Ezra Pound described his death on the Western Front as ‘the gravest individual loss which the arts have sustained during the war.’[15]

[1] Ed J. Lewison, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Sculptor 1891-1915, an exhibition organised by Kettles Yard Gallery and toured by the Arts Council of Great Britain, Kettles Yard Gallery, Cambridge 15 October – 20 November 1983, City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery 26 November – 7 January 1984, York City Art Gallery 14 January – 19 February 1984, p 5.


[3] R. Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, Volume 1 Origins and Development, Gordon Fraser, London, 1976, p 173.



[6] H. Gaudier-Brzeska, letter to Sophie Brzeska quoted in A. Bowness, Gaudier-Brzeska 1891-1915 Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Victor Waddington Gallery, 22 November to 17 December 1960, London, p 4.

[7] S. Fauchereau ‘Gaudier-Brzeska: Animalist Artist’ in ed J. Lewison, 1984, p 11.

[8] H. Gaudier-Brzeska quoted in A. Bowness, 1966, p 3.

[9] H. Gaudier-Brzeska quoted in A. Bowness, 1966, p 3-4.

[10] J. Lewison, ‘A Note on Chronology’ in ed J. Lewison, 1984, p 31.

[11] A. Bowness, ‘Gaudier-Brzeska’ in 1966, p 3-5.

[12] A. Bowness, ‘Gaudier-Brzeska’ in 1966, p 3-4.

[13] R. Cork, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier Brzeska, Gill, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 24 October 2009 – 24 January 2010, p 71-72.

[14] R. Cork, ‘Biographical Notes,’ in P. Edwards, Blast Vorticism 1914-1918, Ashgate, Hampshire, 2000, p 134-135.

[15] E. Pound quoted in A. Bowness, ‘Gaudier-Brzeska’ in 1966, p 1.