Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: Vorticist!

Kettle’s Yard does big things with a small space for RUTH MARINER

Art gaudier-brzeska Kettle's Yard modernism sculpture vorticism

Kettle’s Yard, 14 January – 1 April 2012, FREE


The current exhibition, Vorticist! at Kettle’s Yard celebrates the life and work of a man whose career was regrettably cut short. Born in France in 1891, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in the trenches, aged just 23. Yet the body of works he left behind him transcended his place in history; his unique modernist vision launching Britain into the avant-garde.

For such a small exhibition, Vorticist is commendably succinct in its presentation of each facet of Gaudier-Brezska’s artistic imagination. The main room concentrates on the formal rudiments of the Vorticist aesthetic; bold interlocking geometric shapes, made by deft, black lines form the syntax of this visual language. The drawings show the clear influence of Cubism; his sculptures bear the influence of Jacob Epstein, in that they leave behind the highly finished, polished style of ancient Greece and embrace an earthier, more direct carving.

The exhibition verbalises the ethos neatly on the wall with an extract from the Vorticist Manifesto, published in the journal Blast in 1914:

Sculptural energy is the mountain,

Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation,

Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.

Design for a Vorticist Ornament sets out the aesthetic in its most abstract manifestation, a collection of serrated edges, lidded curves, and interlocking structures of shapes that allude to the mechanistic in an age where technical processes were becoming ever-more pervasive and integrated into everyday life.

The other, more central sculpture in the first room, Bird Swallowing a Fish, demonstrates the aesthetic in a more figurative sense. The thick bulk of the bird earths a poetically balanced fish, which points downwards, hinged on the beak, tail upturned; its bold round eye staring outwards, quietly forming a centrepiece. The geometry defines of Gaudier-Brezska’s conception of ‘planes’, reducing the curved surfaces to their basic components.

Ink Sketch for 'Bird Swallowing a Fish'

Ink Sketch for 'Bird Swallowing a Fish'

In a side room, we are given a series of works inflected by different styles and experiences. A few quick yet elegant ink strokes mark the curves of a stag; the medium and absence of geometry suggesting a flirtation with the practices of Chinese calligraphy.  This section also presents an brush and ink sketch of the poet Ezra Pound, who along with the painter Wyndham Lewis founded Vorticism, Britain’s first avant-garde movement.

The little annexe also held my favorite work of the collection. Less dynamic than the oblique lines and planes of his iconic sculptures, Two Cows reveals the absolute economy of Gaudier-Brzeska’s expression. Blunt, inert and stupid, the cows stare out from the paper, their blocked heads heavy and vacant. The image encapsulates the artist’s ability to make a little say a lot: it is full of character, but remains honest; restrained from breaking into caricature.

All the works within the exhibition were hung slightly lower than eye-level. Although this gave the exhibition an immediate feel, it became a bit too text book, squaring Gaudier-Brezska’s dynamic sense of shape and space. However, considering the constraints gallery space, I have to commend Kettle’s Yard for such a concise communication of the breadth and depth of the Vorticist imagination.