The Book, The Sculptor, His Life and Ken Russell

At his lowest ebb, it was the book that kept Ken Russell believing in his talents.

Alone, unrecognized and poor, the struggling young filmmaker found faith during the 1950s in a slim biography on the Vorticist sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The book Savage Messiah by H. S. Ede consisted of letters from the young artist to his soul mate, the older writer Sophie Brzeska. Of the artist’s life, Russell later said:

“I was impressed by Gaudier’s conviction that somehow or other there was a spark in the core of him that was personal to him, which was worth turning into something that could be appreciated by others. I wanted to find that spark in myself and exploit it for that reason.”

Born in 1895, H. S. Ede became a curator at the Tate Gallery London in 1921, where he promoted works by Picasso, Braque and Mondrian. Ede often found himself frustrated by the more conservative tastes of the gallery directors. However, the position allowed Ede to become friends with many avant garde artists and, more importantly, offered him the opportunity to obtain most of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s work through the estate of Sophie Brzeska. An event that helped ensure Henri’s art and reputation.

Gaudier-Brzeska was one of the leading artists of the Vorticist Movement—formed by Wyndham Lewis in 1913. Vorticism developed from Cubism and was linked to Futurism and Impressionism. However, Lewis and some of the other Vorticists, saw themselves as separate - a group of artists focussed on Dynamism, or as the Vorticist and poet, Ezra Pound wrote in his memoir on Gaudier-Brzeska:


“It is no more ridiculous that a person should receive or convey an emotion by means of an arrangement of shapes, or planes, or colors, than they should receive or convey such emotion by an arrangement of musical notes.”

“Vortex :- Every concept, every emotion, presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. It belongs to the art of this form.”

Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary application.

Gaudier-Brzeska’s early sculptures had a hint of Rodin, though this wasn’t to last, as the dynamic young artist soon adapted Chinese and Japanese prints and paintings for his needs, before using the processes of Cubism to develop his own unique artistic vision. As Pound later wrote, Gaudier-Brzeska, “had an amazing faculty for synthesis…” which, Pound believed, had the Gaudier-Brzeska lived, would have made him as famous as Picasso. He didn’t. But the fact he produced so much work, “a few dozen statues, a pile of sketches and drawings, and a few pages about his art,” in just a few years (whilst living in desperate and impoverished conditions), only confirms Pound’s belief.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska : after months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in a charge at Neauville St. Vaast, on June 5th, 1915.

He was twenty-three.

Born in 1891, the son of a carpenter, Gaudier had been a translator, a forger of paintings, and a student, by the time he met Sophie Brzeska in 1910. Brzeska was almost twice Gaudier’s age, but there was a connection that kept them together for the next 5 years. To mark their bond, they adopted each other’s surname, and became Henri and Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska. 

Sophie’s life until meeting Gaudier, had been one of misery and heartbreak, a tale no author of Gothic romantic fiction could have conceived. Sophie was a writer with ambitions to publish her autobiography, Matka, of which she wrote several versions. With intentions to revolutionize art, the pair moved to London, and began their creative life together.

It wasn’t easy. Henri worked by day and sculpted by night. Sophie wrote and rewrote, worked and kept house. Henri forged his own tools, and carved directly into stone. He used off-cuts and (allegedly) a marble headstone to make his sculptures. One story goes, that after an idle brag to an art dealer, who he told he had three new statues ready for show. Henri worked through the night to deliver the statues. When the dealer didn’t turn up at the expected time, Henri carried his sculptures round to the dealer’s gallery and hurled them through its window.

Gaudier-Brzeska was passionate, industrious, creative and dynamic. You can see the attraction Henri’s life and work would have to a young Ken Russell.

In London, Henri met and mixed with Pound, Lewis, and Edward Wadsworth, who together exchanged ideas and loosely formed the short-lived Vorticist group. It was through his association with Vorticism that Gaudier-Brzeska formed his own ground-breaking maxims about sculpture, which he published in the Vorticist magazine Blast:

“Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation.

Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.”

Henri was re-defining sculpture, using “the whole history of sculpture” as his Vortex, to give a “complete revaluation of form as a means of expression.”

As Henri slowly flourished, Sophie started to weaken. Her health was poor, and their bond constricted. While Sophie recuperated outside London, Henri enlisted in the French army. They never saw each other again.

Even on the front line, Gaudier-Brzeska sketched, carved small statues from the butt of a German rifle, and wrote down more of ideas:

With all the destruction that works around us nothing is changed, even superficially. Life is the same strength, the moving agent that permits the small individual to assert himself.

After his death, Sophie went slowly mad, and wandered the streets of London, her fingers knitting together, distraught over the loss of her love.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska at work in his studio.
In 1972, having succeeded in establishing himself as the best and most original British director since Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell repaid the debt he felt he owed to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and that slim volume by H. S. Ede, by adapting Savage Messiah for the screen. Russell made a beautiful and inspiring film, with a cracking script by poet Christopher Logue, set design by Derek Jarman, and sterling performances from Scott Antony as Henri, Dorothy Tutin as Sophie, along with Helen Mirren and Lindsay Kemp. As Joseph Lanza noted in his biography of the director, Phallic Frenzy:

...Russell draws bold battle lines between artists and society, as well as true art and commercialism…

Or, as Russell explained:

“Gaudier’s life was a good example to show that art, which is simply exploiting to the full one’s natural gifts, is really bloody hard work, misery, momentary defeat and taking a lot of bloody stick - and giving it…If you really want to show the hard work behind a work of art, then a sculptor is your best subject. I was very conscious of this in the sequence when Gaudier sculpts a statue all through the night. It’s the heart the core of the film, the most important scene to me.”

As the book Savage Messiah had inspired the young director, so Russell’s film inspired me. Though I doubt I will ever be able to pay back this debt as Russell did so beautifully for Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Ken Russell’a film Savage Messiah can be watched here on Veoh.

The Vorticist magazine Blast, with contributions from Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, is avaiable as a PDF. Issue 1 can be found here and issue 2 here.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
11:37 pm



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