Sculptural penmanship

The young French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska wrote from London to his youngest sister at home in St. Jean-de-Braye at the end of 1911. The advice he gave his ''dear little Renee'' on drawing certainly indicates his own approach: ''As I've already advised you, don't draw anything except from nature. Draw branches now that there are no leaves, birds, the cat. . . . For every drawing take an entire new sheet of folio paper. The little page which you sent me was very pretty but too minutely drawn. Thus, with big strokes, boldly. Don't be frightened, make mistakes, as many as you like, but all the time draw very, very strongly.''

From early in his own childhood, influenced by his carpenter-joiner father's love of the countryside, of animals and insects, Henri fascinatedly drew the living creatures he encountered - drawings that he would destroy as soon as he had made them. The spontaneity of their making was satisfying in itself; he didn't want to keep them. As he grew up, his keenness for drawing and for nature did not abate. The daughter of an English family with whom he stayed in Bristol in 1907 recalled many years later in a radio broadcast that Gaudier was ''interested in country life, he knew all the animals around St. Jean-de-Braye. He was very interested in moths and butterflies and had some rare specimens.''

As his ambition and preoccupation turned to sculpture (he is now looked on as a precursor of modern sculpture in Britain, as an inspired if fitful flame extinguished in the trenches of World War I), his practice of drawing from nature, and particularly from animal life, continued. He seems to have found in animals a sympathetic metaphor for his own feelings: a fiery sense of natural beauty and grace, and a desire for an almost savage kind of freedom.

His admiration for animals as he saw them is marvelously shown in this pen and ink drawing of a fox. The boldness recommended to his sister shows itself in a swift confidence of line. This line captures the structure and posture of the fox with apparent easiness - a facility actually born of continual practice.

About 1912 he was frequently at the zoo in London. ''A single session,'' writes Roger Cole, ''often resulted in as many as 150 drawings. Working at such speed, the style of his drawings, not surprisingly, became much more fluid.''

Another of his biographers, Henry Brodzky, describes his drawings of animals and birds as ''all Chinese in feeling.'' And then he seems to find in this rather calligraphic and Oriental flavor reasons for his claim that they are not mere ''sculptor's drawings'' but ''complete expressions in themselves.''

It is true that there are not many of his sculptures that connect directly with his drawings. The fox drawing has no known outcome as a sculpture. But the fluent, ''can't stop'' quality of Gaudier's animal drawings is something that is not quite as separate from his sculpture as it might appear. The brush of his fox, admittedly, flaring out behind as if caught by the wind, is described by a flourish of the pen perhaps impossible to achieve in the weightier techniques of carving or modeling: It is drawn by a sculptor enjoying momentarily the exciting liberty of a quick method.

But for all their immediacy of realization, the lines encompassing every other part of the fox are solid and structural in meaning. By concentrating instantly on a profile, and finding the outside edges of the form and its components, he arrives not only at a simplified essence, and an unmistakable characterization, but at graspable, carvable planes and masses. This rendering of a fast-moving creature in lines of flamelike evanescence has also the decisiveness of a relief or the bold certainty of a form that could be chiseled out of a massive block of stone or wood. It is sculptural penmanship. It is the branches - the sculpture - of the tree without its leaves.

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