A Bird Bath of Monumental Proportions

`SCULPTURAL energy is the mountain," wrote the young French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It is a statement that helps to explain the character, the monumentality and vigor, of his sculpture "Bird Bath" made in 1914.

"Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation," Gaudier continued, in the style of an artist's manifesto. "Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes."

Gaudier wrote these words at the outset of what amounted to a declaration of intent, in an article titled "Vortex" - an excited, instinctive exposition of his ideas about sculpture that was half conviction, half provocation. To read it is to be carried into a whirlpool of words and notions that are in many respects outrageous and obscure.

But to look at the sculptures this burstingly energetic artist was producing at the time - in the years leading up to World War I - is to see his agitated train of thought concentrated into a great originality of formal exploration. He made extraordinary sculptures, carving them with a kind of cocksure directness. His certainty was activated by intense feelings quite as much as by knowledge.

Gaudier wrote his exposition in English; he was fast making his mark in the London art world, working hard to secure a reputation. He had lived in the English capital since 1910 and had been periodically visiting and living in Britain (with stays in Germany and France) since 1906. He was only 22 when he wrote his "Vortex" article. At almost exactly the same time he made his "Bird Bath" in the form of a maquette in plaster 10 3/8 inches high.

Gaudier's statement was written for "Blast," a magazine published in June 1914. (Only two issues came out, the second a year later.) "Blast" was the periodical of a "rebel" group of British artists who dubbed themselves Vorticists.

They aligned themselves with the Italian Futurists and that group's belief in dynamic, fragmenting force and motion, even destructiveness, as the motive for art. Artist Wyndham Lewis and poet Ezra Pound were two of Vorticism's prime movers.

Vorticism was formed as a breakaway from the Omega Workshops, started only the year before by painter and critic Roger Fry. Fry's aim was to bring together avant-garde artists (Gaudier being one of them) to design everyday objects in an advanced style. Fry was also active in introducing his fellow Britons to such artists as Picasso and Matisse, to Cubism and Fauvism, and to the earlier Post-Impressionists, particularly Cezanne.

When Fry and Lewis quarreled, their friends rallied accordingly. But it seems that Gaudier was able to keep a foot in both camps.

One piece of evidence that he maintained a respectful relationship with Fry is the bird-bath sculpture: He made it on commission from Fry. It was to be a focal point in the garden at his house in Surrey, England. One can only guess what Gertrude Jekyll, the renowned Edwardian designer of Fry's garden, might have thought of the extremely modern sculpture Gaudier came up with.

The primitive African feel of the two figures holding up the large bowl is in line not only with Gaudier's own interest in escaping from the dominance of the Greek and Renaissance traditions in sculpture, but also, as Gaudier no doubt astutely realized, in tune with Fry's own ideas.

Fry was to write enthusiastically of an exhibition of African sculpture in 1920. He found that these "nameless savages" had "complete plastic freedom" and "really conceive form in three dimensions." Addressing his English readers, Fry concluded that African artists possessed "the power to create expressive plastic form" not only in a "higher degree than we at this moment, but than we as a nation have ever possessed it."

This essay was to be a stimulus to sculptor Henry Moore and to a whole change in the British view of sculpture. It is not fanciful to think that Gaudier, with his bird bath, so instinctively non-Grecian, played a part in Fry's own convictions as well as vice versa. Both of them, certainly, were aware of the way in which Picasso and other continental artists had much earlier espoused the potency of art language and form from non-European cultures as an antidote to weary 19th-century academicism.

Gaudier indicated by an inscription on the base of the small bird-bath maquette that it was one-sixth the size the sculpture would be when made full-size in bronze. It was, however, to remain unenlarged and therefore not placed in the context for which it was made.

Presumably the economic stringency of the war years intervened, and in 1919 Fry sold his house and garden, the bird bath still unenlarged. The local bird population never had the chance to perch on the wide rim of the intended monument - truly a bird bath of mountainous cragginess and proportion. And Gaudier himself, about nine months after making the maquette, was killed fighting in the French Army at the front near Arras in northern France.

But, the story does not end here.

To thank for this is Gillian Raffles, director of London's Mercury Gallery, and one of her clients. Mrs. Raffles has been an enthusiastic collector of and dealer in both the drawings and sculptures of Gaudier for several decades. She has watched his reputation grow. She believes that an obscuring web of fiction and romance has been woven round Gaudier; he was the subject of a book by H. S. Ede called "Savage Messiah," later turned into a film. But conversely she does not believe that mythmaking is necess ary for a recognition of his worth. His work alone is witness to his quality, originality, and strengths.

The Mercury Gallery had exhibited the bird-bath maquette a number of times since buying it from the Fry family in 1970. The client in question, seeing it in the gallery, came up with the idea of - at last - enlarging the sculpture to its intended size. This had been a secret dream harbored by Mrs. Raffles. So the feasibility of the proposal was investigated and finally Jane Truzzi-Franconi, a young sculptor who has considerable experience in scaling up and of making sculpture for casting in bronze, was c ommissioned to do the work.

The result is an edition of three full-size bronze bird baths, made 78 years after Gaudier-Brzeska first conceived the sculptural. One is in Raffles's garden. One is in her client's garden in Scotland. And the third - which has yet to find an owner and a home - has just been shipped to Chicago for exhibition at "Art 1993 Chicago, the New Navy Pier Show" (May 5-10), one of three simultaneous art fairs being held in the city. The original maquette will also be on display, along with Gaudier drawings, at th e Mercury Gallery's stand.

Although scrupulous measurements and an intense concentration on every facet and detail of the original plaster maquette are necessary to the enlargement of a sculpture, this can never be a purely mechanical process. This is particularly so when the sculptor is no longer present for consultation.

The enlarger needs to understand as far as possible the artist's sensibilities, intentions, and - by studying other works by him - such things as the way one facet of a form edges over into another. Is an edge sharp and aggressive, like a cliff, or more softly felt, like something organic?

Truzzi-Franconi found that Gaudier's edges didn't "drop off like a cliff" but met in a "softer way." So she found herself "working from two sides of it and sort of pushing yourself towards an edge rather than rushing up to it and dropping over." She was also sensitive to the differences of medium, plaster and bronze. The maquette was not "a highly finished piece" and the aim was to keep, in the bronze, some of the "tool marks" and "texture" of it.

"You have to understand what the person was doing," Truzzi-Franconi says, "but also be able to do it their way." It's not the same as a "machine thing.... It's a working process, isn't it?"

"When I started working on the Gaudier-Brzeska," she adds, "it was odd: It didn't quite make sense. But it made more and more sense - and by the end of it I thought it made entirely good sense. The whole thing pulled together."

It was clear that the privilege and labor of enlarging "Bird Bath," requiring such exhaustive attention to every nuance and facet of it, has given Jane Truzzi-Franconi a considerable respect for Gaudier-Brzeska. She apparently found no weak spots in this work.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Bird Bath of Monumental Proportions
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today