Gaudier-Brzeska was certainly not alone in using a visual and textual language of force and fight in the construction of his artistic persona. Boddy observes that the ‘language of boxing provided experimental artists [in the early twentieth century] with metaphors for talking about a range of issues from forceful assertion to forceful control, from the status of individual character to the stance of an audience or reader’.14 Gaudier-Brzeska’s studies of wrestlers, bodybuilders and fighters should be viewed within this early twentieth-century context of aesthetic violence and combat, one that captivated fellow artists Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts (fig.2).15 Gaudier-Brzeska had already turned to the image of the boxing match in 1911 when he produced a poster design for Black & White Scotch whisky (fig.3). Accompanied by the slogan, ‘THIS WAS A GREAT FIGHT BETWEEN BLACK & WHITE’, Gaudier-Brzeska depicts a black and a white fighter throwing brutal punches at each other. Their heavily muscled torsos are matched by expressions of extreme exertion. Just a year before, the fight between ‘Jack’ Johnson and Jackson Jeffries had caused a media storm centred on the racial politics of a fight between a black and a white boxer (it was widely billed as the ‘fight of the century’, despite taking place only ten years into that century).
Looking at Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers relief again (fig.4), perhaps there is a touch of the ‘raucous aplomb’ and slap-and-tickle humour of the Edwardian music hall, especially in the expressions on the wrestlers faces. ‘Knockabout’ acts were popular on the stages of London and wrestling often featured at carnivals and country fairs. The Griffiths Brothers were one well-known music hall duo whose sketch, ‘The Motor Car and the Duel’, ended in a wrestling bout between a Frenchman and an Englishman.20
Gaudier-Brzeska created his sculptures and drawings of wrestling at a moment when the sport was undergoing a revival, not only in Britain but around the globe, in the decade or so before the First World War. Aficionados of the sport frequently see this as the golden era of the sport, uncorrupted by the ‘fraudulent play-acting that passes for wrestling’ in the present – a reference to the televised spectacles of American World Wrestling Entertainment.25
How to cite
Sarah Victoria Turner, ‘Muscular Modernism’, July 2013, in Sarah Turner (ed.), In Focus: 'Wrestlers' 1914, cast 1965, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Tate Research Publication, July 2013, https://www