Possibly Gaudier’s greatest work is the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, carved in 1914.
The writer Ezra Pound recognised Gaudier’s genius and was keen to promote and support him, and so commissioned the artist to do a portrait bust and bought a block of stone for the purpose. Pound understood the importance of direct carving as a marker of modernism.
There are a wonderful series of photographs by Walter Benington in which you can see how simply Gaudier sketched out Pound’s features on the stone. It remains a very simple sculpture. The face is defined in direct ways – strong flat planes, heavy brows, squared off nose. Gaudier was unquestionably inspired by Hoa Hakananai’a, the great totemic Easter Island figure that used to stand at the entrance to the British Museum. The result is a sculpture which, from the front, clearly looks like Pound. It has his striking features – the goatee beard and thick, swept-back hair. The hair gives Gaudier, I guess, the opportunity to do what he does, which is make the head look like an enormous circumcised penis when you look at it from the back. Pound’s only instruction to the sculptor had been to make the portrait ‘virile’; it’s certainly that. What was the reaction to it at the time? The writer Horace Brodzky was absolutely horrified: he thought both the intention and the object were pornographic. The head was owned for a while by the writer Ford Madox Ford. He put it in his Campden Hill garden, but placed at such an angle that it caused great consternation amongst his neighbours.
Chris Stephens is co-curator of The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World and Curator (Modern British Art) & Head of Displays at Tate Britain.