Possibly Gaudier’s greatest work is the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, carved in 1914.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 'Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound' 1914

Masterpiece or phallic monstrosity? Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound 1914

© 2011 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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.

Black and white photograph of Henri Gaudier Brzeska carving hieratic head of Ezra Pound.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska carving Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, photographed by Walter Benington, c.1914

Courtesy the Benington Archive

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.

Comments

d.mcardle

we're far from done with looking at what happened with modernism and the Right and why we seemed to get left with Albert Speer
and not say, Stephen Spender.

d.mcardle

and yes yes of course there was the accusation of fascism with Pound ..... "the warmth of affections,/the intramural,the almost intravaginal warmth of/hebrew affections,in the family,/and nearly everything else" (Canto 35)

d.mcardle

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,/Knowing the truth of things unseen before;/ Of Daphne and the laurel bow/And that go-feasting couple old/ That grew elm-oak amid the wold./'Twas not until the gods had been/Kindly entreated,and been brought within/Unto the hearth of their heart's home/That they might do this wonder thing;/Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood/And many a new thing understood/That was rank folly to my head before. (Pound)

David Hulks

Worth noting perhaps that after Gaudier, erotic carving - always heavily disguised so that one could exhibit the work as 'abstract' - became de rigeur. Moore of course made several explicitly phallic objects, with similar examples in Hepworth's oeuvre - all highly polished of course. Even today this seems surprising, but it's pretty clear. It certainly flumoxed people at the time, who knew the extent to which artists might imbue their work with a coded sexuality but couldn't accept that women might sexualise their works in the same way as men would. A good example of this is Stokes's essay on Hepworth's carving (1933) where he attempts to disassociate it from Gaudier's abstractionism. Richard Read covers this in detail in his book, Art and its Discontents: the early life of Adrian Stokes (2002). As he points out, in order to make his case Stokes conveniently ignored sculptures in Hepworth's exhibition, which Read sees as 'daring' and 'explicit' - 'expressions of female attraction to the masculine'. Oddly however he seems to think that Gaudier was immune from this, so that Hepworth appears to him to have offered 'a real rejoinder to the inorganic geometry of Gaudier's Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound.' He must have missed the circumcized penis reading then. Thanks for pointing it out!