My name is Chris Stephens. I’m curator of the Vorticist exhibition, and I’m standing in the paper conservation studio at Tate Britain. The Vorticist was a movement that was announced to the world in 1914, was led by the painter and author Wyndham Lewis. It had actually been named by the poet Ezra Pound. Lewis established a place called the Rebel Art Centre with a group of like-minded colleagues. They developed an art that engaged with the modern world. The paintings and drawings they made are characterised by a very dynamic, diagonal, angular forms, often in very bright colours – they have a sort of explosive energy. What we have here is one of four sketchbooks that belong to the artist Henri Gaudier Brzeska, a Belgian artist who had moved to France and then came to Britain in the early 1910s. Gaudier is the one sculptor who is a signed-up member of the vorticist group. His career is so short – he dies in the trenches of the First World War in 1915 – but everything he does is contained within three or four years of work.
This drawing clearly relates to the sculpture, Red Stone Dancer, which is one of Gaudier’s great masterpieces in the Tate collection; and you can see how he uses straight lines and then a sort of different weight of shading to describe a planar faceting of the form, which is exactly how the sculpture is. What’s exciting about looking at a sketchbook is how this sort of sense of time and progress is so physically evident in it; and you can see here that there is a little stub to show that several pages have been removed from here. Clearly before this cat was drawn, he had already drawn something else and torn it out, whether to keep it or to throw it away, we will never know.
And then there is a sequence of drawings of fish, which are clearly based on real observation of fish. While he is working with the sort of language of abstraction, he is also looking at the real world. One of the intriguing things about Gaudier is that he makes sort of totemic heads, but also makes these little sculptures to sort of slip into your pocket like little talismans or amulets. And this is a lovely group of drawings. It relates to a tiny sculpture which Gaudier made, called Fish. This was carved from bronze or brass. You can see when you look at the sculpture that it has been cut – there are saw-marks on it. And you can see again how he has sort of… these forms are being abstracted through the process of drawing. I think it’s probably through drawing that he exercises that sort of process of simplification. One of the things this exhibition will reiterate is the importance of Gaudier, even though his career was so short, and of course reinforce that sense of tragedy that someone so creative, with such an innate ability to extract powerful forms from inert matter, should have had his life cut so short so early on.