Henri Gaudier-Brzeska


1912, cast 1960s

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Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1891–1915
Unconfirmed: 470 × 140 × 90 mm
Presented by Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge 1974, accessioned 1996


This is a posthumous cast of one of Gaudier-Brzeska's earliest extant sculptures and his first commission. In February 1912 Mr Leman Hare, the editor and critic, commissioned a statuette of Maria Carmi in her role as the Madonna in Max Rheinhardt's play The Miracle, then running at Olympia, London. The Miracle was a spectacular medieval pageant-cum-morality play involving a vast cast and elaborate staging. Although it was popular with audiences and critics alike, Gaudier-Brzeska remained unimpressed by its 'motley spectacular effect' (quoted in Silber, p.85). 'Maria Carmi' was a pseudonym for the Italian actress Norma Gilli who had made her stage debut in Vaudeville, Paris 1912 . She was a pupil of Max Rheinhardt from 1915-18, and in 1919 she returned to Italy to act in films. She later moved to New York.

After making many sketches of the actress, Gaudier-Brzeska modeled the figure in clay, and cast it into plaster. While the sinuous folds and rhythms of the sculpture suggest an art nouveau influence, photographs of the stage production show that the artist was largely faithful to its representation of the Madonna. The gesture of the outstretched hand was taken directly from the show's staging, and the elaborate robes and highly ornate headdress were copied from the theatrical costumes.

The dynamic juxtaposition of simplified geometric forms, evident in the play between the central pyramidal form and the tilted cylindrical shape of the figure's crowned head, acts as a compositional device to emphasise the Madonna's face. Her head is the axial point between the apex of the pyramid and the base of the cylinder. The emphasis is heightened by the disparity between the cursory modeling of her robes and the detailed rendering of her serene face.

There were two lifetime plaster casts of the work, one of which was painted (Kettle's Yard, Cambridge) and another which was not (now lost). Although the colour of the painted plaster has now largely disappeared, a related pastel Maria Carmi as the Nun in 'The Miracle' (private collection, reproduced, Brodzky, pl.1 in colour) indicates what its colouring may have been. When the painted plaster version was shown at the Allied Artists Association exhibition at the Albert Hall, London in 1913, a bronze replica was advertised. However, as no orders appear to have been placed it is unlikely a bronze was cast at that date. Nine bronze casts were made in the 1960s, of which this is one. The original unpainted plaster cast is lost.

Further reading:
Evelyn Silber, Gaudier-Brzeska: Life and Art, London 1996, pp.85 and 252-3, reproduced p.152, pl.14
Roger Cole, Gaudier-Brzeska: Artist and Myth, Bristol 1995, pp.31-2
Horace Brodzky, Gaudier-Brzeska Drawings, London 1946
Jeremy Lewison (ed.), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, sculptor 1891-1915, exhibition catalogue, Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge 1983, pp34-5, reproduced p.35, cat.no.8

Toby Treves
May 2000

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