Why did Gaudier-Brzeska focus so incessantly on the subject of wrestlers and wrestling in the period before the First World War? He was clearly fascinated by the artistic possibilities offered by the depiction of the wrestling match: numerous sketches, drawings, two sculptures and one linocut were made between 1912 and 1914. He was, however, not the only modern artist at the beginning of the twentieth century interested in wrestling, boxing and the pugilistic arts. As the literary historian Kasia Boddy has argued in her work on the cultural history of boxing, pugilism has offered writers and artists not only a subject for art but ‘the basis for a method’.1 The art of the early twentieth century, or particular strands of it at least, not only became more violent or combative in terms of subject matter, but also in rhetoric and description. According to its protagonists, modern art (and modern sculpture in particular) was hard, tough, muscular, masculine and ‘primitive’. Gaudier-Brzeska’s wrestlers, in their many variations, undoubtedly connected the new (if somewhat anxious) enthusiasm for modern muscle and the aesthetic, material and ideological potential of the fight.

Frederic, Lord Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877

Frederic, Lord Leighton
An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877
1746 x 984 x 1099 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1877
Tate N01754

A fascination with the homosocial world of the gymnasium and what art historian Michael Hatt has described as the ‘Victorian worship of muscle’ were certainly apparent, if not central, to many sculptural representations of the male body in the late nineteenth century.2 Frederic Leighton’s An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877 (Tate N01754; fig.1) had been frequently celebrated as the sculptural embodiment of a masculine ideal of muscular strength, and, according to Hatt, marked the ‘founding moment’ of the revival of the male nude as a serious sculptural subject in Victorian Britain.3 The art criticism of the day served to ‘validate’ the presence of sculpted male flesh by idealising it and using a language of ‘normative masculinity’ to evaluate sculptures of male nudes. As Hatt writes: ‘The same words occurred again and again, becoming clichés of critical language: virile, manly, masculine, vigorous, healthy, vital.’4 By the time Gaudier-Brzeska came to make his wrestlers, the relationship between sculpture and athleticism had been firmly established.

If physicality had been central to the concerns of late Victorian sculptors, it remained crucial, as the art historian David Getsy has highlighted, ‘to the definition of sculptural modernism’.5 Yet modern artists at the beginning of the twentieth century were at pains to signal difference from this nineteenth-century celebration of muscle and what they saw as an academic and classical conception of the male nude. Indeed, the classical wholeness sought by Victorian sculptors was ridiculed with bombastic and frequently homophobic rhetoric by early twentieth-century modernists. Although he had once drawn and sculpted a copy of the Farnese Hercules, Gaudier-Brzeska soon distanced himself from the classically inspired body of the athlete. The modern sculptor, according to Gaudier-Brzeska, was no longer inspired by ‘the pretty works of the great Hellenes’, but ‘to the tradition of the barbaric peoples of the earth’.6 As the art historian Lisa Tickner has noted, ‘Greek sculpture evokes “Greek love”’.7 Here Gaudier-Brzeska is quite clearly associating the ‘pretty works’ of classical sculpture – and by association, the neo-classical sculpted bodies of male athletes and muscle men created by his nineteenth-century predecessors – with homosexuality.

Rather than faithfully depicting individual sinews, veins and muscular bulges like the late Victorian New Sculptors, early twentieth-century modernist artists became increasingly interested in the rhetoric of muscle and violence embodied by athletes, wrestlers and fighters.8 Gaudier-Brzeska’s wrestlers are an interesting case in point. While he began by making fairly naturalistic drawings of bodybuilders and muscular athletes observed in the wrestling gym and the life class, Gaudier-Brzeska moved away from the study of anatomy and musculature towards depicting the scene and aesthetics of combat itself. His fighters in the sculpted relief and the associated drawings are no less large but are certainly less anatomically detailed. They become increasingly abstract and Gaudier-Brzeska’s interest in ‘primitive’ sculpture and carving becomes more apparent in the period that he was focusing on wrestling. Gaudier-Brzeska moved his nude male wrestlers away from a Greco-Roman heritage (with which, following the revival of the Olympics in 1896, wrestling had long been associated) towards a more ‘barbaric’ and ‘primitive’ conception of the sculpted, wrestling body. Fighting was regularly celebrated by modernist artists and writers as something that was ‘primitive’, instinctual, and elemental. This was an idea that Gaudier-Brzeska’s contemporary, Wyndham Lewis, expressed in his ink and pastel drawing, Combat No.2 1914 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), in which three pairs of figures engage in furious, energetic and violent scuffles.9

It is useful here to think again about Kasia Boddy’s description of pugilism not only as a ‘subject’ but as a ‘method’ for artists and writers. At the same time that Gaudier-Brzeska was depicting wrestling and violence, he was also writing about modern sculpture using a language of force, strength and power. The ‘modern sculptor’, he wrote in the avant-garde journal, the Egoist, is a man who works with instinct as his inspiring force … The shape of a leg, or the curve of an eyebrow, etc. Etc., have to him no significance whatsoever; light voluptuous modelling is to him insipid – what he feels he does so intensely’.10 Those who watched Gaudier-Brzeska sculpt were often alarmed by the violence and force of his technique as he pummelled his materials into submission. According to the artist’s sometime sitter Enid Bagnold, his manner could be just as gruff: ‘Gaudier-Brzeska was like a dagger in the midst of us … He talked like a chisel and argued like a hammer.’11 Although not a trained wrestler or boxer, the artist frequently honed his strength and stamina out of the studio by getting himself tangled up in street brawls and fights. He made a knuckleduster cut from brass for the philosopher T.E. Hulme, who was not adverse to a punch-up himself;12 and there is even an account of Gaudier-Brzeska knocking the driver of a horse and carriage unconscious in Soho.13

William Roberts, Sparring Partners c.1919

William Roberts
Sparring Partners c.1919
Tate T11792
© The estate of William Roberts

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1911 'Black & White' poster (also known as Boxers)

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
1911 'Black & White' poster (also known as Boxers)
Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge 

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).

‘Modernism truly became the great age of sport’, notes the cultural historian Harold B. Segel:

Public interest and enthusiasm in it had never been as high, nor was it gender limited. As might be expected, popular culture embraced the world of sport and the athlete with astonishing exuberance. But high culture was not to be found wanting. Artists delighted in the new subject matter and responded appropriately. Boxing, wrestling, soccer, cycling, and field and track became as familiar on canvas and in print as on billboards.16

Despite this, there has been very little work carried out on the relationship between the revival of sports such as wrestling and modern art in early twentieth-century Britain. Scholarship has instead focused on nineteenth-century physical culture, or the connections between artists and the concept of the body under fascist regimes in the twentieth century. There is still much work to be done on the interrelationships between sport and modernism in the period in which Gaudier-Brzeska made his Wrestlers relief.17 As cultural historian Steven Connor has puzzled: ‘It seems odd that, when so many other features of modern leisure and entertainment – gramophones, radio, cinema, shopping, tourism – should have aroused the curiosity of cultural historians interested in the sometimes tense relations between artistic modernism and sociopolitical modernity, there should seem so little to say about sport.’18 Perhaps this is because sport was ‘blasted’ in the first issue of the journal Blast, the published organ of the pre-First World War avant-garde vorticist movement in Britain, which was edited and largely written by Wyndham Lewis, and in which the work of Gaudier-Brzeska was also featured. If sport was ‘blasted’, it was probably the sport of public schools, elite universities (the ‘Varsity’ matches), imperial leagues and cricket pitches that Lewis and friends had in mind. Instead, it was professional fighters and music hall stars that were ‘blessed’ in Blast (eleven fighters and performers in total). As art historian Richard Cork has written, ‘the manifestoes of Blast No.1 combine the aggression of the boxing-ring with the raucous aplomb of a music hall song’.19

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Wrestlers 1914

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Wrestlers 1914, cast 1965
Tate T00837

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

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska The Wrestlers 1913

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
The Wrestlers 1913
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is undoubtedly a strange and puzzling ambiguity about Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers. It at once references, in subject matter and material composition, violence and intimacy, combat and comedy, as well as strength and a homoerotic sensuality. As Kasia Boddy has noted, there is undeniably something erotic about viewing pugilism and watching bodies in intimate contact: ‘If pugilism had its erotic qualities, erotic love could also be seen as a potentially pugilistic activity.’21 Furthermore, according to the sport’s historian John F. Gilby, wrestling is ‘based on the embrace’.22 Gaudier-Brzeska pushed this even further in his linocut of wrestlers printed around 1914 (fig.5). Is this a fight or a sexual encounter? The twisting and tumbling of these figures seem to suggest the corporeal relations of sex rather than a wrestling match. Gaudier-Brzeska was playing with these slippages between the violent aesthetics of the fight and those of intercourse. From contemporary accounts, it seems that Gaudier-Brzeska liked to tease his friends about his own sexuality. According to his fellow sculptor Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska once declared that ‘he was homosexual, expecting us to be horrified’.23 Art historian Jon Wood has observed, ‘Whether Gaudier-Brzeska was homosexual (or bisexual) or just pretending to be, this has interesting consequences, in terms of perception, within the imaginary realm of “personae” and avant-garde game playing of the Vorticist and Egoist circles’.24 Perhaps the young sculptor’s engagement with wrestling was another way of playing a game, of evoking a number of corporeal and visual ambiguities: rough and tough, manly and muscular, yet also erotic and intimate. The Wrestlers relief appears to revel in these uncertainties, these irresolute and unstable moments between physicality, vulnerability and intimacy. Whereas in the whisky poster Gaudier-Brzeska chose to focus on the aesthetic violence of the punch, the Wrestlers relief is a more delicate tangle of limbs, ideas and relationships – between art and sport, aesthetics and violence, sculpture and physicality.

Wrestling revival

Allan Stewart, The Revival of Wrestling: An Exciting Modern Contest, published in the London Illustrated News, 6 February 1904

Allan Stewart, The Revival of Wrestling: An Exciting Modern Contest, published in the London Illustrated News, 6 February 1904 

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

'A Punishing Double Chancery Hold' in Complete Science of Wresting, published by Health & Strength 1909

'A Punishing Double Chancery Hold' in Complete Science of Wresting, published by Health & Strength 1909 

As has already been suggested, the Wrestlers relief is not a straightforward depiction of a wrestling match or of wrestlers. Nevertheless, this sculptural relief does connect very specifically to the moment of its making and the social and sporting spaces to which it refers. As a work of art, it prompts consideration of the connections between avant-garde art, popular culture and sport before the First World War. At the beginning of the twentieth century, wrestling was a highly visible sport. It was extremely popular in London and around the country where regional variations were (and still are) practised and protected with vigour. From the Kinetoscope parlour on Oxford Street where, for a small fee, one could watch moving images of wrestlers, to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of wrestlers in his book The Human Figure in Motion (1901), to the numerous photographs and representations of wrestling in sporting journals and daily newspapers (fig.6), wrestling was an omnipresent part of Edwardian visual culture. Writing in the Times in January 1911, one journalist noted, ‘Of later years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in boxing and wrestling; and the contests between professional experts are watched by large gatherings of spectators who are willing to pay as much as a guinea, or even more, for a seat at the ring side’.26 Indeed, the writer claimed that every class of British society, women included, was to be found in the audiences of wrestling matches.

There were several highly publicised matches in this period that made fighters worldwide celebrities. A bout in Chicago on 4 September 1911 between the American wrestler Frank Gotch and the Estonian-born but London-based George Hackenschmidt (who upon winning was recognised as the first World Heavyweight Champion) drew a crowd of over 30,000 spectators and was featured in newspapers and magazines all over the world. As well as photographs of such matches, wrestling manuals also featured images of different holds. Hackenschmidt’s Complete Science of Wresting (published by Health & Strength in 1909) contained seventy images of standing holds, ground wrestling and throws (fig.7). The paused embrace of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers relief suggests an awareness of these mass produced images of suspended action or movement.

Wrestling and the figure of the wrestler were explicitly connected to national and imperial politics. While wrestling and boxing were frequently celebrated as ‘national’ sports in Britain, the early twentieth-century press brimmed with anxious articles about the physical prowess of foreign fighters. Indian wrestlers were particularly revered. Ahmud Bux was one Indian wrestler who awed the British crowd. A report on his match with the Swiss fighter, de Riaz, noted that:

Evidently it will be difficult to find heavyweights good enough to beat these Indians, who have the look of all round athletes, possessing long elastic muscles, great pace, and quickness of vision – qualities generally absent in the continental wrestler who is the product of the gymnasium.27

Frank Reynolds, Wrestling to Help the Dead Towards Nirvana, published in Illustrated London News, 9 July 1910

Frank Reynolds, Wrestling to Help the Dead Towards Nirvana, published in Illustrated London News, 9 July 1910 

The ‘Inter-Empire’ wrestling match was held in the impressive surroundings of the central transept of the Crystal Palace on 8 July 1911, and formed part of the ‘Inter-Empire’ sport championships of the Festival of Empire, held to celebrate the coronation of King George V, in which teams from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom competed. The staging of a wrestling match in the middle of the famous glass palace certainly contradicts any notions that wrestling was underground or hidden from sight in seedy backstreet gyms and clubs. Wrestling was, at the time, very much a global sport and the skills and traditions of other wrestling cultures were much admired, such as those of the Sudanese wrestlers at the Imperial International Exhibition in 1909 and Japanese wrestlers at the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition, both events held at White City in London(fig.8). Gaudier-Brzeska’s naked wrestlers imply that the artist was aware of wrestling styles and traditions from other parts of the world, and connect to his interest in sculptural forms from Africa, Oceania and Asia that he frequently encountered in museum collections in Paris and London. The smooth contours of the wrestlers in Gaudier-Brzeska’s relief certainly share analogies to the body shapes of the Japanese wrestlers who fought in London and whose images was widely circulated through the popular press. Another possible source which links sculpture, wrestling and a formal emphasis on musculature and a rounded, smooth and yet strong physical shape is the Hawaiian Deity form in the British Museum (fig.9).28 As art historian Evelyn Silber has already noted, there is no evidence that Gaudier-Brzeska knew of this piece, but the similarities of the pose on all fours is striking. It is also fascinating to note that Henry Moore admired the Hawaiian deity figure for its ‘flat back and powerful muscles of a gorilla, combined with a tension and strain of a wrestler’.29

Wooden human figure, from Hawaii, Polynesia, possibly 18th century AD

Wooden human figure, from Hawaii, Polynesia, possibly 18th century AD
AOA 1657
Henry Christy Collection. Probably formerly owned by the United Service Museum
Photo © Trustees of the British Museum 

Pugilistic sports were central to debates about manliness and masculinity at the beginning of the twentieth century – a period when such categories were being hotly debated and contested with the rise of suffrage campaigns and increased public discourse about sexuality (particularly in the wake of the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’ with other men). The London Amateur Wrestling Association, at whose headquarters Gaudier-Brzeska had made his sketches, was described by the journalist W.A. Bridge as upholding ‘all that is best and most manly in British sport’.30 Wrestling was undoubtedly modern subject matter and Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers relief connects to these contemporary debates about sport, masculinity and modernity. For an artist who was crafting an anti-bourgeois identity as a rough and tough artist, while also privately claiming to be homosexual, wrestling was the perfect subject with which to grapple.

Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpted relief of two naked fighters alludes to the wrestlers he drew in the gym at the headquarters of the London Amateur Wrestling Association – the ‘two athletic types, large shoulders, taut, big necks like bulls’,31 as he described them – but there are other bodies that are suggested too: sculpted bodies ancient and modern, the bodies of fighters photographed in the newspapers, the body of the naked male model in the life class, the body of the sculptor. Gaudier-Brzeska described the wrestlers he saw as having reached a ‘state of perfection’.32 In the relief he tried to recreate that state through a controlled balance of bodies, shapes and forms and it was in the permanent materials of sculpture that, for him, this state could be achieved and preserved.