Ground Wrestling: This is considered the most important department both of catch-as-catch-can, and of Graeco-Roman wrestling, seeing that by far the major portion of almost every wrestling bout is contested on the mat, either in a prone posture or on all fours.
George Hakenschmidt, Complete Science of Wrestling (1909).1
Gaudier-Brzeska’s two wrestlers are locked in a hold (fig.1). The white plaster ground contained within a rectangular wooden frame serves as a wrestling mat for these lithe but physically powerful bodies. The fight appears to have reached a moment of stasis: the head of the wrestler who dominates the upper part of the relief rests on his opponent whose arched back curves underneath him. To the right-hand side there is a complex entanglement of hands, arms, calves and thighs.
The relief does not depict any one particular moment in a wrestling match but is a synthesis of the contact and combat which Gaudier-Brzeska had observed on his numerous visits to a London wrestling gym. It represents – to borrow the title from the weekly update on wrestling from the leading physical culture journal of Gaudier-Brzeska’s day, Health & Strength – the ‘matters of the mat’: a visual and material combination of all the entanglements, the positions, the poses, the rolls, turns and touches that are possible in any one wrestling match.
Towards the end of 1912 Gaudier-Brzeska visited a wrestling gym to make sketches of the fighters. Around the same time he enrolled in a life class in Chelsea where, as someone who had not attended art school before, he was exposed to the nude life model for the first time. Wrestlers, then, might be understood as a composite of the physical and visual memories of the gymnasium and the life class at a moment in Gaudier-Brzeska’s career when he was particularly fascinated by the representation of the body in movement. This overlapping of the wrestling club and the life class can be traced visually through Gaudier-Brzeska’s depictions of the fighting body and in written accounts of Gaudier-Brzeska’s time in London between 1911 and 1914.
In the relief the wrestlers’ body-parts overlap and sometimes merge to form a knotty and in places physically impossible pattern of sinewy forms. When rendered in low-relief plaster, these powerful bodies are transformed into a stylised arrangement of limbs, their bulky musculature somewhat flattened out. ‘The grappling Wrestlers,’ writes art historian Evelyn Silber, ‘though bulky and tautly outlined, are no longer the straining, sweaty figures of the gymnasium but a flat choreography of interlaced arms and legs, more grace than grit.’2 Although Gaudier-Brzeska undoubtedly became increasingly interested in depicting the human body using abstract forms before the First World War, this essay argues that these wrestling bodies cannot be seen as pattern alone. These may not be realistic ‘sweaty figures of the gymnasium’ but the sculptural relief is undoubtedly of and about wrestlers and wrestling.
The Wrestlers relief is part of a series of drawings, designs and one other sculpture depicting wrestlers that Gaudier-Brzeska executed in an intense burst of activity between 1912 and 1914, including the drawing Two Wrestlers (fig.2). He used his pen and pencil studies to explore the mechanics and musculature of the athletic male body, and the drawings and sculptures need to be examined together as part of a larger project of observing the trained and disciplined body in movement.
Art historian Francine Koslow has noted that there are ten known drawings relating to the relief ‘which range from a few diagrammatic lines to elaborate designs in India ink’.3 These, she argues, ‘trace the conception, simplification, reduction, and stylisation of forms that culminated in his plaster Wrestlers relief’.4 Gaudier-Brzeska experimented with the representation of the wrestling body through the medium of drawing but it is not altogether certain whether the plaster relief was the ‘culmination’ of the artist’s research. As well as the Wrestlers relief and the ten known drawings, Gaudier-Brzeska produced in 1912 a plaster statuette known as The Wrestler (fig.3), then in 1913 a design for a wooden tray featuring two wrestlers (fig.4) together with a linocut of two wrestlers (Victoria and Albert Museum, London; fig.5). Each of these works presents a different encounter with and depiction of the wrestling body.
In the gym
On Thursday 28 November 1912 Gaudier-Brzeska wrote to his companion, Sophie Brzeska, to tell her of a meeting with an engineer called Charles Wheeler, whom he had met through his acquaintance with Charles’s brother, the actor Ewart Wheeler. According to Gaudier-Brzeska, Charles Wheeler was the recipient of ‘big contracts of copper, wire, carriages, motors, etc., for firms in Birmingham, and he has a great deal of influence with these people’.5 Wheeler was going to introduce the artist to the manufacturers of ‘motor mascots’ and ‘electric radiator ornaments’.6 He was also an avid sports fan and commissioned Gaudier-Brzeska to ‘make two little statues in plaster – one of a wrestler and the other of a bather – which he will have cast in bronze by one of his firms’.7 No extant copy of the bather survives, or perhaps it was never made, but Gaudier-Brzeska did execute the wrestler (fig.4).8 In preparation Gaudier-Brzeska reported to Sophie that he was ‘going to see wrestling in the evenings two or three times, which will give me some good sketches; I am also going to see some boxing matches and diving, and I’m terribly excited about it’.9
Art historians Paul O’Keeffe and Evelyn Silber have ascertained that the venue where Gaudier-Brzeska went to sketch wrestlers, introduced to him by Charles Wheeler, was the London Wrestling Club, just off Fleet Street.10 The club was also the headquarters of the London Amateur Wrestling Society. An article on the club featured in an issue of the weekly journal Health & Strength (which carried the strap line: ‘The National Organ of Physical Fitness’) on 8 February 1913, just a couple of months after Gaudier-Brzeska’s first visit (fig.6). It was described as a ‘well-known club’, which ‘with its central membership of past and present champions, holds a unique position among wrestling clubs’.11 Gaudier-Brzeska thus did not attend just any club or backstreet gym but a highly respected venue that had been central to the wrestling boom that swept across the country in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1906 the club had moved to the ‘present spacious quarters’ of the Parish Hall of St Bride’s, just behind Fleet Street, ‘in the heart of the City’.12 A photograph accompanied the article depicting members of the club, including ten men demonstrating wrestling styles and holds, dressed in skin-tight shorts, socks and pumps. It is perhaps not fanciful to imagine that these were the wrestlers that Gaudier-Brzeska sketched when he visited the club for the first time in December 1912 as the photograph was taken just over two months later.
Writing to Sophie of this visit in a state of great excitement, Gaudier-Brzeska enthused about what he had seen, and penned a small sketch of wrestlers practising different moves (fig.7):
Last night I went to see the wrestlers – God! I have seldom seen anything so lovely – two athletic types, large shoulders, taut, big necks like bulls, small in the build with firm thighs and slender ankles, feet sensitive as hands, and not tall. They fought with amazing vivacity and spirit, turning in the air, falling back on their heads, and in a flash were up again on the other side, utterly incompressible. They have reached such a state of perfection that one can take the other by a foot and, without exaggeration, can whirl him five times round and round himself, and then let go so that the other flies off like a ball and falls on his head – but he is up in a moment and back again more ferocious than ever to the fight. [I] thought he would be smashed to bits. I stayed and drew for two hours and am going to begin the statuettes on Sunday.13
Gaudier-Brzeska was evidently enthralled not only by the strength of the wrestlers, who were small in build, like himself, but also by the energy, spectacle and affective power of watching the fight. The homosocial spheres of the gym and the ring were, in the early twentieth century, spaces in which the male body ‘was the legitimate object of a male gaze’.14 Gaudier-Brzeska transferred the excitement he felt watching the wrestling in the club to his work in his new studio underneath a railway arch in Putney which was cheaper than his previous one and offered a large workspace with a concrete floor:
The studio is a marvellous place … I am filled with inspiration … Ideas keep rushing into my head in torrents – my mind is filled with a thousand plans for different statues, I’m in the midst of three, and have just finished one of them, a wrestler, which I think is very good. I’m also doing sketches for a dozen others. God, it’s good to have a studio!15
This series of works inspired by wrestling and wrestlers’ bodies marked a significant moment in Gaudier-Brzeska’s development as an artist. In these sketches, studies and sculptures, he focused incessantly on the body, experimenting with the representation of mass, muscle, shape and form. He was at pains to show his wrestling bodies as strong, supple, ‘massive’ (as Silber puts it) and dynamic. Gaudier-Brzeska was undoubtedly interested in wrestling as a sport but he was also interested in what it could offer aesthetically. While the wrestler’s body provided an opportunity for the artist to study physique and musculature, the act of wrestling provided a framed and distinct sequence of movements in which two bodies moved together. And it was precisely the rhythmic interrelationship of wrestling bodies in motion that Gaudier-Brzeska chose to focus on in the Wrestlers relief.
Moves and movement
Evelyn Silber has argued that Gaudier-Brzeska’s preoccupation with movement was ‘one of the most constant elements’ of his art, striving to capture the dynamism and flux of human and animal motion.16 He represented dancers, as well as fighters, often synthesising a series of movements into a single sculpture or drawing. Art critic Stanley Casson, for example, described Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpture The Dancer 1913 (Tate T03726; fig.8) as ‘a figure in which movement is detected rather than seen, and detected at a moment when it is neither static nor in motion, when it is potential and not yet stopped’.17 The same description could apply to the Wrestlers relief, where the movement is ‘neither static nor in motion’. Instead, latent energy builds up; the plaster holds a quiet but determined force as the wrestlers plan their next move. The relief, however, is formally much closer to Red Stone Dancer c.1913 (Tate N04515; fig.9) than to The Dancer. In both the hands are described perfunctorily, and if Red Stone Dancer were turned on its side and viewed from the front (fig.10), the figure would closely resemble the lower wrestler in the relief who has one arm angled behind and over his head. Moreover, when Red Stone Dancer is viewed from the side (fig.11), the shape of the figure’s arm is similar to the overlapping knot of arms and legs in the Wrestlers.
In Red Stone Dancer, however, vital and energetic movement is given expression in three dimensions rather than in relief, and as such are close to Gaudier-Brzeksa’s drawings of bodybuilders and athletes. Whereas the Wrestlers are emphatically male, Red Stone Dancer is ambiguously gendered, bearing prominent breasts to the front but the appearance of a male body if viewed from the back (fig.12). For these reasons it can be argued that it was Red Stone Dancer, rather than Wrestlers, that should be seen as the ‘culmination’ of Gaudier-Brzeska’s exploration of the wrestling body. In the stone piece the wrestler and the dancer are united in a powerful and supple single figure.
Wrestling and wrestlers in the life class
There are ten known sketches of wrestling made by Gaudier-Brzeska before the First World War. Given the rapidity with which he drew, there were probably many more that are now lost. Not all were drawn as a result of his visits to the London Amateur Wrestling Society. On his first visit to Charles Wheeler’s office he recognised one of the models from the life class in which he had enrolled, describing the model to Sophie as ‘the very wrestler that I like so much – a wonderful boy, strong, taut, and finely square’.18 (Gaudier-Brzeska had joined the life class only a few weeks previously, on 12 November 1912, and attended two-hour classes every Tuesday and Friday from 8pm to draw from the nude. The fee was five shillings for a five-week course.)
The drawing in Tate’s collection titled Wrestler 1913 (Tate T00850; fig.13) seems to fuse Gaudier-Brzeska’s careful observation of the naked model in the life class with his vicarious excitement of the physical culture of the wrestling gym. This drawing could well be a representation of the wrestler employed in Wheeler’s office that he described to Sophie; it certainly depicts a body that is ‘strong, taut, and finely square’. Using a delicate and thin line, Gaudier-Brzeska quickly and effectively summarised the contour of this massive body. With a quick curve, he marks a knee. A few curls hint at pubic hair, while a strong and straight line forms the wrestler’s biceps. A semi-circular line, pointing upwards, forms the dish of the abdominals, separating the trunk of the body from the legs. A similar but smaller curved line hinges the right arm to the chest. Biceps, thighs and calves all bulge. The swinging actions of the arms across the middle of the body suggest that the figure is not at rest: if recorded in the gymnasium, this shows a moment mid-fight; if in the life class then it depicts the changing of a pose. The eyes darting into the corners of their sockets, and the angle of the head looking over the left shoulder suggest the presence of an opponent, capturing the precious few seconds in which a wrestler might gather his composure and plan the next move. Whether based on observation or imagination, the drawing conveys the positions and poetics of a fighting body. The gladiatorial proportions of the figure fill the whole page; the flattened head appears compressed by the top edge of the paper. The wrestler’s feet are planted firmly on the floor, with massive soles spread out to suggest a steadfast anchorage. Yet, despite the strength and massiveness of this drawn body, the fluidity of the lines suggest a rhythm and energy, a lightness of touch. It was this combination of brawn and balance that Gaudier-Brzeska admired in the London gym as he watched the wrestlers hurl each other in the air before springing back onto their feet in a matter of seconds. As with the Wrestlers relief, this drawing has no background other than the blank page, which not only focuses attention on the wrestler’s body but also encourages a more active way of looking. The viewer – as the audience and the opponent – has to fill in the rest.
Another drawing in blue ink, Three Male Nudes Standing 1913 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), echoes the swinging motion of the arms seen in Wrestler.19 While the two athletes on the right stand at rest, the man on the left stands with his legs further apart, swinging his arms with clenched fists as if he is about to throw a punch or has just flung an opponent. As with the drawing of the single wrestler, Gaudier-Brzeska uses a fine line to sketch out the contours of the bulges, dips and hollows of these toned bodies, their heads again compressed by the frame which Gaudier-Brzeska has drawn around the scene. Delicate diagonal hatching in blue ink gives bulk to the wrestlers. However, the poses and appearance of the figures represented in these two drawings are more closely related to Gaudier-Brzeska’s statuette The Wrestler than the later relief. As Evelyn Silber notes of Gaudier-Brzeska’s artistic output from his time in London: ‘While dating remains uncertain, it seems to be during the winter of 1912 and spring of 1913 that his figure studies, like his modelled and carved sculpture, became markedly more massive: the shoulders broadened and musculature more marked in the men.’20
Using wrestlers and pugilists as life models was common practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are numerous sketches by such British artists as J.M.W. Turner, William Mulready, John Everett Millais and William Etty depicting wrestling figures drawn from life (see figs.14 and 15). Wrestlers, bodybuilders and boxers continued to make money as artist models in the twentieth century, and Gaudier-Brzeska’s life class was by no means unique in providing a wrestler for the pupils to draw. In an article in February 1913 in Health & Strength, Reginald Graham, a wrestler and an artist’s model, described the overlapping worlds of the gymnasium and the life class. Graham recounted how an art student ‘who surveyed me critically one evening at the gymnasium’ advised him to take up life modelling.21 It soon became apparent to the twenty-five-year-old Graham that he would have to pose for a nude photograph to send off to potential art schools along with his letter ‘intimating my readiness to sit as a model’. He described his first engagement in a well-known art school in north-west London (most probably St John’s Wood School of Art) as an ‘ordeal’ conducted under the critical collective gaze of the art students sat around the model’s platform in the life studio. But the physical demands of posing were not strenuous, Graham reported, and his gymnastic training had paid off as his body was manipulated into a series of poses and sequences.
In his article Graham laid bare the scopic process by which a model’s body was deemed suitable to draw. To interview for his next job at one of the largest art schools in London, Graham was invited to see the principal and put his body forward for examination. He wrote: ‘I was shown into a room and told to strip, and presently the principal came in. After he had seen my figure he promised me an engagement.’22 Graham recognised that there was a power dynamic at play in this transaction between life model and art school principal. Graham possessed the muscular power and physique, but it was the principal who had the power to approve whether it could be displayed in the life class, whether he had the right kind of figure. It was, Graham confirmed for his readers, good work for those who were prepared to travel and endure the whims of art masters and students. Throughout the article, however, there is also a trace of anxiety about his chosen profession. Graham highlighted the visual regime under which the life model operated. His naked body was constantly being looked at, more often than not by other men, under the hot lights of the life studio. Naked and exposed, Graham wrote of the ‘feeling that one undergoes a certain loss of dignity in becoming a figure model’.23 It is of course impossible to know how the wrestler that worked in Charles Wheeler’s office in the day and wrestled and posed at Gaudier-Brzeska’s life class at night – the one who was described by Gaudier-Brzeska as that ‘wonderful boy, strong, taut, and finely square’ – felt about his experience of showing off his muscles for the benefit of art students. Graham’s is a rare account, not only of the processes by which one became a life model, but also as a record of how he felt to be examined and observed. As Graham’s article makes clear, the move from the gym to the life class was an obvious one for a young man with a toned physique who, in 1913, wanted to make an income of about two pounds a week from life modelling. However, as he also stressed, the life class demanded its own strenuous routines that placed demands on the model both physically and psychologically.
Gaudier-Brzeska drew quickly, even urgently. At the life class he attended during the winter of 1912–13 he was perplexed by the slowness of the other people in the class. He could not understand why they would only produce two or three drawings in two or three hours. He wrote to Sophie that his drawing companions ‘think me mad because I work without stopping – especially while the model is resting, because that is much more interesting than the poses’.24 He worked quickly, but also productively, leaving each class with an astonishing amount of work. ‘I do from 150 to 200 drawings each time’, he told Sophie. The other life class attendees were obviously fascinated by this young French artist who drew with such intensity, and Gaudier-Brzeska was well aware that he intrigued them, commenting:
I work all during the two hours without a break in order to get my full six-pennyworth. They try to talk to me during the rests, but I don’t reply. Only when I have finished, if they speak to me I reply, and if they don’t, I just clear off, saying ‘good evening’’ […] It is impossible for you to picture these asses.25
To facilitate the quick execution of his drawings, Gaudier-Brzeska frequently used a stylographic pen. These were the first mass-produced fountain pens and their design regulated ink flow to the page, allowing a fine line to be created. During his short career, Gaudier-Brzeska produced hundreds, if not thousands, of drawings. Along with the wrestling club and the life class, his favourite London haunt was the zoo, where he would draw the different animals stalking in their cages (fig.16). Fellow artist and friend Horace Brodzky noted in his book on Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings that: ‘Whether it was Whitechapel with its sombre and grotesque characters … its street vendors and bizarre types; the Zoo, with its big cats, elephants, eagles and condors, or yet again, the studio with its human figure, he grasped the essentials and stated them fluently in his economical line.’26 ‘He understood the line’, Brodzky wrote, praising the ‘economy of means’ of his friend’s drawing technique. When drawing from the nude, Brodzky observed that Gaudier-Brzeska presented a ‘complete statement, expressing volume and plastic qualities, but without any microscopic exactitude’. ‘One feels’, he continued, ‘that his contours bound many subtleties of soft modelled flesh or the bony structure which here and there asserts itself.’27 It was this use of contour that Brodzky particularly admired in Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings, describing his method as ‘so simple, so direct’. This focus on line, or more specifically on contour, did not, however, result in a lack of detail. Far from it. According to Brodzky, ‘Gaudier-Brzeska’s use of the line as contour reveals a profound knowledge of the area within that contour’.28 Brodzky admired the certainty and fluency of Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawn line. There were, he wrote, ‘no tentative or trial lines and certainly no erasures. They have a precision and assurance that is almost uncanny’.29
In two further drawings of wrestling, Gaudier-Brzeska moved from the representation of anatomy and musculature towards the description of contour as described by Brodzky. A sketch of two fighting wrestlers made c.1913 (fig.17) and a closely related work made at the same time and known as Two Wrestlers (Centre Georges Pomipdou, Paris) are drawn with direct and precise lines.30 In these cases, the delicate hatching and lines observed in Gaudier-Brzeska’s depictions of standing wrestlers have been omitted. Instead of muscles, bulk and bulges, these two drawings both have a rhythmic, almost continuous line that flows across the page to describe two wrestlers engaged in combat. Nothing is depicted inside the contours of the bodies save for a few lines through which rather comic, as opposed to aggressive, expressions are given to the wrestlers. That is not to say that these bodies are not powerful but that the focus is less on the individual body and more on the patterns and shapes created by the pugilistic encounter and entanglement of lines. The almost identical duplication of this image of fighting wrestlers suggests that Gaudier-Brzeska was thinking about producing a sculptural work based on this theme and that the drawings were a way for him to experiment with the composition and arrangement of forms, lengthening a curve here, bringing a leg further forward there. As the artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge has observed, ‘Drawing is an immanence, always pointing to somewhere else’.31
If all these drawings by Gaudier-Brzeska were only considered as preparatory drawings culminating in the Wrestlers relief, there is a risk that something of their importance would be missed, or that a timeline of production would be created that cannot actually be verified. As ‘preparatory’ studies the drawings are in danger of being seen as mere staging posts en route to the ‘finished’ sculpture. There are crucial interconnections between these drawings and the relief sculpture, which are more significant than one being ‘in preparation’ for the other. In fact, so prominent is the contour line of the wrestlers’ bodies in the Wrestlers relief, that it could be argued that this plaster sculpture is closer to two-dimensional drawing than three-dimensional sculptural practice. With the chisel, as with the pen, Gaudier-Brzeska carved a direct and unbroken line around the figures. Inside the contours there is little shaping or modelling, except for a few marks to shape eyes, mouths and hands. Even for his most well known piece of carving, the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound 1914 (fig.18) Gaudier-Brzeska drew directly onto the stone to guide the force of his hammer hitting his chisel. With this in mind, Gaudier-Brzeska might even be said to have drawn with his chisel, such was the interconnectedness of drawing and sculpture in his work.
The dating of Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings can be problematic. While the artist kept a ledger for his sculpture – recording details such as titles, materials, dimensions, price achieved if sold, the buyer and other information – the drawings have no such accompanying textual records. Many art historians have assumed that all the drawings of wrestlers pre-date the relief but, in fact, there is in fact no way to be certain of this. In his 1916 memoir of the sculptor, Ezra Pound reproduced another drawing of the wrestlers in black ink (location unknown; fig.19). This scene depicts two wrestlers in a horizontal configuration, but in a different position to the sculptural relief. Pound wrote that ‘There are a few figures in heavier line in a very black ink, very important drawings of the “wrestlers”’.32 The quotation marks around the word ‘wrestlers’ suggest that this is the title of a series of specific drawings, rather than a general subject. Perhaps some of Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings of wrestlers were made after the relief, or even ‘of’ the relief? This cannot be known now but it is possible to argue that the Wrestlers relief was just one work within a matrix of materials, shapes and compositions based around the wrestling body that occupied Gaudier-Brzeska between 1912 and 1914, rather than the culmination of an idea that fixed as the plaster hardened.33