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About the artwork

Henri Gaudier was born in St-Jean-de-Braye, a small village on the outskirts of Orléans, in October 1891. He was nineteen when he arrived in London in early 1911, accompanied by Zofia Brzeska, a Polish woman over twice his age, whom he had met in a Paris library. In order to regularise their relationship and enable them to share lodgings he adopted her name and she passed in public for his sister and as an uneasy combination of mother and lover in private.

When war broke out in August 1914, he returned to France and after nine months of fierce trench fighting was killed during an attack on heavily fortified German positions at Neuville-St-Vaast, 5 June 1915. He was 23.

As an artist Gaudier was entirely self-taught and, of the hundred or so pieces of sculpture he is known to have completed during his short life, all but eight were made in the space of three hectic and astonishingly prolific years from 1912 to 1914.

The ‘Bust of Alfred Wolmark’ comes from about the mid-point of his output. In a list of works compiled by the artist before his departure for the war in 1914, it is referred to as being one-and-a-half-times life size. It forms a companion piece to another bust, made on the same scale and at about the same time, of the painter Horace Brodzky.

In contrast to the frontal presentation of the Brodzky bust, Wolmark’s is presented in profile – head turned nearly ninety degrees from the bow tie, beaked nose centred on the same axis as the lifted left shoulder – as though responding to the sound of his name shouted from behind. Gaudier described them both, in his list of works, as ‘Cubique’ in style.

Cubism was all the rage among the London avant-garde at this time but the term was used very loosely to describe any work that displayed a degree of stylisation, or any departure from formal naturalism whatsoever.

When both busts were exhibited for the first time in the Allied Artists Association exhibition of July 1913, at the Albert Hall, PG Konody, writing in the ‘Observer’, found them ‘somewhat difficult to follow’ and declared that each betrayed ‘a frenzied cubism’ calculated to attract attention but failing to convey ‘a sense of the sitter’s character and appearance.’

Writing in the ‘Daily Telegraph’, Sir Claude Phillips was more blasé, though no less hostile, when he remarked:

“As overbold and recklessly defiant, M Henri Gaudier-Brzeska presents himself to us, in his busts of Wolmark and Brodzky. The too frequently astonished, and now no longer very astonishable, citizen will hardly be startled by the fierce, uncouth visions of the human countenance, perhaps because he cannot quite bring himself to believe in the agitated mood either of the portraitist or the portrayed.”

The Polish-born painter Alfred Wolmark (1877-1961), the subject of this piece, has been described as ‘the first artistic scion from the new Jewish immigrants, refugees from East-European persecution, the doyen of a remarkable generation which was to include Epstein, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Jacob Kramer, Bernard Mininsky and others.’

By 1913 he had abandoned the scenes of Jewish life with which he made his early reputation and was painting in the dramatically heightened colours of a Post-Impressionist style akin to that of the Camden Town painters Harold Gilman and Spenser Gore.

A full-length portrait by Wolmark (now in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Orléans) shows Gaudier in a red shirt and black cloak against a flaring red background. It was described by the ‘Observer’ critic – the intolerant Konody - as ‘a piece of pictorial impertinence that goes beyond a joke.

The intention is probably to suggest a certain demoniac fierceness which may or may not be characteristic of the sitter. The result is merely a demon of melodrama...’

The face was painted in juxtaposed patches of red, green and blue conforming with the prevailing Post-Impressionist mannerism and comparable to Gilman’s portrait of ‘Mrs Mounter’ in Room 10. And it is, perhaps, with the Post-Impressionism of Gilman and Wolmark, rather than the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, that the Gaudier bust should be categorised. But instead of defining the facial structure by dividing it into patches of colour, he defines it in facets, flat plane abutting angled flat plane.

If the testimony of another sitter is to be believed, Gaudier worked with great speed. Enid Bagnold recalls an occasion when he was modelling her portrait, racing against the failing light, and refusing to stop even when his nose started bleeding. She was particularly impressed with his modelling technique:

“He had a sort of organic speed of both arms, like some marvellous chef who was cooking with both hands; he modelled with both hands, in a very peculiar way. I don’t think the right hand took precedence of the left – that I do remember.”

He initially fashioned Wolmark’s bust in clay from which a mould was taken and a single plaster cast made. It was this plaster version, painted brown, that was first exhibited at the Albert Hall. Gaudier then gave it to Wolmark. Eventually it was purchased by the Walker in 1954. Between 1954 and 1960, six bronzes were cast from the original plaster. The Walker’s is number three. The other five are in Edinburgh, Southampton, York, Birmingham and Paris. For this gallery talk the rarely-seen, unique plaster artefact is to be brought out of storage to stand alongside the bronze.

Paul O’Keeffe’s major new biography, ‘Gaudier-Brzeska: An Absolute Case of Genius’, is published this month ( March 2004) by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.