1913 by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Southampton City Art Gallery
As Gaudier-Brzeska’s artistic career was relatively short-lived and focused on sculpture, we have few examples of his works on paper, and none are perhaps as compelling as his self-portrait — surely one of the most intriguing subjects from an artist. The warmth in Gaudier-Brzeska’s depiction of himself is immediately arresting, so intense is the background of orange and red that is then caught in the face. Each angle, each groove and crevice of this 21 year old, have been chiselled in colour and shading as it would have been out of stone. The three-dimensionality of form in this image is manipulated in order to magnify its effect. Form is sounded out in shading, outline, colour and texture, and perhaps only a sculptor, preoccupied with making objects, could have paid it so much attention; the determination to make form obvious is avid. Contrast is vivid as reds are juxtaposed with bright green — topping the head darkly with black and casting shadows across one side of the face. Where the black of outline is absent, Gaudier-Brzeska’s technique is particularly brilliant; he creates a nose by overlapping angles of colour — white, yellow and grey — creating abstract shading where subtle tones are usually looked to in order to create shape. The inside of the ear is articulated through such a thick daub of yellow that it protrudes outward from the orange lobe. There is no realistic hierarchy to form here; no matter how prominent such components are in real life, all are picked out definitely. This technique gives a solidarity to Gaudier-Brzeska’s face that ingrains it to the page and our vision; each crevice and groove are remembered, rather like an unforgettable memory. The play is that of Picasso’s, where form takes on both energy and personality as it appears to shatter itself across an image in moving plates. These plates appear to shift across the page, on the brink of moving the subject and meaning itself. As Gaudier-Brzeska’s subject was usually set in stone, quite literally, there seems a definite enjoyment of the potential of adding colour to abstraction here. Having no intention to carve these shapes later, as with postcard 101, Gaudier-Brzeska lets himself go.