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Ken Russell Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Ken Russellīs least known classic film is Savage Messiah. The film flopped on release, and is not available on video. And the subject, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, is equally neglected. In this in-depth article Darren Arnold looks at the sculptor and the film...


Henri Gaudier-Brzeska The sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was born just outside Orleans, France, on the 4th October 1891. He did not live to be old, exiting this world in 1915. Despite the brevity of his existence, however, he did manage to leave behind some extraordinary sculptures and a life story that is never anything less than completely absorbing.

Putting his life story to one side for the moment, it is quite sad to think that Gaudier-Brzeska is not particularly well known. Of course, there have been a few written studies regarding him and his work (H.S. Ede’s Savage Messiah, Ezra Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska) and several films (The Red Stone Dancer, Savage Messiah and Gaudier-Brzeska), but nowhere near the amount of exposure required to make an artist into something resembling a household name. Unfortunately, Gaudier-Brzeska’s work is only really known to those interested in sculpture, whereas an artist such as, say, Rodin is a name that most people recognize regardless of how much or how little they know about the artist’s actual life and/or work.

Ezra Pound Ezra Pound and Gaudier-Brzeskaīs Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound Ezra Pound

Some of the more familiar works created by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska include

Gaudier The Red Stone Dancer Gaudier Wrestlers Gaudier The Dog
Gaudier Seated Woman     Gaudier The Duck

In fact, many people may well recognize these pieces on sight but would not be aware of the name of either the sculpture or the artist. These sculptures possess a real sense of vitality, and a raw, earthy edge that shines through from the spirit of their creator. Behind these important works lies the story of one of sculpture’s most interesting figures; a character that no unscrupulous gallery owner could get the better of, nor one that any social climber could take advantage of. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was a man very much in control of his own life and, quite possibly, his own death.

Sophie Brzeska Gaudier-Brzeska’s short life was a very interesting one. In 1910 he moved to London, England, and it was there that he met the person who would be arguably the biggest influence on the man and his work: Sophie Brzeska

Sophie was a Polish woman who was almost twice the age of Henri, but the age difference did nothing to stop a very special bond developing between the two. Although for much of the time their relationship appeared to be almost entirely platonic, there can be little doubt that the two were soul mates. Their relationship was very awkward, however, and at times almost appeared to be sado-masochistic, with Henri mentally torturing Sophie and playing on her insecurities. The two were well suited to this sort of setup, and the age difference seemed to define their general behaviour almost by default; Henri’s youthful exuberance offset against Sophie’s world-weary outlook on life.

It is useful to use Ken Russell’s film as evidence of the type of people that the two were, as this is a bit harder to evaluate purely from the written page. In Savage Messiah (the film) it is very easy to see the complexities that existed in the relationship, whereas the book that it is ‘based’ on (also called Savage Messiah) is a far more fragmented affair, which doesn’t have the same sense of narrative as the film. That is not meant to do a disservice to H.S. Ede’s very fine book - it is a very important collection of letters and other information on the life of Gaudier-Brzeska. But the film is not really a straightforward adaptation of the book, as is often commonly thought. The book, as it stands, cannot really be filmed; yet the film takes the material and reorganizes it (as well as omitting and adding other parts) in order to make an enjoyably linear - and accessible - account of this important artist.

Ken Russell’s take on Gaudier-Brzeska is remarkably interesting, and Savage Messiah is a film that, like many Russell works, strives to make the life and work of an artist accessible to a much broader audience. We can speculate that Russell may well have seen a lot of himself in his subject, with both being young, instinctive artists that shocked the public and shunned the establishment. Ken Russell has often been referred to as the enfant terrible of the film world, and such a tag would not have been inappropriate for Gaudier-Brzeska and the place that he assumed in the art scene.

Ken Russell
Russell during filming of Savage Messiah (from Directing Film)

It is a safe bet that Russell decided to film Savage Messiah as he felt a real connection to the spontaneous Gaudier-Brzeska. It is also safe to assume that there was a touch of gallows humor in Russell’s choice of subject, as Russell often felt he was under-appreciated for who he was and what he did. So, to make a film about someone who was treated with bewilderment and disdain would seem to be a very clever move; the director is perhaps pointing out that the public are happy to take to any form of art - and validate it - after it has matured for a number of decades. Given Russell’s fondness for working within the history-as-allegory format (as in The Devils), it is perfectly reasonable to view Savage Messiah as a work relevant not only to Gaudier-Brzeska’s time, but also the year in which the film was made (1972), and indeed the future. Gaudier-Brzeska

Although the above ideas may suggest that Russell made the film because he identified with the subject (which I think is true of all his films), it is a little unfair to think that this would be his only reason for making such a film. Let’s not forget that Russell is a lover of all forms of art, and as someone who enjoyed and appreciated the work of Gaudier-Brzeska he clearly wanted to introduce the sculptor to a whole new audience, and to share his passion.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah In many ways, Savage Messiah can be thought of as one of the best sources of information for the life of Gaudier-Brzeska, as it does not really wander too far from the truth while collating information from various sources. The parts of Henri and Sophie are uncannily essayed by Scott Antony and Dorothy Tutin, and anyone who has built up a mental picture of both the appearance and demeanour of the couple will almost undoubtedly be amazed by the manner in which the actors capture the essence of these very real people. Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Having established just why Ken Russell decided to essay Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, it is well worth examining what Russell was trying to say with the film. Despite his obvious affection for this kindred spirit, the director’s love of Gaudier-Brzeska is not blind. In fact, Russell has stated that he views the death of Gaudier-Brzeska as being none too tragic, as he believes that the sculptor had said all he had to say before meeting with his death. This may seem a bit harsh, but at the very least it proves that Russell’s concerns ran beyond simply feeling that he had a lot in common with his subject.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah Given that viewpoint, we have to look a little closer at the film in order to try and establish what the director was trying to communicate to the audience. It would seem that Russell believed that although the life of Gaudier-Brzeska is interesting and important, it is his sculptures that hold true worth. From Russell’s perspective, it is the art that really lives on, and the creator was something of a transient vessel through which the work came to be on this earth. This also makes an astute comment on the nature of celebrity; once the personality is detached from the work, what, in actuality, is left? In Gaudier-Brzeska’s case the answer would seem to be quite a lot, but this would not be the same for every artist and their work. Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Savage Messiah also contains an important message regarding the view shared by both Gaudier-Brzeska and Russell with regard to art. Scott Antony’s Gaudier shouts (in the Louvre, of all places): “Art is alive - enjoy it, laugh at it, love it or hate it, but don’t worship it!”. This says a lot about both the sculptor and the filmmaker in that it points to their feelings that art is there to touch, to embrace, and to be used. It is no accident that Gaudier behaves like this in a gallery as renowned as the Louvre. He wanted to stop the whispering and the church-like hush synonymous with art appreciation, and the reverence that has been afforded to art.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah As mentioned earlier, material on Gaudier-Brzeska is not particularly easy to find. It is ironic that one of the most compact and informative guides to his life and work, the film Savage Messiah, is so difficult to locate (it is unavailable on video). This means that Russell’s intention of bringing the artist to the masses cannot be fully realized.

However, it is clear that Russell had very firm ideas when it came to presenting Henri Gaudier-Brzeska through the medium of film. It is not simply a case of the director being interested in the subject, and therefore shoehorning him into his chosen medium. Rather, Russell has lifted Gaudier-Brzeska from the page and put him on the screen to provide a more real, tangible approximation of the vitality and spirit that Gaudier-Brzeska possessed. Furthermore, by using the medium of film Russell has also been able to show many of Gaudier-Brzeska’s actual sculptures (they are placed on revolving platforms at the end of the film). This lets the audience view the work in a manner that does justice to both sculptor and sculptures, and is far preferable to simply viewing a two dimensional photograph in a book (incidentally, Savage Messiah author H.S. Ede housed a private collection of many of the sculptures in his English home).

The idea of the (relatively) obscure artist being given a platform through a feature film is perhaps not the most common situation, but another work that is well worth keeping in mind when thinking of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is the artist Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat, which looks at Jean-Michel Basquiat. Although separated by many decades, the stories of both Gaudier-Brzeska and Basquiat are not entirely dissimilar; the two artists were known only to a somewhat limited audience, they each possessed a disregard for their personal well being, and both died young. The two artists also possessed an uncanny knack for alienating themselves from all people and things that appeared to give them meaning.

The soldier Gaudier (from Poundīs book)

In what was to prove a final defiant gesture, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska signed up with the army to fight in the Great War. Perfectly in keeping with his attitude to life, Henri enlisted with scant regard for his own personal safety, and it’s clear to see that while he was well aware of the dangers that such a conflict would hold, his worth as an artist was more at risk if he didn’t become a soldier. In short, to stay would have been to die both an emotional and artistic death. Gaudier

Although Henri Gaudier is often referred to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (as in this piece), he and Sophie were never actually married. His desire to marry her came through whilst fighting in France, and from his letters he appeared to have been determined to make good on this promise once the war was over. He also seems to have been an occasionally remarkable soldier, and a letter to his father details how he was left for dead on a mission, only to struggle back to base before heading out again to finish the job. It is this lack of fear that made Henri a truly great artist. He wasn’t full of bluster and grand theories, but rather he meant (and acted on) every word, right up to the end.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s story is a very touching one, and it is a pity to think that the final letter he may have read was a rather irate one from Sophie. There is some speculation that this may have caused him to take more risks than usual in his final days.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in action at 1pm on June 5th 1915, at Neuville St. Vaast, France. Following his death, Sophie struggled on for another decade before dying in an asylum.


Darren Arnold

Gaudier links (click on images)

click for link biography and pictures click for link various drawings and paintings
click for link four works click for link two portraits
click for link good colour images of the Vorticists click for link H.S. Ede
click for link lots of sculptures and paintings click for link two drawings
click for link two war drawings Jean Michel Basquiat
click for link Savage Messiah by H.E. Ede click for link Gaudier-Brzeska by Ezra Pound
click for link Gaudier-Brzeska by Evelyn Silber and photos David Finn KenRussell Savage Messiah the film
click for link Basquiat the film    



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