On Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's The Wrestlers for Tate Britain

In 2011 I began a commission for the Tate as part of their In Focus series and thanks to the amazing work of Dr Sarah Victoria Turner, who has curated an extensive response to the 1914 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska plaster relief The Wrestlers, of which my work is only a small part. After visits to see the casts in the flesh to the Tate stores in London and Kettles Yard in Oxford, in 2013, my responses were published.

There are ten poems, 9 for each cast of the relief and 1 for the original, as well as two short essays, one on the wrestling depicted in the piece and another on Ezra Pound, who was a close friend of Gaudier-Brzeska and a conduit between his work and my response.


a sample poem:


the enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent
          Ezra Pound, The Cantos, LXXIV

he just cuts it out of putt, like a maggot with a wand at the haunches of a daft bullock
those suave eyes, not dusky, but windy, edged with a spackle brush and pointer
with a knife, plain and sharp, glinting in the reflection of the silver crucifix
it is as if the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève had come to live in London, moved
brick by brick to lead a London group, made up of skirt twice his age who loves him
loves him into blindness without a whimper but within an orange phosphorus bang
coming out of them together, entwined in eyes, like black cable, in sections, like logs
he has a white hat, tall and pointed, but he is no chef, he is a ghost, breeding into 9
calligraphy of when Lucifer fell into London and even he began to sweat nettles
and went to the fights, to take in the lights, hand in hand with a French boy, blooched
the colour of nature, red, and white somewhere lower beneath, but mainly red
spilling, sending back the bullet to the Victoria & Albert museum because it was not
named, a coward’s bullet, openly weeping as he listens to the story, he is showed
the sea and then apologised for his lack of heart, and he will not give in again
he will take another bout quickly, and carve more, sculptures of what? fish? or man
locked in his eternal piracy, that is tradition, known as these proportions and
was a monster wrestler ours? it was, it was English and French and all the tiny flags
of the middle continent, where the moon barges over the silken thread of water
in favour of land, forget food! remember drink, the moon is here, and snow is rare!
London is the light of fire brought forth to give birth and the issue is a boy, soon to be
a man, of many nations, soon to die of illness, as we all are, so he is our boy! the peoples
march onward toward deadness, stillness and the maggot’s kiss, kissing sickness of the mind
but his hands are well enough, constance like a prepuce, like a hood of scop the sun’s silk
a lost kind of experience then, death before greatness, but well enough to pollute
a hundred thousand lonely dishevelled homeless coated men roaming around Dean and Poland
street way before it was a police station with rats in the basement ready for torture
his gift has waylayed many a child, a shame they did not see it live, in the flesh, in the wardrobes
of Elephant and Castle, there they would seen the secret. it is about two wrestlers, wrestling.

A Poet’s Response

S.J. Fowler

The poet and wrestler S.J. Fowler considers here the ‘kernel of realism’ in Wrestlers and the relationship of Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculptures to the poetry of Ezra Pound. Included is a suite of ten poems Fowler wrote in 2012, which were inspired by, and dedicated to, the original relief and its nine casts.

It is the process of abstraction, rather than abstraction itself, that interests me in poetry. I have often been drawn to the manner in which the language of communication becomes the language of poetry, and how the subjective ‘I’ in poetry can mutate. Thus, it is not surprising, in retrospect, that I was drawn to the kernel of reality, the actual wrestling move depicted within theWrestlers relief as I have chosen to perceive it, as the foundation with which to begin understanding my aesthetic experience of the relief.

My first thought, however, was not one that lay within the realms of the aesthetic. Instead, I was immediately made aware of a personal recollection and, beyond that, of the observational realism within the relief – in other words, its ability to illuminate and capture wrestling, its motion and its dispassionate vehemence. In and of itself this sense of the ‘reality’ of the Wrestlers, knowledge of the physical act that bound its instigation, is personal, almost technical. It depends upon my experience of wrestling, of the sport itself, and of the affect the sport has had on my perception of physical human interaction. Since childhood – and without choice, I would venture – I have viewed the phenomenology of contact through the auspices of balance, positioning, the interaction of limbs and body language through the modes of grappling. So to trace Gaudier-Brzeska’s work to a seed of realism through this knowledge is to acknowledge that most will not be able to do so, and that I have a somewhat unique perspective.

It was no surprise for me to learn that the relief was the result of first-hand study, and that this study was an act of personal interest, if not passion, on the part of Gaudier-Brzeska. It is this act of study for which I feel an immediate kinship. The moment he chose is not a single moment in aesthetic terms: it is a conglomeration of perceptions, reflecting the nature of what he witnessed and wrote about so enthusiastically (‘They fought with amazing vivacity and spirit, turning in the air, falling back on their heads’, he wrote in 1912 to his companion Sophie, ‘and in a flash were up again on the other side, utterly incompressible’).1

However, in wrestling terms, it is precisely its singularity as a moment, its actuality as a technique, which captivates me. It is a single leg takedown defended with a body lock and an attempted sprawl. This is a core of realism not faithful to a po-faced idea of the real (namely, physiology) but one that seems to exude an admiration for the subject first and foremost, even a sense of responsibility to the energy or true impression of the thing in question, that is, wrestling. It is Gaudier-Brzeska’s affinity for the fury and fluidity of grappling that strikes me so powerfully.

When I first viewed the Wrestlers relief, I recalled a mixed martial arts bout that took place in January 2009. B.J. Penn versus Matt Hughes, in their second fight, with Penn, famous for his flexibility, defending a takedown from Hughes, equally notorious for his wrestling and his strength. The moment is vivid because of the remarkable flexibility Penn displayed in defending a wrestling takedown. Hughes attempted to take Penn to the mat, to place him on his back, while Penn attempted to get his upper body weight onto Hughes’s while pushing his hips away in order to foil the attack. But Hughes managed to hold a leg as he drove forward and in normal circumstances, by pulling this leg into his chest and through his driving motion, Penn would fall to his back, his hips pulled from facing down to facing up. What made this moment so remarkable, and aesthetic, is that Penn was so flexible he was able to remain hip down, body on top even with his leg held beneath the body of Hughes. It was the equivalent of touching the inside of one’s right knee to one’s nose. It seemed as though his hip and his knee would have to have been double jointed in order to maintain this position in comfort. It was a remarkable posture, rare but real: a technique that should have been successful was countered due to remarkable body conditioning, leaving a transient moment fixed and sculpted in my mind.

The above is almost an exact description of what is happening in the Wrestlers relief. The nature of this position, a scramble for the takedown, is not yet completed and the outcome not yet decided. Gaudier-Brzeska fixed a moment in time, the grapple within the grapple, a battle for a single human leg. He found within this frenzy a moment of clarity, a composition of bodies, learnedly unnatural without superimposition of aesthetic ideal.

In writing about the sport of boxing I have always stated that it is a fundamentally unnatural fighting art, and in saying so, I have paid boxers a compliment: it is one of the most technically demanding sports to master, and very much against natural instincts. By contrast, wrestling appears, in its crudest form, a given. When children squabble, they entangle, they grapple. This is true of animal behaviour, too: animals clinch and maul between their bites. The act of grappling is ever present in human cultures, an almost universal pursuit but dramatically under-represented in art. When it is depicted in art, it is normally within the realm of classicism, as though wrestling itself were antique. What Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers realises, more succinctly than any other artwork I can think of, is that wrestling makes the body a tool for manipulation. The ability to embrace, operate and bind other human beings, to control them and to adjust their gait, their stance, body position, and balance – these relations of potential are brought to light for wrestlers when wrestling. And they are also illuminated in Gaudier-Brzeska’s relief. As a poet, it leaves me with the realisation that it has achieved something that perhaps words simply could not.

Gaudier-Brzeska and Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound’s poetry has been an immense influence on my own work, both in response and in rejection, and his work in general casts a huge shadow over the entire last century. He showed that all is matter for poetry, returning poetry to its true scope, as the register in language that does more than communicate. For Pound this inclusivity takes in everything from the Tang dynasty to Greek myth. Moreover, the strength of his ideas cannot be escaped, or gently hidden behind the achievements of those he shaped so forcefully like T.S. Eliot. He cannot be contained because of the judgements of hindsight. His arrogance and his enormous stupidity that ran alongside his genius are as inspirational as the beauty and profundity, and admirable complexity, of his work. Pound’s relationship with Gaudier-Brzeska fascinates me because of what I perceive to be an immense theoretical, or perhaps methodological, divergence between the two that yet produced artworks of a similar momentum and timeliness and fused them together as friends.

Gaudier-Brzeska seems to me to have chosen the medium of sculpture precisely because he wished to capture the momentary, and that he achieved what he did precisely because of this paradox. He was an intense, fierce and instinctually impetuous man. Pound’s ferocity, however, seemed of a wholly different mode – self-conscious, contextual, wrought and eloquent. He was the last great poet whose production was slave to the nineteenth-century yearning for systemisation: the tragedy of Pound was that this intractability was coupled with an understanding that fragmentation in poetry is the only possible way to represent the fragmentation of experience, and this must be accepted at the outset of writing. His vision for his life’s work was absurd and naïve, even impossible, given the nature of the twentieth century. But the way he pursued it was eminent and vital. So while it is true that his ambition, rendered through an obsession with historicity, language and the vignette, was fundamentally corrupt, it was realised breathtakingly.

In 1914 Gaudier-Brzeska sculpted a large portrait bust of Pound in marble. As Pound sat for him he said, ‘you understand it will not look like you. It will not look like you at all. It will be the expression of certain emotions which I get from your character’.2 If Gaudier-Brzeska was of the passing moment, Pound was of the past moment. In the suite of poems I have written in response to Wrestlers I have drawn upon the moments within Pound that seem close to Gaudier-Brzeska’s mode – those phrases of motion that preoccupy themselves with their present.

Sarah Turner’s remarkable work on this project is immense & a need read.

“The large plaster relief Wrestlers was made in London by the French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915) at a time when he was forging a reputation as one of the most radical and innovative sculptors of his generation. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed fighting in the First World War, and his achievements slipped from view in subsequent decades. In the mid-1960s, however, curator Jim Ede had the relief cast in an edition of nine to help make Gaudier-Brzeska’s work better known, and he gave a cast to Tate.

This project explores the circumstances of the making of the relief and the posthumous cast. Drawing on material in the Tate Archive and early twentieth-century sports periodicals, it includes previously unexamined material about Gaudier-Brzeska’s interest in wrestling and asks new questions about representations of sport and physicality in modern art and poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

What a remarkable experience, to read at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, this past May 13th, to share a panel with Dr. Sarah Victoria Turner and Professor Lyn Nead, to read before the original The Wrestlers relief by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and to be welcomed to speak about my first love, wrestling, the sport, as a lifestyle and practise. I had long looked forward to this event, building as it did from my previous collaboration with Sarah for the tate online, where I had the chance to write original poems in response to the relief. www.stevenjfowler.com/thewrestlers

I was given such a generous welcome by Dr.Jenny Powell, who had curated the exhibition of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work, and everytime I see Lyn, who is as an extraordinary thinker as she is a person, we are talking about our shared love of fight sports. Our wide ranging discussion covered the specifics of the relief itself but also wider historical context, with Sarah leading the way with an insightful talk. I mainly focused on the actual technique being shown in the relief and had a small impromptu demonstration on myself, before ending the night with a reading in the galleries themselves. A really memorable night.