Lines that tell
"The interpretation of emotions, and consequently of the idea" was the definition of art given by Henri Gaudier- Brezeska in a letter dated 1912. This young sculptor admitted that his opinions about art were being "perpetually modified," but at that moment he thought "the idea comes better the more the technique is simplel and limited." Nothing could illustrate this "less is more" notion with more effect than his drawings of animals. He was able with astonishingly few lines to interpret (and it is an apt word) the alert, wary, entirely alive idea of a creature. This drawing is not "of a cat" -- it is all cat. It is catlike even in the way it is drawn.
It doesn't by any means represent every aspect of a cat. It isn't cosy and domesticated, not a purring, soft, yawning pet, all warm insinuation or affectionate show. This is cat startled, cat as nobody's fool, cat adroit, cat indignant, cat posing as despot. It might even be described (without undue mockery) as cat comic, or (without undue intimidation) as Cat the Terrible. . . . Perhaps Gaudier has seen a cat from a mouse's-eye view: a mouse that escaped.
Romantically exaggerated claims have been made for the genius of this French artist, who spent the last five years of his short career in London, an excited contributor of considerable individuality to the pre-World war I avantgarde as it surfaced in Britain. Equally unromantic rebuttals have countered the claims, most notably from his older contemporary, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who, unlike Gaudier, survived the war. He stated that "far from innovating, Gaudier always followed." He admitted that Gaudier had "any amount of talent and great energy," but said that "his volatile nature caused him to change his style from week to week." Others who claimed to have known Gaudier well later tried to overlook his modernist work as the mischievous showing off of a sculptor who, if he had reached maturity, would have produced conventional and naturalistic work. The fact is, though, that he had already in a short span made a number of cogent , self-possessed sculptures which are unlike anyone else's. At the start of H. S. Ede's book about Gaudier, Savage Messiah,m the sculptor Henry Moore is quoted making a solid tribute: "He made me feel certain that in seeking to create along paths other than those of traditional sculpture, it was possible to achieve beauty, since he had succeeded."
quickness to grasp new ideas in order to possess or absorb them can't be dismissed too simply as some kind of frivolous aberration in an artist. Quickness seems to have been central to Gaudier-Brzeska, and was one of the definite strengths of his drawing. It means in this case a kind of certainty, lack of hesitation, acuteness of perception -- a very catlike capacity. In the letter already mentioned, Gaudier also refers to "linear emotion." Though this was to analyze part of an artist's technical vocabulary, it also perfectly fits the feline vitality concentrated in the drawing shown here. It amounts to a celebration of that marvel of unpredictable sign language, deft and agile, a cat's tail. With instinctive humour Gaudier has visualized a cat whose being is almost completely swallowed by its own tail, the serpentine twist an whisk of it arching into a double meaning. Apart from its tail-function, it also, in terms of the drawings, acts as its owner's backbone, and, flicking at its tip, contours a back leg.
There is a piece of glazed pottery, slightly "Chinese" in feeling, which the sculptor derived from this drawing. But many of his drawings were drawn for their own sake, and this one has self-sufficiency, translating an "idea" into the telling, vitalized directness of "linear emotion."