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Jennifer Powell, Senior Curator

The artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, whose work we are celebrating in our current exhibition NEW RHYTHMS, was inspired by many sports and by the strength and movement of athletes’ bodies.

In the winter of 1912 Gaudier visited the London Wrestling Club. He wrote about his visits to his Polish partner Sophie Brzeska, describing his excitement on seeing wrestlers ‘turning in the air, falling back on their heads, and in a flash they were up again on the other side’. In one of the letters that is displayed in the exhibition (on loan to us from the University of Essex) Gaudier makes a quick sketch of a wrestler being picked up and flung across the room. His visits to the wrestling club inspired a series of drawings, a tray design and his carved Wrestler relief – powerful works that are brought together in the final room of our exhibition.

Also on display is a poster that Gaudier designed for the Black & White Whisky Company. Gaudier emphasises the figures’ bulging muscles through his wonderful colour and line work in this enormous three-foot painting. The accompanying slogan for the poster is ‘THIS WAS A GREAT FIGHT BETWEEN BLACK & WHITE’. Gaudier was almost certainly aware of the famous American Heavyweight Championship match of 1910 between ‘Jack’ Johnson and James Jackson Jeffries, a black and a white boxer, or a cancelled match of 1911 that was scheduled between Johnson and British Bombardier Billy Wells. These matches were widely covered and debated in newspapers and magazines at the time.

We are particularly delighted to be able to display this poster design in the exhibition because it has recently returned to us from the conservation studio. During its extensive treatment the conservators removed the work from its frame and made an exciting discovery! On the back of the poster are two more drawings that are likely to be by Gaudier (scroll through the images above to see the drawings). One of the sketches is an incredibly brightly coloured sketch that may be related to the Ornamental Mask that Gaudier made in 1912. The other drawing is a more curious pencil sketch of a figure that seems to be suspended, or battling the structure that surrounds him. We are currently trying to identify and find out more about these drawings – if you have ideas about their possible subject/s please let us know your suggestions on facebook, twitter or via email.

If you are interested in how wrestling and sport were used in Gaudier’s works and inspired other artists, join us for a lively talk on 13 May with experts Sarah Victoria Turner (Paul Mellon Centre), Professor Lynda Nead (Birkbeck College) and Steven Fowler, a poet and trained wrestler who will perform one of his poems inspired by Gaudier’s Wrestler relief. Find out more.