This sculpture of a dancer was carved by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska between 1913-1914. Red Stone Dancer is one of the artist’s best examples of portraying movement through abstract shapes and planes.
Was Henri Gaudier-Brzeska interested in dance?
Dance is a recurring theme in Gaudier-Brzeska’s artwork. At the start of the twentieth century there were many dance trends that were becoming popular in London from across Europe, Russia and the Americas. Examples include Apache dancing from Paris that referenced the violent confrontations between pimps and prostitutes, and Tango, which was considered highly sexual due the close holds typical of the dance.
Gaudier-Brzeska explored dance themes in his sculpture and drawing. Here are a few of his other pieces where he took inspiration from dance and movement.
Particularly influential was Sergei Diaghalev’s Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet). Bringing together artists, choreographers, composers and dancers, Ballets Russes performances broke with the traditions of classical ballet, which adhered to strictly defined movements, creating instead pieces that were described as total works of art by combining movement, costumes, scenery and music.
Red Stone Dancer may have been influenced by the unusual style of the Ballets Russes’ Rite of Spring, first performed in London in 1913. The sculpture echoes the flat-footed, inward toe turned stances of the dancers, which had caused considerable controversy at the time. Can you see the similarities in the images of dancers in this copy of Sketch magazine?
What is the 'red stone' of Red Stone Dancer?
We asked geologist Dr John H. Powell, Honorary Research Associate at the British Geological Survey, to tell us more about the material that Red Stone Dancer was originally carved in.
Origin of Mansfield Red Stone
Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpture Red Stone Dancer was carved from mansfield red stone. This provided the sculptor with a dense and even textured stone suited to his expressive style. The stone was quarried near Mansfield, north of Nottingham. It was popular with architects, masons and sculptors in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, although it was quarried away and is no longer available.
The stone is a sandy dolomitic limestone (often termed dolostone) that was quarried from the Permian Cadeby Formation, which was deposited in a warm shallow sea about 260 million years ago. Its special red colour is derived from iron oxides and the high percentage of fine quartz sand (up to 50 %) mixed with the dolomitic limestone. Its fine quality made it desirable for sculptors to carve as there are few imperfections or flaws in the stone. The colour and smooth texture of Gaudier-Brezska’s sculpture was enhanced by a rubbed coating of wax.
After Gaudier-Brzeska’s death, Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard, had some of his work cast in bronze. The original red Mansfield stone version of Red Stone Dancer is in the Tate collection. The version at Kettle’s Yard is a bronze cast.
Is it about energy?
Gaudier-Brzeska’s interest in capturing movement and energy runs through the majority of his artworks. In a letter to his partner Sophie Brzeska in 1912 he wrote:
‘Movement is the translation of life, and if art depicts life, movement should come into art, since we are only aware of life because it moves.’
Many of his works show the body in transition from one pose to another. They are not positions that anyone could maintain, giving the idea of movement started and about to be continued. Use the carousel below to explore the sculpture from all angles.
Where did the idea for Red Stone Dancer come from?
Red Stone Dancer is very different in many ways to Dancer (1914), another sculpture that Gaudier-Brzeska made in the same year. You can compare the similarities and difference in the images below.
Like many artists working at the time, Gaudier-Brzeska was interested in non-western objects and artworks. He was particularly inspired by the objects and artefacts he saw in the British Museum, which influenced him to experiment further with different forms of abstraction.
He was also interested in the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who was producing sculptures of heads, drawing strongly on Polynesian and African masks. Brancusi’s simplification of features appealed to Gaudier-Brzeska. The use of symbols to represent particular ideas in Chinese and Japanese art was also of interest to the artist. Using a triangle to represent the face is something that appears in many of Gaudier-Brzeska’s works, including Red Stone Dancer.
These non-western art forms inspired Gaudier-Brzeska and his contemporaries to abandon modelling (building a form up in layers of one or more materials) in favour of carving directly into stone. This new approach was part of an understanding of what was termed ‘truth to materials’ – where the artist embraced the physical properties of the material rather than trying to make it look like something else.
Gaudier Brzeska described direct carving in his review of the Allied Artists’ Association exhibition in 1914:
‘The sculpture I admire is the work of master craftsmen. Every inch of the surface is won at the point of chisel – every stroke of the hammer is a physical and mental effort. No more arbitrary translations of a design in any material.’
In London, Gaudier-Brzeska became involved in the Vorticist group and wrote essays for their magazine BLAST.
Vorticism was an artistic movement formed in London in 1914, which aimed to capture the energy and dynamism of the modern world. Its members were interested in the new forms of movement and the power demonstrated by machinery. The movements name is associated with a vortex, a central point of a whirling mass of fluid or air that draws everything that surrounds it in to the centre, in an inescapable and often destructive force.
Vorticist ideas can be identified in the spiraling motion created in Red Stone Dancer. The circular shape of the plinth is echoed in the twist of the feet and the arms twist around the head, emphasising whirling shapes.
Why is it at Kettle's Yard?
Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in action in the First World War in June 1915. After his death his estate passed to his partner Sophie Brzeska. When she died in 1925 there were no known heirs for her estate, and the estate of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska became the property of the Treasury. Jim was working at the Tate at the time. He describes seeing the works for the first time:
‘In that same year I first heard about Gaudier-Brzeska. A great quantity of his work was dumped in my office at the Tate: it happened to be the board room and the only place with a large table… In the end I got a friend to buy ‘Chanteuse Triste’ for the Tate, I subsequently gave three to the Contemporary Art Society and three more to the Tate. It took some doing to persuade them to accept even this, and the rest, for a song, I bought. Since then it has seemed my task to get Gaudier established in the rightful position he would have achieved had he lived into the present time’
Jim wrote Savage Messiah, a biography about the artist in 1931. Much of the content was compiled from the papers that he acquired from Sophie Brzeska’s estate. Jim gave and sold many of the artworks to collections around the world to promote Gaudier-Brzeska as an important modern artist of the twentieth century. He even had casts of some of the works made to further their distribution, working with artist Henry Moore to produce some of these.
Today Gaudier-Brzeska is recognised as an important pre-war artist and there is still a collection of 150 Gaudier-Brzeska works in Kettle’s Yard’s collection.
What influence did Gaudier-Brzeska have on other artists?
Through his friendships with artists associated with the Vorticist movement Gaudier-Brzeska shared and exchanged many ideas with his contemporaries. After his death he continued to influence a new generation, including Henry Moore. Moore is likely to have come across Gaudier-Brzseka’s work at Jim and Helen Ede’s house in Hampstead in the 1930s, and his writing on sculpture clearly reflects Gaudier-Brzeska’s ideas:
‘The sculpture which moves me most is full-blooded and self supporting, fully in the round, that is its component forms are completely realized and work as masses in opposition, not being merely indicated by surface cutting in relief; it is not perfectly symmetrical, it is static and it is strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains.’
Henry Moore’s description of sculpture is very similar to Gaudier-Brezeska’s writing on sculpture in BLAST. For example, both artists refer to sculpture having an energy like the power of mountains. Read the start of Gaudier-Brzeska’s essay in Blast to see how Moore drew on his ideas.
Henri Gaudier was born in St Jean de Braye, near Orléans, France, in October 1891. In 1914 he joined the French army and fought in the First World War. He was killed in action in 1915 when he was 23 years old.
Gaudier never had any artistic training, but sketched constantly, filling sketchbooks with his observations of everyday life. Aged 19 he decided to devote himself to becoming an artist. In 1911 he moved to London with his partner, Sophie Brzeska, and he added her name to his own. Gaudier-Brzeska lived in London for three and a half years and produced thousands of drawings and over a hundred sculptures. He made Red Stone Dancer in 1913-1914, shortly before he enlisted in the French army in september 1914.
Why is it special?
Red Stone Dancer has been described by a number of art historians as Gaudier-Brzeska’s finest work, marking the accumulation of his ideas and experiments and an important example of Vorticist art.
The poet Ezra Pound – a friend of Gaudier-Brzeska’s and fellow Vorticist – explained in his memoir of the artist in 1916 why he thought the piece was so special:
‘By the time he got to “The Dancer” [Red Stone Dancer] Gaudier had worked definitely free from influence. This work is his own throughout. I can but call upon the unfamiliar spectator to consider what it means to have worked free of influence, to have established a personal style at the age of twenty-two. There is no minimising such achievement.’
Sophie Brzeska’s response was more ambiguous. She described it as:
‘A monster descending from the stars. Its resemblance to humans was very imperceptible. An egg head Brancusi style with a triangle for facial features. One square breast, another oblong, feet impossibly twisted.’