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Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1914

By 1914 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was fully committed to the doctrine of direct carving, which was at the time considered a sign of modernity in sculpture. However, the artist had limited means and was rarely able to afford buying stone to work. Accordingly, Bird Swallowing a Fish was carved in plaster, a far cheaper but less durable medium, and painted a green resembling the colour of oxidised bronze.

The piece resulted from an incident witnessed by Gaudier on the Serpentine lake in London’s Hyde Park, during one of his many sketching trips. He immediately made a drawing of the large seabird struggling to swallow a writhing fish, and a number of preliminary studies for the sculpture in pencil and green Chinese ink also exist, two of them at Kettle’s Yard.

Standing at the climax of Gaudier’s engagement with Vorticism, this work represents an attempt to portray organic forms in a rigidly symmetrical and almost mechanical way. The tension and air of menace are unmistakable: some have commented on the fish’s likeness to a torpedo or a hand-grenade, which may have been the artist’s response to the tensions preceding the outbreak of World War I. The image is one of charged aggression. However, Gaudier left the outcome of the combat deliberately ambiguous; the fish may be swallowed, or may yet choke its gasping aggressor.

In 1964 Jim Ede commissioned six bronze casts of the sculpture (one of them is at Kettle’s Yard), which were patinated by Henry Moore to match the colour of the original carving.

Provenance: Sophie Brzeska’s Estate; purchased by H.S. Ede from the Treasury, 1927.

Sculpture [HGB 14]

Displayed

Plaster and green paint

330 x 580 x 270 mm

About the artist

Henri Gaudier was born in St. Jean de Braye, near Orleans, in France. He first came to Britain in 1908. He met Sophie Brzeska while working as a student in the evenings at Ste. Genevieve Library in Paris in 1910. In the same year he left France under a cloud of social hostility and settled in England adding the name Brzeska to his own soon after. He worked in isolation until he met Middleton Murray in 1912, whereafter he built up a circle of artists and intellectuals which included Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and T. E. Hulme. He became involved in Pound's and Lewis' Vorticist group, contributing to the two issues of their magazine Blast. Gaudier was killed in action during the First World War in Belgium.