Sculpture Journal

Ezra Pound's new order of artists: ‘The New Sculpture’ and the critical formation of a sculptural avant-garde in early twentieth-century Britain

Sculpture Journal (2012), 21, (2), 9–22.

Abstract

Ezra Pound's essay ‘The New Sculpture’, published in The Egoist in 1914, was a pugnacious, eccentric and forthright contribution to sculptural criticism in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. Central to Pound's art criticism was the work of two young sculptors, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) and Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) who, like him, had chosen to launch their careers in London at the start of the twentieth century, but who were not British by birth. Drawing on what Pound describes as their ‘wild sculpture’, his essay registers a desire for a new kind of artistic community; what he describes as a new ‘order’ of artists. This paper takes ‘The New Sculpture’ essay of 1914 as a starting point for exploring the emergence of alternative identities for the modern sculptor and the formation of a sculptural avant-garde in the years leading up to the First World War. Through the example of sculptural practice, Pound envisaged a new kind of modern artist, and a different set of relations between artists, constructing a distinctly masculine and elitist modernist aesthetic; what he called an ‘aristocracy of the arts’. Toasting the new triumvirate of modern male sculptors - Gaudier, Epstein and Eric Gill - Pound's ‘New Sculpture’ essay creates a vision of a hierarchical alliance of "initiated" artists, separated from non-members by skill, talent and gender. It was a commitment, I want to suggest, to a kind of artistic "freemasonry". This paper will explore how modernist sculptural aesthetic promoted by Pound and others, such as the poet-philosopher T. E. Hulme, in the years before the First World War was constructed via a language of artistic fraternalism and friendship, which celebrated the physical labour of the sculptor's craft and also emphasised the need for a cultural (male) camaraderie. Pound's essay raises a number of questions about the ‘newness’, as well as the ‘Britishness’, of the sculptural avant-garde at this moment in early twentieth-century London. Returning to a quite focused period between July 1913 (Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska's first meeting) to the publication of Pound's Memoir in 1916, this paper highlights the specific and active role that sculpture and sculptors (and Gaudier-Brzeska in particular) had to play in Pound's conception of a new order of sculpture in the months leading up to the First World War. This idea of a ‘new’ sculpture in early twentieth-century Britain was built not only around a set of objects and practices which were regarded as different to the sculptural idioms of the previous generation of what had once also been the ‘New Sculpture’, but also a new set of relationships: sculptural relationships, relationships between sculpture and text, and between sculptors and writers. Among the pre-war avant-garde in Britain, sculpture was used as a critical and discursive tool, but also as a medium of exchange (both actual and metaphorical), as an emblem of professional and personal relationships and ties. Sculpture was, in other words, a connective and critical medium.

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Author details

Turner, Sarah