The ballet L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) was presented in London for the first time on 18 June 1912 by Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev. Tamara Karsavina danced in the title role of the firebird, while Adolph Bolm took the part of her captor, Ivan Tsarevich. Julian Lousada commissioned Gaudier-Brzeska to make a sculpture based on this performance.1
Gaudier-Brzeska chose the moment in Scene 1 when the firebird is seized by Ivan Tsarevich, a moment also singled out in The Sunday Times review of 23 June 1912 as being 'quite unforgettable … the suggestion of palpitating fear and violated purity with which she (Mme Karsavina) shrank from the arms of her captor'.2
It is not known if Gaudier-Brzeska attended the performance as he had done previously for an earlier commissioned sculpture - a portrait of the actress Maria Carmi as the Madonna in Max Rheinhardt's (1873-1943) play The Miracle. On that occasion the artist made many preliminary drawings for the sculpture. In the case of Firebird only two drawings for the sculpture are known (private collection, London).3
According to the list of his completed sculptures and prints that Gaudier-Brzeska compiled in July 1914, and which, with some annotations by H.S. Ede, was published in 1930 in Ede's biography of the artist, three plaster casts were made from the original clay sculpture of Firebird.4
One plaster was sent to the Parlanti Foundry, Parsons Green, to serve as the mould for the bronze for Julian Lousada. Lousada paid £20 for the bronze, the highest price paid for any of Gaudier's works during his lifetime, but not without some initial disagreement with the artist. On 14 November 1912 Gaudier wrote to Sophie Brzeska: 'The Lousadas want to change the colour of the group to light green. It has now a marvellous patine of old bronze. I have written to Parlanti to make it green like the leaves of a cabbage'.5
A few weeks earlier, on 28 October 1912, Gaudier had written to Sophie telling her that, following casting, the plaster of the 'Russian dancers' had been returned, and that he intended displaying the sculpture in Dan Rider's bookshop off Charing Cross Road.6 However, according to Gaudier's 1914 list of works, the plaster he took to Rider's shop was not the one returned from Parlanti, but another which he painted to resemble the dark patina of bronze.7 This painted plaster, sold to Leman Hare for £6, is almost certainly that which is now in the Australian National Gallery's collection.8 Subsequently purchased from Hare by Raymond Drey, who had three bronzes cast from it, the plaster was then sold, by 1918, to Leicester Galeries who had a further six bronze casts made.9 The present whereabouts of the two other plaster casts are unknown. They are presumed lost.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.107.
- Roger Cole, Burning to Speak: the Life and Art of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1978, p.22.
- Nesta Macdonald, Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States 1911-1929, London: Dance Books, 1975, p.69.
- We are grateful to Roger Cole for bringing the existence of these drawings to our attention. In correspondence with the Gallery of 24 February 1984, Cole kindly provided a copy of all the information which he had compiled on this sculpture over ten years of research - referred to here as Cole's notes.
- H.S. Ede, A Life of Gaudier-Brzeska, London: William Heinemann, 1930, pp.194-5.
- Letter of 14 November 1912, reprinted in Ede, op. cit., pp.132ff. Despite the artist's reservation about the patina, he borrowed back the Lousada bronze to exhibit it with the Allied Artists' Association, Albert Hall, London, June-July 1913, and again for the exhibition 'Twentieth Century Art' at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in May 1914. This original bronze was later destroyed in a fire in the United States; letter from Anthony Lousada to Roger Cole, 1968; Cole's notes.
- Letter of 28 October 1912, reprinted in Ede, op. cit. pp.121ff.
- ibid., pp.194-5. that it was painted is confirmed in a letter to Haldane Macfall of 21 July 1912 (The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
- According to the original list, two plaster casts were in the possession of Leman Hare (Ede, op. cit., pp.194-5). However, the estate of Leman Hare recorded only one plaster cast, for which £6 was paid; Cole's notes.
- Cole's notes
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010