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Jacob Epstein: Sculptor in Revolt

Sculptor in Revolt

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), one of the leading British sculptors of the twentieth century, was born in America, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who ran a successful business on the lower East side of New York. He spent the formative years of his childhood drawing the exotic, down-at-heels crowds which gathered from all over the world in the city’s poorer districts. Throughout his life, he remained fascinated by the variety of human races and traditions, looking to distant countries for his artistic inspiration.

In 1902, he moved to Paris, then the world capital of art, to study at the city’s famous art schools. Yet in 1905, a trip to the British Museum in London, with its treasure trove of art from all parts of the globe, persuaded him to settle in Britain. The country became his home. In 1911, he acquired British citizenship. His two wives and five children were British, and in 1954 he was knighted, the ultimate honour reserved for British subjects. However, an aura of foreignness always surrounded Epstein and his work, exposing him to zenophobic suspicion. He was ever an outsider, always, as one critic called him, ‘a sculptor in revolt’.

For much of his career, Epstein worked alone, avoiding artistic coteries. Yet briefly, before the First World War (1914-18), he drew close to other young sculptors who shared his fascination with non-European art. Together with artists such as Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, he worked to revitalise the tradition of British sculpture, correcting what they perceived as its weaknesses. They promoted the practice of ‘direct carving’, whereby the sculptor works out his ideas directly in stone, instead of copying a clay model. This practice, they believed, respects the nature of the material in hand. Rather than carving the rock into a life-like form, they created forms responsive to its shape and grain. The many photographs in the Courtauld collection of Epstein at work, such as Maternity (1910), or of sculpture in progress in his studio, such as Night (1928-29), emphasise the direct relationship between the artist and his material.

Epstein eventually dissociated himself from avant-garde groups, partly because he drew back from the abstract experiments which dominated twentieth-century art. For him, the human subject was central. The modelling of realistic portraits in clay (for instance his Self-Portrait of 1920) was always an important part of his work, running parallel with his non-naturalistic stone carving. His interpretation of humanity, however, was never conventional, and earned him enemies. Critics accused him of creating figures which were deliberately ugly, deformed and obscene, demeaning the themes of motherhood, commemoration and religious suffering which characterised his greatest work. He retorted that everything is beautiful, and that moreover his purpose was to express emotions beyond beauty. The question of what is beautiful, and to what extent artists should restrict themselves to beautiful subjects, made Epstein a target for tabloid scandal all his life, and remains controversial to this day.

The caricature of Epstein as iconoclast, wreaking havoc on traditional art, scarcely fits his own explanation of his work. Repeatedly, he asserted his enormous respect for tradition. Only, his definition of tradition departed from the norm, in that he rejected the development of European art since the Renaissance. In works such as Primaeval Gods (1931-33), he looked instead to the ancient, non-Western cultures of Egypt, archaic Greece, China, Africa and Oceania. Again, his childhood awareness of the wealth of nationalities made itself felt. Epstein believed in universal aesthetic values, consistent across time and space. In the early twenty-first century, when many people are acutely aware of cultural differences, his panoramic vision seems curiously ahistorical. Yet his monolithic concept of an international tradition is more appealing than the other monoliths - imperialism, aggressive nationalism, communism, fascism - that sent waves of destruction across the world during his life.

After his death, the sculptor Henry Moore paid tribute to Epstein’s courage as a pioneering artist who bore the brunt of critical derision. His repeated exposure to controversy made it far easier for other sculptors, such as Moore, to follow in his wake. However, Epstein was not primarily a sensationalist. As the images displayed on this web-site demonstrate, his art is still capable of provoking a powerful emotional and intellectual response beyond the shock of its first exhibition.

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