‘It is imagined that I do my work in a storm of controversy, somewhat like the atmosphere of a boxing ring’, complained Epstein in his autobiography. And indeed, public controversy dogged his career to an exceptional and at times debilitating extent. The problems began in 1908 when his first major project, to decorate the front of the new British Medical Association Building on the Strand in central London, provoked dismay among conservative critics. Certain newspapers overreacted, conducting a campaign against his design, and the resulting scandal damaged his reputation, discouraged potential employers, and threatened the very works themselves. It disrupted Epstein’s life, forcing the persona of provocateur on a man who preferred, as he claimed, to work in peace. Yet the volcanic eruptions of disapproval also deposited a fertile soil for the growth of a British school of avant-garde sculpture, sown with Epstein’s pioneering ideas, and sheltered by his willingness to face the critics first. His originality made sculpture newsworthy in Britain to an extent it had never been before.
Ironically, his reluctance to make allowances for society partly generated its excessive and disapproving curiosity about his activities. A solitary worker, he largely avoided artistic circles, and refused to placate the public by compromising his private vision. Always, he championed the idea that an artist must satisfy his own needs first, and that art is self-justifying. When his sculpture Consummatum Est (1936) met with the usual barrage of blame and praise, Epstein eloquently denied the need for any audience at all. What would be the fate of this carving? he asked himself in his memoirs, and imagined it surviving intact, even in a world bombed out of existence.
However, Epstein’s sculpture, rather than his public, perished as a result of his first collision with convention. Zimbabwe House, formerly the British Medical Association building, still displays on its second-storey façade the hacked remnants of the eighteen, eight-foot-high statues with which he decorated the building. The sequence of nude men and women, symbolising the ages of man, is just visible in the accompanying photograph. Close up are plaster castes of three of the nudes: a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Form Emerging from Chaos, represented by a man grasping a rock inscribed with the outline of a foetus. The old woman’s sagging dugs and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were key not only to the furious campaign against the statues, which began even before Epstein had completed them, but also to the arguments surrounding all his subsequent projects. In the eyes of many critics, his art consistently transgressed the laws of beauty and sexual propriety.
One Father Bernard Vaughan, a member of the moralistic National Vigilance Society, led the attack against the statues. ‘As a Christian citizen in a Christian city’, he pontificated in the Evening Standard, ‘I claim the right to say that I object most emphatically to such indecent and inartistic statuary being thrust upon my view’. While ‘the sacred subject of maternity has been treated a thousand time with idealistic beauty’, he complained in another article, the Strand mother (shown here) suggests ‘merely brutal commonplace’. With tabloid self-righteousness, the Evening Standard warned that Epstein had erected ‘a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see’. Inevitably, people came flocking. London, declared Epstein, ‘had become sculpture-conscious’.
An equally vehement press campaign in Epstein’s defence saved the statues from immediate demolition. Eminent artists and critics praised his innovations, and after some deliberation, the British Medical Association decided to stand by him. The scandal subsided until, thirty years later, the Rhodesian High Commission bought the building. Objecting that the figures were inappropriate to their needs, they found a pretext peremptorily to destroy them. Their excuse that the Portland stone from which the statues were carved had decayed, was not untrue, but they could undoubtedly have been repaired. In the reactionary political mood of the 1930s, Epstein’s Jewishess, and his reputation for outlandishness, weighed against him. The art establishment may not deliberately have persecuted him, but nonetheless, they washed their hands of him. To our loss, his ‘Thirty-Year’s War’, as he called it, ended in defeat. It also marked him down as a sensationalist, an easy excuse for moral or artistic diatribe, and a dangerous man to employ on important public monuments. Given his stature as Britain’s leading avant-garde sculptor, he received shockingly few commissions. The vandalism still visible on the front of Zimbabwe House serves now as a prominent warning against artistic censorship, and a reproach against the British for their failure to cherish Epstein’s work.