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Jacob Epstein: Sculptor in Revolt


Epstein received his second major commission shortly after completing the Strand statues. He was asked to make a tomb for Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish playwright celebrated for his wit, but persecuted for his homosexuality, who died in Paris in 1900, and was buried in the city’s Père Lachaise cemetery. Given their shared notoriety, the combination of Wilde and Epstein was always going to be an invitation for controversy. Surprisingly, however, the English press praised Epstein’s creation, which consisted of a huge block of stone, carved on one face with a flying figure, half demon, half angel. Instead, it was the French who raised a furore, covering the tomb with tarpaulin, and even placing it under police guard. The problem was the figure’s exposed genitalia, which the Parisian authorities wanted Epstein to conceal. He refused, and the sculpture remained under wraps until the outbreak of World War II, when the tarpaulin was tacitly removed.

Apart from the scandal surrounding the carving, and the issues it raised about artistic liberty, the tomb was important as a statement of Epstein’s emerging commitment to the principles of ‘truth to materials’, and uninhibited sexual expression. In his memoirs, he emphasises that his choice of material was seminal to his design, describing how he went to the Hopton Wood stone quarries in Derbyshire, where he saw an immense block, and bought it on the spot. For him, the tomb’s merit lay in its demonstration of direct carving, and his critics concurred. The Evening Standard, which had so recently lambasted his Strand statues, reported approvingly that while most modern sculptors vitiated the grandeur of their material, Epstein’s work did it full justice. The carving of the tomb placed him at the forefront of the avant-garde endeavour to rediscover the authority and eloquence of its material.

For Epstein, the creative act of conceiving a work of art in stone became bound up with the idea of sexual creation. His Maternity (1910) remains deliberately unfinished, as though to accentuate the effect of a pregnant woman emerging from the raw rock. The photograph of Epstein at work on the sculpture is itself pregnant with symbolism. He becomes a father-figure, completing the triangle of fertility with mother and unborn child, generating art, just as she generates life. His autobiographical comments on Genesis (1931) a later depiction of maternity, make explicit his intention to renew art through the image of new life. ‘At one blow’, he declares, ‘whole generations of sculptors and sculpture are shattered and sent flying into the limbo of triviality, and my “Genesis”, with her fruitful womb, confronts our enfeebled generation. Within her, Man takes on new hope for the future.’ Elsewhere, his celebration of carving as a specifically masculine skill reinforces the association between gender, and the engendering of new art. Sculpture, he claims in his autobiography, is ‘fit work for a man’. As a man, the artist enters into a ‘strange copulation of spirit and matter’. He embraces his material, ‘laying loving hands upon the willing and love-returning stone’, which in this metaphor takes on the role of compliant female. Direct carving went hand in hand with direct sexual expression, marking Epstein as an artist in revolt against moral, as well as aesthetic convention.

When making Genesis, he felt driven by a need to express what he saw as the elemental quality of motherhood, without the superficial conventions of femininity. His own understanding of the female state of mind as one of ‘calm, mindless wonder’ is undoubtedly just as fanciful as the myth he sought to dispel. Yet his sense of womanhood as something earthy and animal challenged the old formulae of beauty and sexual modesty. It seems that Genesis angered its critics because the woman is naked without being flirtatious, maternal in a way which repels sentimentality. Her breasts, as one journalist complained, look like pumpkins, while her hands, spread across her vast thigh and stomach, are ‘twice as large and gross as those of a navvy’. Her physicality projects the weight and massiveness of the marble from which she is carved, but also, to a discomforting degree, the unwieldiness of a woman in the last stages of pregnancy. Epstein’s Doves (1913) likewise takes a conventionally romantic subject, and makes explicit its sexual implications. Rather than nestling coyly together, an image of eternal courtship, the birds are depicted smack in the sexual act. At this stage in his career, Epstein was experimenting with a more abstract style, as a way of drawing attention to his material. The birds’ simplified shapes emphasise the shape and texture of the stone from which they are carved. Yet they also portray a procreative act which is exposed and functional, without the fluff and feathers of romance.

The tomb of Oscar Wilde draws ostentatiously on non-Western art. It is a latter-day response to the monumental Assyrian carving of a man-headed bull which Epstein studied in the British Museum. An early and obsessive collector of art from Africa, Ancient Egypt, the Pacific and America, Epstein made it his mission to reinvigorate European culture with the spirit of the so-called ‘primitive’ traditions. The early twentieth-century cult of the primitive, with its notions of primal energy, and forgotten artistic truths, underlies his perception of woman as primeval. However, it also made him more than ever vulnerable to prejudicial attack. As the political climate shifted toward the right during the inter-war period, reactions to his negrophilia became increasingly hostile. Where Epstein spoke in terms of a revitalising return to human origins, his critics feared a return to savagery. Hence, the vitriolic attacks on Genesis, whose exotic, Asiatic physiognomy struck one reviewer as brutish, another as moronic. It was not until after the war, and the last decade of his career, that Epstein, the American Jew of Polish origin, began to attract any proper degree of recognition from the British Establishment.

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