Can I have my shilling back?

Peter Campbell

  • Epstein: Artist against the Establishment by Stephen Gardiner
    Joseph, 532 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 7181 2944 X

Jacob Epstein made, roughly speaking, three kinds of sculpture. There were busts and portrait heads in bronze, which pretty well everybody liked. I remember returning again and again to the photographs of them in his autobiography, particularly to the long-necked high-cheekboned girls who seemed as romantic as Picasso’s sad blue and pink people, but more substantial. Then there were the monumental bronzes: the Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square and the St Michael at Coventry, for example. These were well-liked by most people and liked very much indeed by many. Because they are whole figures, not just heads, you can see how Epstein handled poses: they tend to be solemn, formal and frontal, the palms of the hands often turned towards you. These pieces made me uneasy: were they serious, or were they just making serious gestures? They seemed uncomfortably close to allegorical figures on public monuments and war memorials which use solemn language with rhetorical mendacity. And finally there were the carvings, some very large, some modest in size, mostly smoother, more stylised, and more in the tradition of early 20th-century Modern than the cast sculptures (with the startling exception of Rock-Drill). Among these carvings are the doves, of around 1915, which were Epstein’s shot at Brancusi’s kind of abstraction and simplification, and a whole string of allegorical figures. Some owe more than others to his study of non-European sculpture, many, like Adam and Genesis, are figures composed of tight intersecting curves. This gives them a great deal of surface energy. Too much to my eye: Adam seems to be pumping iron and the pregnant figure of Genesis to be painfully swollen. Although some people liked as much these carved figures, from the BMA sculptures of 1908 to the TUC memorial of 1958 as much as the bronzes, they were almost pathologically, and very publicly loathed by others

Epstein’s reputation did not rise and fall with Modernism: in many ways he regressed rather than progressed with the century. The Rock-Drill of around 1915 is a landmark in English Modernism, but the Vorticist/Futurist road it points down was not one he wished to follow. The Wilde memorial, which he completed in 1912, has many of the decorative elements which would find their way into Art Deco. It was presumably its comparative-formality which helped it to get a good press in England despite the row a few years earlier over the BMA sculptures. (This was the old BMA building – now Zimbabwe House – in the Strand.) Conceptually and iconographically, his later big bronzes have much more in common with Gilbert or even Frampton (arch anti-Epsteinian and a major figure in Gardiner’s demonology) than with the Modernism of Henry Moore

Epstein’s work was made for public places and the liking and loathing it attracted found their way into print. ‘Great New Statue in Cavendish Square’ is not a headline to match ‘Rima Tarred and Feathered’, and so Epstein, despite his considerable commercial and critical success, was often very publicly under attack. Much of Stephen Gardiner’s biography is taken up with what critics and journalists said about Epstein’s work, but he doesn’t really ask what was in it that so irritated some and gave such pleasure to others. Gardiner is too often rhetorically ‘puzzled’ by reactions which would have been worth analysing – his explanation of almost any rejection of Epstein is a gloss on his subtitle. What useful definition of the Establishment allows it to be opposed to someone who receives a knighthood, decorates cathedrals and public buildings, commemorates leaders, the military and the aristocracy?

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