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Jacob Epstein Close contact
Sex, motherhood and children were central themes in Jacob Epstein's work.
epstein.jpg  
Jacob Epstein
Carrick Hill, Adelaide.
Until November 02/2008.
VISITORS to Adelaide who haven't ventured far beyond North Terrace and Rundle Mall are unlikely to be aware of the grand house and gardens of Carrick Hill in Springfield.

It is surprising to find what is really a country mansion and rambling estate in the suburbs of a city, and just as unexpected to find it crammed with the art, furniture and books collected by its owners, Edward and Ursula Hayward, during the middle decades of the 20th century.

The Haywards were friends of many artists in Britain and Australia, including Jacob Epstein, and their collection of his portrait busts forms the basis of a fine exhibition that draws on museums from across Australia.

Epstein was among the best portrait sculptors of the 20th century, working in a modern tradition that derived ultimately from Auguste Rodin. The years following World War II represented the pinnacle of his career in this respect, and he seems to have had the most interesting people of the era lining up to be commemorated, just as three centuries earlier the great and the powerful had sought out Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Only one piece in the show alludes to the other and earlier side of Epstein's artistic activity, carving in stone. The return to direct carving in the manner of the sculptors of archaic Greece was the great passion of modernists such as Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore, partly as a reaction against the methods of Rodin, which were based on modelling in clay and casting inbronze.

One would hardly guess, from the works exhibited, that Epstein's early fame and indeed notoriety rested on monumental sculptures executed in stone. Nor would one suspect that the knighted master had been dogged by controversy from the beginning of his career, that he often had been overlooked for public commissions and that some his works even had been deliberately mutilated. On the other hand, one would gather from the catalogue notes relating especially to the various portraits of his family and friends that Epstein the official portraitist had led a highly bohemian personal life.

Epstein (1880-1959) was born in New York, his parents Orthodox Jews who had migrated to the US from Poland as refugees. After studying at the Art Students' League he moved to Paris in 1902, then to London in 1905, where he married his first wife, Margaret Dunlop and became a British citizen. Perhaps because she bore him no children, Margaret tolerated her husband's affairs with a succession of other women. She even reared his first child, a daughter born in 1918 to actor and model Meum Lindsell.

She drew the line when an affair turned into a passion, however. In 1923, she shot and wounded the woman who became the great love of Epstein's life.

Kathleen Garman came from a big family and her many brothers and sisters led colourful and sometimes tragic lives. The boys were adventurers and communists; and, among the countless romantic entanglements of the girls, one was the lover of Vita Sackville-West and another of the young Lucian Freud, who later married Kathleen's daughter Kitty Epstein. A couple of them ended this wild ride in the arms of the Catholic Church.

Kathleen was the mother of Epstein's son Theo, born in 1924, and daughters Kitty (1927) and Esther (1929); portraits of both girls are included in the exhibition. In her fruitless efforts to distract Epstein from Kathleen, Margaret encouraged him to indulge in more transitory affairs, one of which produced his second son, Jackie, in 1934. The mother, an art student, left the little boy with the Epsteins and he, too, was reared by Margaret. His birth was kept a secret from Kathleen for several years.

Despite all this, Epstein and his wife remained together until her death in 1949, while Kathleen and her children lived independently on the sidelines: an unconventional and no doubt distressing situation made harder by straitened circumstances. In 1954 Epstein was knighted by the Queen Mother, who was fond of artists and unconventional people. The following year he and Kathleen married; as Lady Epstein, she survived him by 20 years, dying in 1979.

The themes of love, sex, motherhood and children are as central to Epstein's art as they were to his life and his public works were often criticised as indecent or even obscene.

His first important commission was for the British Medical Association building in the Strand in 1908. Breasts, pregnant bellies and male genitals all aroused the moral indignation of commentators in the press, but the BMA stood by him. Thirty years later, however, when the building became Rhodesia House, the sculptures were horribly mutilated by the new owners on the grounds that the stone was decaying and posed a danger to passers-by below. There is a probably apocryphal story of a penis falling on to someone's head. The opportunity was taken to emasculate most if not all of the male figures and to cut away large portions of the others. This remains one of the most egregious acts of censorship, or vandalism, perpetrated on a public artwork in Britain.

What is perhaps Epstein's best known public work today, the tomb of Oscar Wilde at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, was also denounced as obscene. Commissioned by Wilde's literary executor Robbie Ross (whose ashes were also eventually interred there), the huge monument was completed in 1912. On one side Epstein carved a winged angel or genius inspired by the colossal Assyrian figures in the British Museum. The phallus originally attached to this figure provoked such an outcry that the monument was temporarily covered by a tarpaulin. Eventually the offending member was knocked off and is said to have been used as a paperweight by the keepers of the cemetery until it disappeared inunexplained circumstances. The monument remains one of the most popular places of pilgrimage at Pere Lachaise (it is covered with lipstick kisses), together with the tomb of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison and the life-size bronze statue of radical journalist Victor Noir, which attracts women who regard it as a fertility charm. Such are the immemorially ancient links between sex and death.

Many other Epstein commissions proved contentious, such as the twin figures Day and Night carved in 1928 for the London Underground (in the end Epstein had to shorten the penis of one of the figures), but perhaps the ultimate accolade was having a photograph of himself with his carving Genesis (1931) included in the notorious 1937 Nazi publication Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The text describes this as an example of 'Neanderthal art'. The head is in fact related to the same sort of African mask that had inspired Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon a quarter of a century earlier.

Although Epstein had an extensive collection of African and other tribal arts, their influence is seldom as overt as in this case; nor is the echo of Picasso a very happy one, so long after the original moment. The work is clumsy rather than powerful, but the motivation is clear: he wants to embody a deep and universal sense of sexuality and generation, avoiding anything romantic or pretty or superficially attractive. Like Henry Moore, he is fascinated by the image of woman, but where Moore finds great and harmonious forms, Epstein is drawn towards manifestations of female power that verge on the monstrous, as we shall see in the portraits as well.

The other reason for a certain crudeness in these monumental sculptures is Epstein's use of direct carving, in common with the other artists already mentioned. The revival of this process, which involves cutting away the stone from all sides simultaneously, as in the making of an archaic kouros, was based on a modernist belief in 'truth to materials' (revealing the stony nature of stone) and a concern for the integrity of the block from which the carving is made (the equivalent of the concern for two-dimensional form in modernist painting). Direct carving imposes a certain simplicity of design and the models adopted tended to be archaic, stylised or even primitive.

For all his commitment to carving, however, Epstein did not achieve the synthesis of subject and form that distinguishes the very different works of Brancusi and Moore. The stylistic borrowings are not fully assimilated and the form itself is not reduced to harmony and wholeness.

On the other hand, he was a master of modelling, particularly in portraiture. There is a palpable connection with his subjects: the metaphor of touch comes spontaneously to mind, for affinity is given form almost seamlessly by the intimate contact of the hand with the clay. One senses the surface of the portrait evolving as the artist talks to the sitter, as the understanding between the two deepens and is translated by infinitesimal pressures of fingers and thumbs into a still malleable surface. And then this mobile, flesh-like mass is cast and paradoxically set in the timelessness of bronze.

It is not surprising to find the few busts that had to be executed from photographs, while good likenesses, tend to be theatrical rather than profound. More subtle is the difference between sitters who were forthcoming and animated during their sessions with the artist (George Bernard Shaw); withdrawn and aloof (Rabindranath Tagore); alert (Albert Einstein) or weary and preoccupied (Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru). Engagement or remoteness seem to translate through the hand of the artist.

For all the variety of expressions, however, these men share a certain authority and maturity of presence. They are mostly well into middle age or even elderly, which is to be expected: portrait busts are generally of people who have achieved something worth commemorating. Nonetheless, there is a sense of grandeur and valediction in this gallery of the aged giants of the first half of the 20th century.

There is a striking contrast between Epstein's portraits of men and women. Of the latter, some are society women, but most are mistresses, models and daughters. They embody an entirely different form of living energy, one that is organic and sexual rather than moral and intellectual. The fascination of the otherness of woman is tinged with a touch of horror in the enormous eyes and almost prehensile lips, the hunched shoulders or jutting breasts.

The portrait of Kathleen is fascinating but rather frightening, unrecognisable as the beautiful young woman of a photograph taken 10 years earlier. At 31, she looks like the survivor of a shipwreck. The busts of two of his daughters make a moving contrast: Esther, at 20 and barely touched by life, is exquisitely poised and orientally inscrutable; Kitty, at 30, in the year of her second marriage, is haggard and wild-eyed. She, of course, had been married previously to artist Freud, a man whose domestic arrangements were even more unconventional than those of her father.

Intuitively, spontaneously, tactilely, Epstein conveys the dissimilarity between the gradual evolution of his male subjects, who simply grow older and more rugged and finally desiccated like ancient trees, and the female ones, who bloom and wilt like exotic and slightly grotesque flowers. This is not a world of equality between the sexes but one of dramatic differences between the destinies of men and women.

Images and text by The Australian, Sydney, Australia
 


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