New York City, New York
Summary of Jacob Epstein
Jacob Epstein was a sculptor who sought to express the power and grandeur of human life in works which, at the same time, expressed the power of the materials that he used to create them. For Epstein, both the subject matter he carved and the material he carved it in had an inherent dignity. From New York, to Paris, to London, Epstein found an exciting, changing new world emerging as the 20th century began. As one of the leading innovators of modern sculpture, Epstein felt the direct expression of the qualities and strengths found in human life and in natural materials could produce art works which captured the truth about people and their world. Works like Rock Drill (1913), captured how the advances of the modern period could either liberate humanity or serve as another means of oppressing it. His portrait busts of Albert Einstein (1933) and Paul Robeson (1928) expressed the essential humanity and the struggle of these famous men. In his creative process, Epstein rejected the limitations of European tradition and conventional morality, which he felt attempted to dictate what was proper subject matter for art and thus control and repress the creative process. As a result, he was considered to be a highly controversial figure, while at the same time one of the key figures in the development of modern sculpture.
- For Epstein, artistic creation and the sexual act were intrinsically and inexplicably linked. Sexuality and creativity were chaotic processes that expressed the most powerful drives in the human and natural world, and both resulted in the creation of something new. As a result of his frank and realistic sexual imagery, conventional artists, reviewers, and collectors considered him scandalous, yet in works like his Facade of the British Medical Association (1907-08) and Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1909-1912), he remained committed to sexual imagery.
- Epstein was one of the first sculptors to look beyond the boundaries of Europe for subject matter and materials. He embraced the aesthetics and drew influence from the cultures of India, Africa, Native Americans, and the Pacific Islands. For Epstein, art was an expression of human life, and thus needed to embrace all of humanity. His global outlook can be seen in works like Genesis (1929).
- Epstein is often mentioned as one of the most important practitioners of Direct Carving - the work does not begin with a sketch or smaller clay model of the subject matter, which is then repeatedly crafted in other material until the artist feels the final, modeled image has been reproduced. Instead, the sculptor works directly upon the chosen material, attempting to spontaneously express the image the artist believed already existed, in some undiscovered manner, within the material. Epstein stressed that his choice of material was a part of the creative process, and often referred to this method as "truth to material".
Biography of Jacob Epstein
Jacob Epstein was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, on November 10th, 1880. His parents emigrated from Poland to New York in the 1860s. Jacob's father became a successful businessman and eventually owned many tenements. There were five children in the family. Jacob had a sickly childhood and spent almost two years sick at home. In his autobiography, published in 1955, Epstein wondered whether his "sickness" set him apart from other children, as he spent his time inside studying, drawing, and reading intensively.
Important Art by Jacob Epstein
In 1907, Epstein was commissioned to carve this series of eighteen over-sized nude, caryatid-like figures. The work, depicting old age and pregnancy, created much controversy by challenging accepted social norms and taboos of Edwardian England. By putting the nude figures on the facade of a public building, Epstein took a bold step toward affirming himself as a modern sculptor, not willing to submit to what was considered appropriate during a time when women were still wearing tight corsets and single mothers suffered terrible poverty.
The BMA commission marked the beginning of Epstein's experimentation with non-Western styles and specifically with the Hindu sculptural tradition. Running along the rim of the building's facade, the sculptures narrated the human life-cycle. The work was one of the first of Epstein's to be received as scandalous and controversial, establishing a trend among certain art critics and social commentators of focusing on the social impact of his work, rather than its artistic merit.
This enigmatic sculpture received much critical and scholarly attention, and is considered the most radical of Epstein's works. The sculpture is read within the context of the avant-garde and of Futurism. Critics compared its importance to Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). However, it is an error to over stress the Futuristic connection, as this work stands out as an exception, rather than an indication of a certain trend within Epstein's artistic output. An example of an early readymade, The Rock Drill consists of a plaster figure mounted on a miner's rock drill. The head of the creature is elongated and beak-shaped, while the torso contains an embryo-like form.
In The Sculptor Speaks, Epstein observes: "The Rock Drill is not entirely abstract. It is a conception of a thing I knew well in New York and in my feeling of that thing as a living entity, translated in terms of sculpture". While we do not know what Epstein is referring to when he talks about a "conception of a thing", the work can be seen as a premonition of the horrors of WWI. The creature, with its hands tightened in the back, looks both threatening and threatened. It could be a perpetrator or a victim. Another possible interpretation highlights man's relationship with machinery, a hybrid between the human and mechanical. The penetrating and violent nature of the drill is also a metaphor for male sexual energy and libido.
After WWI, Epstein re-evaluated his fascination with the concepts of the mechanical (Avant-garde), as well as life-force (Vitalism). His works now reflected a certain religious shift. The Risen Christ is one of his most controversial bronzes, because of the lack of either Christian or Jewish iconography. The sculpture points to the complexity of possible interpretations of the personality of Christ in the Gospels. In his autobiography Epstein wrote: "It stands and accuses the world for its grossness, inhumanity, cruelness and beastliness, for the First World War. [...] The Jew - the Galilean - condemns our wars, and warns us that Shalom, Shalom, must still be the watchword between man and man. "The sculpture was modeled after the mask of a sick friend, Dutch composer Bernard Van Dieren. In his friend's suffering, Epstein recognized the suffering of Christ. Stylistically, the elongated, even emaciated body of Christ reveals an influence of Romanesque portal sculpture. By pointing a finger toward the stigma on his palm, he brings the viewer's attention to the idea of suffering. Neither his face, nor his body, bears any emotion. The Christ depicted here could be any human being. In a metaphorical way, the "Risen" Christ here "rises" against the cruelty of war. While the concept of the Risen Christ certainly creates a friction with the Jewish tradition, it can be viewed within the larger phenomenon of Jewish modernism, a movement particularly strong in Poland and parts of the Russian Empire. Members of this movement perceived Judaism as part of a broader spirituality, and oftentimes were inspired by the tribal cultures of Africa and Hasidism. The movement spread not only to art, but also to literature and other forms of creativity. The movement indicated a new beginning for the Jewish-Christian dialogue, however, it was brought to an abrupt end by the rise of Nazism.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jacob Epstein
- Jacob EpsteinBy Robert Cork
- Epstein, Artist Against the EstablishmentBy Stephen Gardiner
- Daemons and Angels: a Life of Jacob EpsteinBy June Rose
- Vitalism in Modern Art, C. 1900-1950By Otto Dix, Stanley Spencer, Max Beckmann, and Jacob Epstein
- The Sculptor Speaks: Jacob Epstein to Arnold L. Haskell, A Series of Conversations on ArtOur PickBy Jacob Epstein
- Let There Be Sculpture!By Jacob Epstein
- Epstein: An AutobiographyBy Jacob Epstein
- The Sculpture of Epstein: with a Complete CatalogueBy E.Silber