British sculptor of American birth. Although he spent his childhood in New York, Epstein defined his identity as an artist only after moving to London in 1905. He had studied at the Arts Students League in New York before moving to the Académie Julien in Paris. His first two years in London remain relatively obscure, but in 1907 the architect Charles Holden invited him to execute a major commission for the new headquarters of the British Medical Association in The Strand (now Zimbabwe House). Holden and Epstein were united by their enthusiasm for Walt Whitman’s poetry, and they agreed that 18 large figures should be carved for the building’s façade, celebrating nakedness in the spirit of Whitman’s poems. Epstein himself announced that the scheme would celebrate ‘the great primal facts of man and woman’, and he managed to fuse the ‘medical’ side of the commission with his own most personal preoccupations: erotic delight, mortality, motherhood, virility and above all an uninhibited celebration of humanity in dignified nakedness. The National Vigilance Society, affronted by his figure of Maternity, started a vituperative press campaign to have the carvings removed. The assault nearly succeeded, and Epstein became notorious. However, the combined support of eminent artists, critics and museum directors saved the statues for the time being, although they were severely mutilated 20 years later, when the building’s disapproving new owners declared that their condition was unsafe.
At this early stage in his career Epstein’s prime loyalties lay with an awkward blend of Classical, Renaissance and Rodinesque sources. His monumental tomb of Oscar Wilde, installed in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1912, relied on an overt quotation from the British Museum’s Assyrian half-human winged sculptures, which served as guardian-figures at gates. The contrast between the ornate cluster of images on the flying figure’s bizarre headdress and the austere cubic simplicity of the tomb’s overall masses is symptomatic of a conflict in Epstein’s own imagination. Attracted by severe restraint and outspoken symbolism alike, he was determined to incorporate both in the tomb. Having viewed the work at Epstein’s Cheyne Walk studio in London before it was transported to Paris, one critic in the Evening Standard (3 June 1912) decided that ‘There is nothing to destroy the effect of a rectangular block of stone that has felt itself into expression.’
Epstein’s desire to honour the existing identity of the stone, and to cultivate a close relationship with his materials through direct carving, was shared by his friend Eric Gill. While Gill was attracted by Indian sculpture, Epstein’s trip to Paris for the installation of the Wilde tomb brought him into contact with Modigliani, Picasso, Brancusi and other radical artists. They confirmed his interest in the non-Western carvings that he had already admired in the British Museum. In 1913 his flenite figures of pregnant women took on an openly ‘barbaric’ identity. His sequence of copulating doves in marble proved no less controversial, but Ezra Pound was quick to defend them when Epstein found himself under attack during his first one-man show at the Twenty-One Gallery, London (Dec 1913–Jan 1914). He also befriended T. E. Hulme and many of the Vorticists, contributing two illustrations to the first issue of Blast in 1914.
Epstein never became a member of the Vorticist movement, preferring like David Bomberg to remain independent of Wyndham Lewis’s leadership. However, in the successive stages of his most ambitious pre-war sculpture, Rock Drill, he explored concerns that brought him very close to the Vorticists’ involvement with the machine age. The first stage of the sculpture, developed in a series of powerful drawings, presents the driller as a heroic figure straddling the drill in gaunt yet epic surroundings. The forcefulness was retained when Epstein, with great audacity, purchased a second-hand drill on a tripod and mounted his own plaster figure of a driller on the ready-made base. This version of the sculpture, which was exhibited in all its unsettling starkness at the London Group in March 1915, already contained the figure of an embryo inside the driller’s mechanistic rib-cage. Epstein was anxious to explore, in symbolic terms, his fears about the future of the human race in the machine age, and his alarm was confirmed by the devastation of World War I. By the time he displayed the final version of Rock Drill (1913–16; London, Tate) in June 1916 at the London Group show, the drill had been discarded and the driller himself reduced to a maimed, pitiful victim, hunched and deprived of his legs and hands.
Epstein’s shifting attitude towards the machine age is summarized in the various stages of Rock Drill, and after the war he moved away from angular semi-abstraction to develop a more figurative and warmly humanist vision. He began modelling portrait busts, establishing so great a reputation that a long succession of distinguished sitters commissioned him to depict them in vigorously characterized bronzes. In 1954 he was knighted. Alongside his portraiture, embracing notable figures from Joseph Conrad to Winston Churchill, Epstein continued to carve on a monumental scale with much of his earlier interest in brusque distortion and brazen sexuality. Some of his finest later carvings were executed for public locations, such as the Rima memorial in Hyde Park, London, and the colossal figures of Night and Day commissioned by Charles Holden for the headquarters of the Underground Railway Company at St James’s Park Station, London, in 1928. Both these ventures proved so controversial that Epstein received few public commissions in succeeding years, however. Great carvings such as Elemental (1932; priv. col., see 1987 exh. cat., p. 67) or Jacob and the Angel (1939–40; Granada Television Ltd, on loan to London, Tate) were essentially private works, mocked by many and only now admired as intense expressions of his sensual yet profoundly religious vision. After World War II he enjoyed a greater degree of acclaim, and among his many commissions perhaps the most outstanding are a Madonna and Child (1950–52) in Cavendish Square, London, and the TUC War Memorial (1959) in Great Russell Street, London.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press