Jacob Epstein & the Mutilated Sculptures
Without a doubt, one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th Century was the Anglo American, Jacob Epstein, and I have long been a fan of his work, having referenced him in a previous post here.
Being a Midlands boy, I had encountered the hugely powerful “St Michael’s Victory over the Devil” which adorns what I consider to be possibly the greatest building in the country, Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (post to follow soon) and although it’s unlikely that I would have known who it was by at the time, I can clearly remember being impressed by its power and presence.
All of which preamble leads me to this post about his first major commission in 1907 for Charles Holden’s Medical Association Building in the Strand, London (now the Zimbabwean Embassy).
The commission was for “statues of famous medical men” and Epstein’s response was to produce a series of 18 sculptures that “…create noble and heroic forms to express in sculpture the great primal facts of man and woman”. You can probably tell from the contemporary images below, that they were not most people’s idea of famous medical men…
A large number of the sculptures were in fact women and almost all of them were naked, which in Edwardian Society was considered unacceptable. They had names such as Maternity, Infancy, Primal Energy and Mentality and were a radical departure from standard Victorian figurative sculpture, with Epstein’s love of African and Tribal carvings (the collection in the British Museum was one of the main reasons he came to England in the first place) being strongly evident in some of the postures and lack of clothing.
If you wanted to go and see these striking pieces today though you would be in for a shock, as they were mutilated and their offensiveness removed. These photos were taken by me yesterday….
The Art history books I read “back in the day” had always lead me to believe that the sculptures were defaced soon after their completion as part of the general outcry surrounding them. According to Wikipedia however (so no guarantees then) they were defaced many years later during the 1930′s and ostensibly for Health and Safety reasons i.e. they were falling apart and bits were landing on people below. Either way, it was an ignoble end to his first major public work.
Epstein did of course go on to produce many more outstanding sculptures, always edgy and usually controversial, and along with Night and Day on 55 The Broadway, and the two referred to above, my favourite has got to be the War Memorial in the central court of the TUC building in London… have you ever seen solid stone look as fragile and limp as the arms and legs of the dead soldier… just amazing.