A couple of weekends ago we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the recently opened exhibition of Jacob Epstein sculptures. Regular visitors to these pages will know that I’m a bit of a fan of Mr. Epstein and his amazing ability to create wondrous shapes from stone, and this small but perfectly formed display of sculptured heads does not disappoint.
It took me a while to get past the large photo of Epstein near the entrance to be honest. Depicting a man who doesn’t look like he’s enjoying the photography experience in the slightest, what caught my attention (apart from being strangely reminiscent of Picasso) was his left hand.. A huge and slightly misshapen thing, presumably the result of thousands and thousands of hours of holding chisels and stone cutting tools..
The heads here however were all made firstly by being modeled in clay and then cast in bronze. Rather than produce a faithfully realistic image, Epstein aimed to capture the psychological and physical presence of the subject, which when you see the works collected together here, is undoubtedly what he did, as despite all of the subjects being long dead, the heads seem very much alive…
There are maybe 12 or 15 sculptures on show, each of a contemporary of Epstein including George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Vaughan Williams and Epstein himself, and each is accompanied by a photo and in some cases a short story about the sitter and the sitting..
My favorite quote is actually about someone I wasn’t aware of. As Epstein wrote later in his autobiography… “Imagine Don Quixote walking about your studio and sitting for his portrait! This was R.B. Cunninghame Graham. In the head I modeled he seems to sniff the air blowing in from the Sierras, and his hair is swept by a breeze from afar”. Look at the photo to the right and tell me you can’t see what he means….
As an aside, C-Graham was on the commissioning panel for the so called “Atrocity in Hyde Park” that was Rima, a monument to W.H. Hudson that Epstein completed in 1924 (a year after this portrait sculpture) and which C-Graham expended much energy defending against a largely hostile press, due in no small part I would like to think, to his appreciation for this portrait. And as a further aside, looking at Rima now (below) it’s difficult to see what the all fuss was about…
I’ll leave you with a selection of some of the other portrait sculptures on show.. all of them magical, and all well worth going to see…
The monument was originally commissioned in 1909 by Wilde’s lover and possibly closest friend Robbie Ross, for Wilde’s second resting place at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the city of Paris, his first being the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris where Wilde “rested” for only 9 years. The commission was a very important one for the 29 year old American sculptor, who had been in London for only a few years and was still suffering the backlash from his work on Charles Holden’s British Medical Association the year before.
Once again however, Epstein fell foul of the Authorities as the work was condemned as being indecent due to its prominent male genitalia, apparently resulting in it being hidden from public view by a tarpaulin. The “offending” item has long since been vandalised and I was rather surprised that this current restoration didn’t look to reinstate the poor thing’s manhood…
The reason for the restoration was the vogue (only a decade or so old, from what I can gather) for leaving lipstick kisses around the monument’s base, the grease from which was beginning to cause significant damage to the limestone.
So the base of the work has now been cleaned and restored and is wrapped up in a glass and steel screen, which looks tasteful enough from the photos, and I am sure is the right thing to do to protect this wonderful piece for future generations etc etc.. Although I can’t help but feel that Oscar himself would almost certainly have preferred the attention and the adoration of the lipstick kisses….
I’ll finish with the rather fine words of Wilde’s Epitaph: chosen by Robbie Ross, carved by Jacob Epstein and taken from The Ballard of Reading Gaol…
“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn”
I’ve been interested in early Twentieth Century Art ever since I read Robert Hughes hugely influential book The Shock of the New as part of my Architecture degree back in the late 1980′s, and although Vorticism didn’t get a mention in the book, it was the spur I was looking for and soon I was soon reading everything I could find about the Art “ism’s” of that heady period – Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Purism etc…
Despite being overlooked by Mr. Hughes, Vorticism was an important British art movement that sprung up in London in 1914, and was all over bar the shouting, before the end of WWI. Through an explosive combination of iconoclastic writings, fractured paintings and innovative sculpture however, those short four years produced some of the most outstanding works of the First half of the Twentieth Century.
We both thought the exhibition was excellent, displaying a large variety of works from most of the movements well known and less well known characters, including the borderline genius/ nutter that was John Wyndham Lewis, along with Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier Brzeska and Edward Wadsworth.
There were a number of aspects that really stood out for me. Firstly it was an opportunity to see the reconstructed Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein. About the only disappointing thing of our 9 month world tour a couple of years back, was that we were away for Wild Thing, the major retrospective at the Royal Academy of three of the giants of British sculpture, Epstein, Brzeska and Gill (not much of an issue really, when you consider what we did and saw over those 9 months). Still I was keen to see this legendary piece of work in its original form, and it really didn’t disappoint. It’s an amazingly powerful piece of work, full of anguish, sitting high above the gallery floor like some kind of alien.
As the War dragged on, Epstein like many of his generation felt the dehumanising effect of the conflict to such a great extent, that he took the original sculpture apart and recast it as a single torso, which, bereft of its arms, machinery and legs, he saw as an altogether more fitting reflection of the age.
The second thing that struck me was the consistency of the work of Wyndham Lewis. In a wide range of work on display, from woodcuts to prints and from pen and ink drawings to oil paintings, he was very obviously the driving force of the movement, and despite his tendencies to megalomania, was obviously a man brimming with ideas and ability.
Finally and most surprisingly, was the sculptural work of Henri Gaudier Brzeska. A Frenchman by birth, Brzeska moved to London in 1910 to become an artist. Having little money and no reputation upon his arrival, he concentrated on small works from cheap off cut materials until he met up with the Vorticists in about 1913 and finally began to win commissions. Tragically for him and the world of sculpture, this naturally gifted artist had only four years to develop as his skills, as he was killed in France in 1915, at the age of 23.
His work over these four years however is truly wonderful and inspiring: beautiful shapes, beautifully crafted. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound may not look that special in the photo adjacent, but when you see it up close and in the flesh so to speak… it takes your breath away.