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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sir Jacob Epstein

St. Michael and the Devil, 1958, new Coventry Cathedral, Sir Jacob Epstein
Sir Jacob Epstein, Self-portrait
with a Beard, 1920
It's not at all unusual to encounter controversial works of art when writing about painters. Sometimes the controversy revolves around politics, sometimes moral issues, nudity, even matters of style. It's much less common to encounter such matters with regard to sculptors. I suppose the difference is that painters very often paint for themselves, expressing personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions. Supplies are relatively inexpensive and storage is seldom a problem if the work is so offensive as not to be displayed. Sculptors, however, usually work on commission, which means some wealthy individual is looking over their shoulder, guiding them, perhaps even vetoing elements of the proposed piece. Moreover, a block of marble, a mass of bronze, even a sizable chunk of wood, are all quite expensive and unlikely to be the receptor of a sculptor's whim as might be the case with a painting.
Dahlias and Sunflower c.1936,
Sir Jacob Epstein
Sir Jacob Epstein was the exception to this norm. Epstein was a sculptor and virtually every piece he ever did involving more than just a head with shoulders, could be deemed controversial. Epstein was a British sculptor working during the first half of the 20th century. He was born, however, in the good old U.S. of A. on New York's lower East Side in 1880 to Jewish-Polish parents. As a child, Epstein suffered from pleurisy, which gave him lots of time to learn to draw. He studied at New York's Art Students League while working in a bronze foundry--a perfect combination for a would-be sculptor. Starting as a book illustrator, Epstein earned enough money to move to Paris in 1900 where he studied first at the Academie Julian then stepped up to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In the years that followed Epstein moved to London, married, and in 1911, became a British subject.

John the Baptist, Jacob Epstein,
Bishop Forest Hill, Dumfries, Scotland
Jacob Epstein also painted, though his bold, expressionist style and content were in no way exceptional for their time, as seen in his Dahlias and Sunflower (above, left) from a brief painting frenzy during the mid-1930s. Epstein's sculpture, was exceptional, however, in that the artist felt no bounds insofar as style and content in his work. Where portrait exactitude was needed, he was as good as any, better than most (below). And his name and reputation as a sculptor were such that not only did he attract clients and commissions but was largely given a free hand in terms of what he made. Epstein strove to break free of Victorian and Edwardian sculptural Realism while at the same time ignoring to the point of 19th century obscenity the explicit details of his human figures. As seen in his John the Baptist (right), to put it more bluntly, he routinely exposed female breasts and male genitalia in carving or casting his figures. Epstein's most striking piece is the wall-mounted St. Michael and the Devil (top) created in 1958 for the new Coventry Cathedral, replacing the ancient cathedral ruined by German bombs during WW II. Though religious in nature, it strikes the appropriate happy medium between a traditional classical style and Modernism.

Bust of Albert Einstein, 1933,
Jacob Epstein
Sir Winston Churchill, 1946,
Jacob Epstein
By the same token, perhaps Epstein's most controversial sculpture was the tomb of British playwright Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde died in 1900. He was buried in a Paris cemetery. In 1908, the executor of his estate commissioned Epstein to design and carve a memorial for the grave. Even the choice of Epstein was controversial. Wilde's literary supporters envisioned a memorial based upon one of Wilde's homoerotic works. Wilde's detractors were outraged that there should even be a memorial. Thus Epstein found himself in a no-win situation as he, instead, chose as his theme Wilde's poem, The Sphinx. Carved from a 20-ton block of stone, Epstein devised a stylized, Art Deco, winged figure with an elaborate Egyptian headdress hovering over the tomb.
Study for the Tomb of Oscar Wilde, 1908, Jacob Epstein

No testicles, lots of lipstick.
The story does not end there. In transporting the monument from Epstein's studio in London to the Paris cemetery, French border officials, demanded and got an enormous import duty of 120 pounds, also required the sculpture be hidden beneath a tarp during transport to the cemetery. They were offended by what they considered the figure's excessively large testicles. Once the stone was in place, Epstein was able to complete the carving only by bribing a security guard to "look the other way." However, when finished, Epstein was outraged to find that the offending genitalia had been covered by a bronze butterfly. He refused to attend the unveiling. A few weeks later, a friend of Wilde's presented the sculptor with the ornamental butterfly on a chain to hang around his neck. Decades later, the offending testicles were vandalized, ending up as a paperweight on the cemetery manager's desk. Today, a glass barrier surrounds the lower part of the tomb in an attempt to thwart the tradition of visitors leaving lipstick kisses on the monument.

The Tomb of Oscar Wilde, Jacob Epstein, 1914, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.



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