acob Epstein first studied at the Arts Students League in New York and then in 1902 moved to Paris and enrolled at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In Paris he met Rodin, and, by visiting the Louvre, became strongly attracted to non-European sculpture. In 1905 he settled in London. Epstein promoted a new approach to sculpture, following the ‘direct’ sculptural process in which no model or detailed maquette is used but which concentrates on respecting and bringing to life the material employed, preserving its texture and colour while bringing forth from the material, for example a block of stone, the physical power of the form. This ‘truth to materials’ would have a direct impact on younger generation of British sculptors, notably Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
In 1907 he received his first major commission to create a series of sculptures for the headquarters of the British Medical Association in The Strand, London (now Zimbabwe House). The 18 statues he made were considered scandalous. Epstein offended public taste, because the statues were stark, expressive and naked and had nothing of the classical decorum expected of public works. In 1911 he was commissioned to create the tomb of Oscar Wilde for the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Again the work was controversial, for again it was frankly naked, and the style was drawn directly from Assyrian sculptures in the British Museum. While in Paris he met Picasso, Brancusi and Modigliani and became interested in their approach and creative methods which, in rejecting classical forms and looking for inspiration in both the nature of materials and non-Western traditions, while broadly similar to his own.
Back in London he was a founder member of the London Group (1913) and took part in the activities of the Vorticist movement, led by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis and the American poet Ezra Pound. Epstein, with Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Christopher Nevinson, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth and the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, founded the Rebel Art Centre group. The Modernist aims of Vorticism, the manifesto of which was published in 1915 in the magazine Blast, had something in common with the ‘machine aesthetic’ of the Italian Futurists. Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913, Tate Britain), in which a semi-abstract human figure is fused with a real rock drill, is among the works he produced at this period. His first (and controversial) solo exhibition was held at the Twenty-One Gallery in London (Dec 1913-Jan 1914).
He soon distanced himself from the Vorticist movement, and after World War I, which had confirmed his fears about the ‘machine age’, he largely lost interest in contemporary artistic movements. In both his large sculptures and his ‘direct’ sculptures he retained the Expressionist power of the African sculptures with which he had become familiar during his time in Paris. His later works are an expression of the ‘vitalism’ that he had, from his earliest years, found in the works of the American poet Walt Whitman. He became successful both as a creator of monumental works (carved in stone or cast) and intimate portraits modelled in clay. Among the former are: Rima (1925), a memorial in Hyde Park, London; Night and Day, commissioned for the headquarters of the Underground Railway Company at St James’s Park Station, London (1928); The Visitation, a monumental bronze sculpture (1926); Genesis (1931); Ecce Homo (1935); Adam (1935); Lucifer, a monumental bronze (1945); Lazarus (1949); Christ in Majesty, a bronze sculpture for Llandaff Cathedral (1957); Madonna and Child, a monumental bronze for Cavendish Square in London; The Trade Union Congress War Memorial at the Trade Union Congress Building in London (1958); and St Michael, a monumental bronze for the new Coventry Cathedral. He also sculpted many portraits of well-known figures of the time, including Einstein, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Pandhit Nehru and the singer Paul Robson.
He was made doctor honoris causa of the universities of Aberdeen and Oxford and was knighted in 1954. His work entitled Let There Be Sculpture (London, 1940) is an autobiography in which he gives his views on art and the life of the artist.
2007, British Vision: Observation and Imagination 1750-1950, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent
1973, Sculpture of Jacob Epstein: The Eisenberg-Robbins Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC
1980, Jacob Epstein Centenary, Tate Gallery, London
2002, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
2006, Embracing the Exotic: Jacob Epstein and Dora Gordine, Ben Uri Gallery, London (also presented at the Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle)
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Cambridge (Fitzwilliam Mus.): Albert Einstein (1933, bronze)
Cardiff (Nat. Gal. of Wales): Rom (Head of Romilly John) (1910, limestone); Augustus John (1916, bronze); Chia Pia (1941, bronze)
Chicago (AI): The Tin Hat (1916, bronze)
Dallas (MA): Deirdre (1942, bronze)
Edinburgh (Scottish Nat. Gal. of Modern Art): The Risen Christ (1917-1919, bronze, unique cast); Consummatum Est (1936-1937, alabaster)
Johannesburg (AG): Portrait of Mrs Evoy (marble)
Leeds (City AG): Maternity (1910-1911, Hopton-wood stone); Woman Clasping a Phallus (recto); Birth (verso) (1913, Serpentine stone)
London (Ben Uri Gal.): Jacob Kramer (1921, bronze with brown patina)
London (Contemporary Art Society): Bust of Mrs Lamb (bronze)
London (Imperial War Mus.): The Rt Hon Winston Churchill (1947, bronze)
London (National Portrait Gal.): Sir Jacob Epstein (c. 1912, bronze, head); Joseph Conrad (1924, bronze, bust); George Bernard Shaw (1934, bronze, bust); other busts
London (Tate Collection): Nan (1909, bronze, bust); The Visitation (1926, bronze, life-size figure); Torso in Metal from `The Rock Drill’ (1913-1914, bronze); Female Figure in Flenite (1913, serpentine); Doves (1914-1915, marble); Portrait of Iris Beerbohm Tree (1915, bronze, bust); Albert Einstein (1933, bronze, head); Jacob and the Angel (1940-1941, alabaster, group); Somerset Maugham (1951, bronze, bust); other sculptures; c. 1933, c. 1936, watercolour and gouache on paper, three still-lifes with flowers
Manchester (Whitworth AG): Genesis (1929-1930, Seravezza marble)
New York (MoMA): The Rock Drill (1913-1914, bronze)
Ottawa (Nat. Gal. of Canada): Romilly (1907, bronze on green marble base); Admiral Lord Fisher (1915, bronze); George Bernard Shaw (1934, bronze on marble base)
Sydney (AG of New South Wales): Meum (1916, bronze)
Washington DC (Hirshhorn Mus. and Sculpture Garden): Doves (First Version) (1914, marble); Albert Einstein, Portrait of (1933, bronze); The Visitation (1926, cast 1955, bronze)
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