Progression of Art
The Strand Statues for the British Medical Association, London
In 1907, Epstein was commissioned to carve this series of eighteen over-sized nude, caryatid-like figures. The work, depicting old age and pregnancy, created much controversy by challenging accepted social norms and taboos of Edwardian England. By putting the nude figures on the facade of a public building, Epstein took a bold step toward affirming himself as a modern sculptor, not willing to submit to what was considered appropriate during a time when women were still wearing tight corsets and single mothers suffered terrible poverty.
The BMA commission marked the beginning of Epstein's experimentation with non-Western styles and specifically with the Hindu sculptural tradition. Running along the rim of the building's facade, the sculptures narrated the human life-cycle. The work was one of the first of Epstein's to be received as scandalous and controversial, establishing a trend among certain art critics and social commentators of focusing on the social impact of his work, rather than its artistic merit.
The Strand - London, England
The Rock Drill
This enigmatic sculpture received much critical and scholarly attention, and is considered the most radical of Epstein's works. The sculpture is read within the context of the avant-garde and of Futurism. Critics compared its importance to Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). However, it is an error to over stress the Futuristic connection, as this work stands out as an exception, rather than an indication of a certain trend within Epstein's artistic output. An example of an early readymade, The Rock Drill consists of a plaster figure mounted on a miner's rock drill. The head of the creature is elongated and beak-shaped, while the torso contains an embryo-like form.
In The Sculptor Speaks, Epstein observes: "The Rock Drill is not entirely abstract. It is a conception of a thing I knew well in New York and in my feeling of that thing as a living entity, translated in terms of sculpture". While we do not know what Epstein is referring to when he talks about a "conception of a thing", the work can be seen as a premonition of the horrors of WWI. The creature, with its hands tightened in the back, looks both threatening and threatened. It could be a perpetrator or a victim. Another possible interpretation highlights man's relationship with machinery, a hybrid between the human and mechanical. The penetrating and violent nature of the drill is also a metaphor for male sexual energy and libido.
Plaster and industrial rock drill - Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
The Risen Christ
After WWI, Epstein re-evaluated his fascination with the concepts of the mechanical (Avant-garde), as well as life-force (Vitalism). His works now reflected a certain religious shift. The Risen Christ is one of his most controversial bronzes, because of the lack of either Christian or Jewish iconography. The sculpture points to the complexity of possible interpretations of the personality of Christ in the Gospels. In his autobiography Epstein wrote: "It stands and accuses the world for its grossness, inhumanity, cruelness and beastliness, for the First World War. [...] The Jew - the Galilean - condemns our wars, and warns us that Shalom, Shalom, must still be the watchword between man and man. "The sculpture was modeled after the mask of a sick friend, Dutch composer Bernard Van Dieren. In his friend's suffering, Epstein recognized the suffering of Christ. Stylistically, the elongated, even emaciated body of Christ reveals an influence of Romanesque portal sculpture. By pointing a finger toward the stigma on his palm, he brings the viewer's attention to the idea of suffering. Neither his face, nor his body, bears any emotion. The Christ depicted here could be any human being. In a metaphorical way, the "Risen" Christ here "rises" against the cruelty of war. While the concept of the Risen Christ certainly creates a friction with the Jewish tradition, it can be viewed within the larger phenomenon of Jewish modernism, a movement particularly strong in Poland and parts of the Russian Empire. Members of this movement perceived Judaism as part of a broader spirituality, and oftentimes were inspired by the tribal cultures of Africa and Hasidism. The movement spread not only to art, but also to literature and other forms of creativity. The movement indicated a new beginning for the Jewish-Christian dialogue, however, it was brought to an abrupt end by the rise of Nazism.
Bronze - National Galleries of Scotland
Described as the "strangest and most disturbing of all his works", it is perhaps one of the most controversial of Epstein's non-commissioned carvings and probably the most misunderstood. Carved in marble, Genesis portrays a heavily pregnant woman with exaggerated thighs, hands and stomach, with a face reminiscent of an African mask. In his Autobiography (1940), Epstein explains: "I felt the necessity for giving expression to the profoundly elemental in motherhood, the deep down instinctive female, without the trappings and charm of what is known as feminine; my feminine would be the eternal primeval feminine, the mother of the race. [...] She is serene and majestic, an elemental force of nature. How a figure like this contrasts with our coquetries and fanciful erotic nudes of modern sculpture". The work was criticized for combining two disparate qualities - nobility and ugliness, some critics calling it a "blasphemy in stone". Other critics were supportive, emphasizing the sublime quality of the Genesis, and the idea that the power of a work of art cannot be explained in words. It was also seen as a piece emphasizing humanity and demonstrating the shared background of all races.
Interestingly, the photograph of the sculpture, with Epstein standing alongside, appeared in the book Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew; Munich, 1937), a collection of photographs of art objects labeled by the Nazis as "degenerate art". In this example of vicious anti-semitic propaganda, Epstein was accused of turning to "primitive, Neanderthalic art".
Marble - Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester
Einstein is the roughest and most impressionistic of all Epstein's portraits. In it, the intense contrasts of dark and light and the deeply broken surface, in which every fragment of clay is distinctly visible, results in a sculptural impasto. Epstein stated he wished the bust to capture Einstein's sense of humor and wild hair, as well as his deep commitment to humanism. Of the bust, Epstein remarked, in a comment which captures his thinking about portrait sculpting, "it is the rough surface which gives both character and likeness to the face."
On September 11th, 1933, The Times reported that Einstein had arrived in the United Kingdom as a refugee, escaping persecution from the Nazis. He was placed in a secret refugee camp. It was during this short time that Epstein modeled Einstein's portrait. Einstein entertained the sculptor by playing the piano or violin during breaks in the sitting.
Bronze - Tate Gallery, London
Oscar Wilde's Tomb
In 1908, Charles Holden, a British architect and a long-time fan of Epstein's work, commissioned him to create a tomb for Oscar Wilde. The figure of a flying "demon-angel" was carved on three sides of a rectangular block, stylistically resembling Assyrian monumental sculpture. Created at the time when Epstein was deeply interested in sexual aspects of Indian and Near Eastern Art, the tomb could be read as a complex message regarding Wilde's sexuality. Following the principles of Direct Carving, he skillfully displays the tension between the curving rhythm of the hard surface and sheer mass of the stone.
The tomb has become a pilgrimage site for fans of the writer, and for those looking to honor his contribution to gay rights. In 2011, his tomb had to be fenced off, to protect it from the tradition of people wearing lipstick kissing it, and leaving red lip marks all over the marble. The tomb has long been a source of scandal and sensationalism. When it was unveiled in 1912, French authorities covered its genital region with a carved bronze butterfly. Epstein was furious that his work was altered, but other artists adventurously responded to his anger. The British poet and occultist Aleister Crowley approached Epstein in a Paris café one morning, with the bronze butterfly on a necklace, and informed Epstein his work was now free! The genitals of the sculpture went missing in the 1960's. Eventually, in 2000, multimedia artist Leon Johnson installed a replacement made of silver.
Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, Paris, France