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Sex, moth­er­hood and chil­dren were cen­tral themes in Ja­cob Ep­stein’s work, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Ja­cob Ep­stein Car­rick Hill, Ade­laide. Un­til Novem­ber 2.

VIS­I­TORS to Ade­laide who haven’t ven­tured far be­yond North Ter­race and Run­dle Mall are un­likely to be aware of the grand house and gar­dens of Car­rick Hill in Spring­field. It is sur­pris­ing to find what is re­ally a coun­try man­sion and ram­bling es­tate in the sub­urbs of a city, and just as un­ex­pected to find it crammed with the art, fur­ni­ture and books col­lected by its own­ers, Ed­ward and Ur­sula Hayward, dur­ing the mid­dle decades of the 20th cen­tury.

The Hay­wards were friends of many artists in Bri­tain and Aus­tralia, in­clud­ing Ja­cob Ep­stein, and their col­lec­tion of his por­trait busts forms the ba­sis of a fine ex­hi­bi­tion that draws on mu­se­ums from across Aus­tralia.

Ep­stein was among the best por­trait sculp­tors of the 20th cen­tury, work­ing in a mod­ern tra­di­tion that de­rived ul­ti­mately from Au­guste Rodin. The years fol­low­ing World War II rep­re­sented the pin­na­cle of his ca­reer in this re­spect, and he seems to have had the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple of the era lin­ing up to be com­mem­o­rated, just as three cen­turies ear­lier the great and the pow­er­ful had sought out Ital­ian sculp­tor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Only one piece in the show al­ludes to the other and ear­lier side of Ep­stein’s artis­tic ac­tiv­ity, carv­ing in stone. The re­turn to di­rect carv­ing in the man­ner of the sculp­tors of ar­chaic Greece was the great pas­sion of mod­ernists such as Con­stantin Bran­cusi and Henry Moore, partly as a re­ac­tion against the meth­ods of Rodin, which were based on mod­el­ling in clay and cast­ing in bronze.

One would hardly guess, from the works ex­hib­ited, that Ep­stein’s early fame and in­deed no­to­ri­ety rested on mon­u­men­tal sculp­tures ex­e­cuted in stone. Nor would one sus­pect that the knighted mas­ter had been dogged by con­tro­versy from the beginning of his ca­reer, that he of­ten had been over­looked for pub­lic com­mis­sions and that some his works even had been de­lib­er­ately mu­ti­lated. On the other hand, one would gather from the cat­a­logue notes re­lat­ing es­pe­cially to the var­i­ous por­traits of his fam­ily and friends that Ep­stein the of­fi­cial por­traitist had led a highly bo­hemian per­sonal life.

Ep­stein ( 1880- 1959) was born in New York, his par­ents Or­tho­dox Jews who had mi­grated to the US from Poland as refugees. Af­ter study­ing at the Art Stu­dents’ League he moved to Paris in 1902, then to Lon­don in 1905, where he mar­ried his first wife, Mar­garet Dun­lop and be­came a Bri­tish ci­ti­zen. Per­haps be­cause she bore him no chil­dren, Mar­garet tol­er­ated her hus­band’s af­fairs with a suc­ces­sion of other women. She even reared his first child, a daugh­ter born in 1918 to ac­tor and model Meum Lind­sell.

She drew the line when an af­fair turned into a pas­sion, how­ever. In 1923, she shot and wounded the woman who be­came the great love of Ep­stein’s life.

Kath­leen Gar­man came from a big fam­ily and her many broth­ers and sis­ters led colour­ful and some­times tragic lives. The boys were ad­ven­tur­ers and com­mu­nists; and, among the count­less ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments of the girls, one was the lover of Vita Sackville- West and an­other of the young Lu­cian Freud, who later mar­ried Kath­leen’s daugh­ter Kitty Ep­stein. A cou­ple of them ended this wild ride in the arms of the Catholic Church.

Kath­leen was the mother of Ep­stein’s son Theo, born in 1924, and daugh­ters Kitty ( 1927) and Es­ther ( 1929); por­traits of both girls are in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion. In her fruit­less ef­forts to dis­tract Ep­stein from Kath­leen, Mar­garet en­cour­aged him to in­dulge in more tran­si­tory af­fairs, one of which pro­duced his sec­ond son, Jackie, in 1934. The mother, an art stu­dent, left the lit­tle boy with the Ep­steins and he, too, was reared by Mar­garet. His birth was kept a se­cret from Kath­leen for sev­eral years.

De­spite all this, Ep­stein and his wife re­mained to­gether un­til her death in 1949, while Kath­leen and her chil­dren lived in­de­pen­dently on the side­lines: an un­con­ven­tional and no doubt dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tion made harder by strait­ened cir­cum­stances. In 1954 Ep­stein was knighted by the Queen Mother, who was fond of artists and un­con­ven­tional peo­ple. The fol­low­ing year he and Kath­leen mar­ried; as Lady Ep­stein, she sur­vived him by 20 years, dy­ing in 1979.

The themes of love, sex, moth­er­hood and chil­dren are as cen­tral to Ep­stein’s art as they were to his life and his pub­lic works were of­ten crit­i­cised as in­de­cent or even ob­scene.

His first im­por­tant com­mis­sion was for the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion build­ing in the Strand in 1908. Breasts, preg­nant bel­lies and male gen­i­tals all aroused the moral in­dig­na­tion of com­men­ta­tors in the press, but the BMA stood by him. Thirty years later, how­ever, when the build­ing be­came Rhode­sia House, the sculp­tures were hor­ri­bly mu­ti­lated by the new own­ers on the grounds that the stone was de­cay­ing and posed a dan­ger to passers- by be­low. There is a prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal story of a pe­nis fall­ing on to some­one’s head. The op­por­tu­nity was taken to emas­cu­late most if not all of the male fig­ures and to cut away large por­tions of the oth­ers. This re­mains one of the most egre­gious acts of cen­sor­ship, or van­dal­ism, per­pe­trated on a pub­lic art­work in Bri­tain.

What is per­haps Ep­stein’s best known pub­lic work to­day, the tomb of Os­car Wilde at the Pere Lachaise ceme­tery in Paris, was also de­nounced as ob­scene. Com­mis­sioned by Wilde’s lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor Rob­bie Ross ( whose ashes were also even­tu­ally in­terred there), the huge mon­u­ment was com­pleted in 1912. On one side Ep­stein carved a winged an­gel or ge­nius in­spired by the colos­sal Assyr­ian fig­ures in the Bri­tish Mu­seum. The phal­lus orig­i­nally at­tached to this fig­ure pro­voked such an out­cry that the mon­u­ment was tem­po­rar­ily cov­ered by a tar­pau­lin. Even­tu­ally the of­fend­ing mem­ber was knocked off and is said to have been used as a pa­per­weight by the keep­ers of the ceme­tery un­til it dis­ap­peared in un­ex­plained cir­cum­stances. The mon­u­ment re­mains one of the most pop­u­lar places of pil­grim­age at Pere Lachaise ( it is cov­ered with lip­stick kisses), to­gether with the tomb of Doors lead singer Jim Mor­ri­son and the life- size bronze statue of rad­i­cal jour­nal­ist Vic­tor Noir, which at­tracts women who re­gard it as a fer­til­ity charm. Such are the im­memo­ri­ally an­cient links be­tween sex and death.

Many other Ep­stein com­mis­sions proved con­tentious, such as the twin fig­ures Day and Night carved in 1928 for the Lon­don Un­der­ground ( in the end Ep­stein had to shorten the pe­nis of one of the fig­ures), but per­haps the ul­ti­mate ac­co­lade was hav­ing a pho­to­graph of him­self with his carv­ing Gen­e­sis ( 1931) in­cluded in the no­to­ri­ous 1937 Nazi pub­li­ca­tion Der Ewige Jude ( The Eter­nal Jew). The text de­scribes this as an ex­am­ple of ‘‘ Ne­an­derthal art’’. The head is in fact re­lated to the same sort of African mask that had in­spired Pi­casso’s Les De­moi­selles d’Avi­gnon a quar­ter of a cen­tury ear­lier.

Al­though Ep­stein had an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of African and other tribal arts, their in­flu­ence is sel­dom as overt as in this case; nor is the echo of Pi­casso a very happy one, so long af­ter the orig­i­nal mo­ment. The work is clumsy rather than pow­er­ful, but the mo­ti­va­tion is clear: he wants to em­body a deep and uni­ver­sal sense of sex­u­al­ity and gen­er­a­tion, avoid­ing any­thing ro­man­tic or pretty or su­per­fi­cially at­trac­tive. Like Henry Moore, he is fas­ci­nated by the im­age of woman, but where Moore finds great and har­mo­nious forms, Ep­stein is drawn to­wards man­i­fes­ta­tions of fe­male power that verge on the mon­strous, as we shall see in the por­traits as well.

The other rea­son for a cer­tain crude­ness in th­ese mon­u­men­tal sculp­tures is Ep­stein’s use of di­rect carv­ing, in com­mon with the other artists al­ready men­tioned. The re­vival of this process,

which in­volves cut­ting away the stone from all sides si­mul­ta­ne­ously, as in the mak­ing of an ar­chaic kouros , was based on a mod­ernist be­lief in ‘‘ truth to ma­te­ri­als’’ ( re­veal­ing the stony na­ture of stone) and a con­cern for the in­tegrity of the block from which the carv­ing is made ( the equiv­a­lent of the con­cern for two- di­men­sional form in mod­ernist paint­ing). Di­rect carv­ing im­poses a cer­tain sim­plic­ity of de­sign and the mod­els adopted tended to be ar­chaic, stylised or even prim­i­tive.

For all his com­mit­ment to carv­ing, how­ever, Ep­stein did not achieve the syn­the­sis of sub­ject and form that dis­tin­guishes the very dif­fer­ent works of Bran­cusi and Moore. The stylis­tic bor­row­ings are not fully as­sim­i­lated and the form it­self is not re­duced to har­mony and whole­ness.

On the other hand, he was a mas­ter of mod­el­ling, par­tic­u­larly in por­trai­ture. There is a pal­pa­ble con­nec­tion with his sub­jects: the metaphor of touch comes spon­ta­neously to mind, for affin­ity is given form al­most seam­lessly by the in­ti­mate con­tact of the hand with the clay. One senses the sur­face of the por­trait evolv­ing as the artist talks to the sit­ter, as the un­der­stand­ing be­tween the two deepens and is trans­lated by in­fin­i­tes­i­mal pres­sures of fin­gers and thumbs into a still mal­leable sur­face. And then this mo­bile, flesh- like mass is cast and para­dox­i­cally set in the time­less­ness of bronze.

It is not sur­pris­ing to find the few busts that had to be ex­e­cuted from pho­to­graphs, while good like­nesses, tend to be the­atri­cal rather than pro­found. More sub­tle is the dif­fer­ence be­tween sit­ters who were forth­com­ing and an­i­mated dur­ing their ses­sions with the artist ( Ge­orge Bernard Shaw); with­drawn and aloof ( Rabindranath Tagore); alert ( Al­bert Ein­stein) or weary and pre­oc­cu­pied ( Win­ston Churchill and Jawa­har­lal Nehru). En­gage­ment or re­mote­ness seem to trans­late through the hand of the artist.

For all the va­ri­ety of ex­pres­sions, how­ever, th­ese men share a cer­tain au­thor­ity and ma­tu­rity of pres­ence. They are mostly well into mid­dle age or even el­derly, which is to be ex­pected: por­trait busts are gen­er­ally of peo­ple who have achieved some­thing worth com­mem­o­rat­ing. None­the­less, there is a sense of grandeur and vale­dic­tion in this gallery of the aged giants of the first half of the 20th cen­tury.

There is a strik­ing con­trast be­tween Ep­stein’s por­traits of men and women. Of the lat­ter, some are so­ci­ety women, but most are mis­tresses, mod­els and daugh­ters. They em­body an en­tirely dif­fer­ent form of liv­ing en­ergy, one that is or­ganic and sex­ual rather than moral and in­tel­lec­tual. The fas­ci­na­tion of the oth­er­ness of woman is tinged with a touch of hor­ror in the enor­mous eyes and al­most pre­hen­sile lips, the hunched shoul­ders or jut­ting breasts.

The por­trait of Kath­leen is fas­ci­nat­ing but rather fright­en­ing, un­recog­nis­able as the beau­ti­ful young woman of a pho­to­graph taken 10 years ear­lier. At 31, she looks like the sur­vivor of a ship­wreck. The busts of two of his daugh­ters make a mov­ing con­trast: Es­ther, at 20 and barely touched by life, is exquisitely poised and ori­en­tally in­scrutable; Kitty, at 30, in the year of her sec­ond mar­riage, is hag­gard and wild- eyed. She, of course, had been mar­ried pre­vi­ously to artist Freud, a man whose do­mes­tic ar­range­ments were even more un­con­ven­tional than those of her fa­ther.

In­tu­itively, spon­ta­neously, tac­tilely, Ep­stein con­veys the dis­sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the grad­ual evo­lu­tion of his male sub­jects, who sim­ply grow older and more rugged and fi­nally des­ic­cated like an­cient trees, and the fe­male ones, who bloom and wilt like ex­otic and slightly grotesque flow­ers. This is not a world of equal­ity be­tween the sexes but one of dra­matic dif­fer­ences be­tween the des­tinies of men and women.

Mas­ter of mod­el­ling: From far left, Fourth Por­trait of Kath­leen ( Laugh­ing) ( 1932); Third Por­trait of Es­ther ( 1949); Third Por­trait of Kitty ( 1957); and Pro­fes­sor Al­bert Ein­stein ( 1933) by Ja­cob Ep­stein

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