Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jacob Epstein: UnInhibited Celebration of Humanity

Great Artists

The artist is the world's scapegoat.
Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein [1880-1959]: At age 43:"To think of abstraction as an end in itself is undoubtedly letting oneself be led into a cul-de-sac and can only lead to exhaustion and impotence."
Photo Credit: George Charles Beresford, 1924
Source: Wikipedia
One thing you can say about Jacob Epstein: his sculptures express a vision of humanity that go against the traditional view of art found in the early twentieth century, rubbing the Edwardians the wrong way. But that is what taboo breakers do, destroy the barriers to freedom, and lay bare the truth of humanity for all to see and appreciate. Taboo breakers find taboos an affront to the modern sensibility, to their sense of beauty and aesthetics, and they do all they can to right things, so to speak.

Epstein had his detractors, his adversaries, who were not pleased by his efforts to reveal. His rough-hewn figures, draped in primitive attire, were found shocking by many. The fact that he was Jewish and American working in Britain didn't make his acceptance as an artist any easier. Not only were the themes considered overtly explicit, which shocked British sensibilities, but the criticisms against him, the artist, were often couched in anti-Semitism, then fashionable in Europe. Such hostility, in some quarters, eventually increased to hatred and then to fascism, where the story's outcome is too well-known, clear and predictable.

In reality, what Epstein did in his art was challenge the taboos that surrounded sexuality. This needed to be done, and his efforts, along with others, helped usher in the sexual revolution of the Nineteen Sixties. Epstein was not alone in doing this, but he become the lighting rod for criticism. Since he was ahead of his time, he bore the brunt and was maligned unfairly.

As an important aside, it is important to note that  in totalitarian regimes, sexuality is repressed and all forms of human sexual expression are censored. For totalitarians know that human sexuality is intrinsically linked to individuality and the ideas and ideals of liberal democracy. When you later read the history about such regimes, you often find that members of the political ruling class lived lives that were contrary to the laws they imposed, their sexual desires coming out, albeit covertly, in perverse ways.

Day and Night (1928), carved from Portland Stone, for London Underground's Headquarters at 55 Broadway, London. "When they were unveiled, the graphic nudity of the sculptures was just too shocking for Londoners in the 1920s. Newspapers started a campaign to have the statues removed and one company director even offered to pay the cost. Frank Pick the managing director of London Underground at the time took overall responsibility and offered his resignation over the scandal. In the end, Epstein agreed to remove a couple of inches from the penis of the smaller figure on Day and ultimately the furor died down," Wikipedia writes.
Artist: Jacob Epstein, 1928.
Source: Wikipedia
A Healthy Democracy

One of the markers on the health of a democracy is in the level of freedom it experiences, and that includes sexual freedom and the expression of human sexuality. A society that deems the healthy artistic representation of the human body as needing cover is a society that will find its expression in other forms, often perverse and anti-human. History bears this out.

Despite the early criticism and notoriety that he received, Epstein achieved prominence and became known for his bronze sculptures:
Bronze portrait sculpture formed one of Epstein's staple products, and perhaps the best known. These sculptures were often executed with roughly textured surfaces, expressively manipulating small surface planes and facial details. Some fine examples are in the National Portrait Gallery.
Some of his notable busts include important figures in the arts and sciences, like Joseph Conrad (1924), Albert Einstein (1933) and George Bernard Shaw (1934), and  as well as political personages like Winston Churchill (1946) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1949) His major known works include The Rock Drill (1913), a criticism of modern technology; The Archangel Lucifer (1944); and St. Michael and the Devil (1958), both replete with Christian symbolism.

Early Years in America

Jacob Epstein was born to Max Epstein and Mary Epstein (nee Solomon) in New York City's Lower East Side on November 10, 1880. Jacob Epstein was the third of eight (surviving) children born to the couple, who came to the the United States in 1865. He was born into a fairly prosperous family of merchants who came from Augustow in Russian Poland.  His father ran a bakery and bagel business and used the earnings to buy property, chiefly tenement buildings.

In Demons and Angels: A Life of Jacob Epstein, June Rose writes about Jacob's early and formative years:
Max Epstein owned the tenement building at 102 Hester Street and let out rooms to immigrants who arrived at the nearby docks. He was the first person to install a bathroom in their street. and the kind-hearted Mary allowed the lodgers to take a weekly bath. much to the annoyance of her husband (1)
Like many of his generation, Jacob's parents were religious in their practices and views, although less so than the previous generation. Jacob was expected to say prayers daily, receive Hebrew lessons from the local rabbi, and attend weekly services at the synagogue, which he found stifling and boring. His desire was to "be an American,"  or at least find freedom from the strictures of religious life. At age six, he developed pleurisy, an inflammation of the pleural cavity surrounding the lungs, which would debilitate him for two years. Yet, it also allowed him to set himself apart from his family, and to dream and to develop his imagination, and of course draw. 

It was then that he also came in contact with the Settlement House Movement, an educational and social reform program whose purpose was to, Harvard University Library says, "help to assimilate and ease the transition of immigrants into the labor force by teaching them middle-class American values." Such had an huge influence on Epstein, as did the multiple nationalities that resided within walking distance of his house. In 1894, he joined The Art Students League of New York, where he was under the influence of academic sculptor George Grey Barnard. In World of our Fathers, Irving Howe writes:
Jacob Epstein's family, more prosperous, was also more sophisticated. While his parents "did not approve of all that I did, they saw that I had what might be called a special bent. My turning to sculpture was to them [nevertheless] mysterious." They did not actively discourage him, it was just that they "could not understand how I could make a living by Art." (574)
This is an understandable worry for any parent, notably immigrant ones whose safety comes in the form of a secure profession. It lives on today. Art did not fit under the idea of a secure profession, and it still remains in the realm of the insecure and not-understood vocations. Society at large enjoys art and art exhibitions, but they rarely understand the artist and what drives him to create.

It's also interesting to note that in general Judaism is less prudish about sexuality than, say, Christianity. Judaism does not consider sexual relations between individuals as unhealthy and exceptional. Quite the contrary. It's a fundamental expression of humanity. after all, one of the first edicts from God was "be fruitful and multiply." This is not to say that Orthodox Judaism would have approved of Epstein's visual art. They did not. Not then. Religious Jews took seriously the injunction against graven images, and visual representation fitted within this prohibition.
Jacob Epstein [1880-1959]: At age 53:  Around this time, Epstein met Albert Einstein in England in 1933, who become a subject for a bust. After the three sittings, Epstein said: "His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination which delighted me. He resembled the aging Rembrandt."
Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964): Photo taken on May 28, 1934.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

Permanent Move to London

In 1902, Epstein moved to Paris, where he studied briefly at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, where he also came in contact with Auguste Rodin. He settled permanently in England in 1905, residing in London, where he pioneered modern sculpture, often producing controversial pieces that challenged perceptions of sexuality in public artworks. It's also true that he was an iconoclast and liked working alone, using his own ideas to express what humanity represented in the grand scheme of things. To a great degree, his childhood followed him wherever he found himself.

Instead of incorporating Western ideas into his work, Epstein looked to the ancient, non-Western ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, China and Africa. Humans were central to his work; it was people that counted. His first significant work appeared in 1907, when he was commissioned to carve 18 figures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand, London. 

In "Genius whose art was put in a freak show," Julia Wiener writes in The Jewish Chronicle:
This first major commission ended disastrously. Several newspapers were outraged by the nudity of his sculptures, conducting a campaign against his designs. The Evening Standard warned that Epstein had erected “a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see.” 
Epstein pressed on with the everyday normal things of life. In 1906, Jacob Epstein and Margaret Dunlop married, and in 1910 Epstein became a British citizen. They remained married until Margaret Epstein's death in 1947. Jacob Epstein was knighted in 1954, thus achieving the recognition that he had spent decades following his artistic passions to achieve. Yet, his work always carried with it a sense of foreignness. Epstein was the consummate outsider.

Like many with artistic passions, Epstein was not faithful to his wife and had many affairs, including with Kathleen Garman, 20 years his junior. They married in 1955; their three children were Theo (1924–1954), Kathleen "Kitty" (born 1926), and Esther (1929–1954), He had two children from previous relationships: Peggy Jean (1918); and Jackie (1934). His first wife, Margaret, was generally tolerant of these extramarital affairs and, surprisingly, helped raise two of his offspring.

He kept on working and producing till his final days. His last work was Rush of Green (1959), which sits at the edge of London's Hyde Park. Jacob
Epstein died of coronary thrombosis on August 19, 1959 in London. He was 78. He is buried in London's Putney Vale Cemetery.

Tonight marks the first night of the eight-day festival, Chanukah, which begins after sunset on the 25th of Kislev. To those celebrating the holiday, Happy Chanukah.

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