Commentary Magazine


Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, by Richard Buckle

The Higher Conformity

Jacob Epstein, Sculptor.
by Richard Buckle.
World. 488 pp. $25.00.

Nothing serves a gifted, ambitious artist working within the received conventions of his time quite so well as a reputation for being scandalous and “advanced.” The reputation brings in the intelligentsia, and the conventional quality of the work brings in the money. Since an artist under attack from the Philistines can usually count on a certain exemption from serious criticism, his patrons may satisfy their otherwise unremarkable taste while enjoying the added cachet of sponsoring, usually at reduced prices, something daring and “new.” Thus, the aesthetic heroism of the vanguard artist, which everyone now recognizes as the central plot of modern art history, generates its own comic subplot in which the rhetoric of aesthetic heroism is employed to describe quite another order of accomplishment.

It is the English who, in lieu of an authentic avant-garde of their own, have made a specialty of these mock-heroic figures. For reasons which remain obscure—at least to me—the figures themselves have often been Americans. The most famous was Whistler, and the most recent is a young American expatriate painter by the name of R. B. Kitaj, whose London debut a year or so ago was hailed in the New Statesman as an event comparable to the publication of The Waste Land. Between Whistler and Kitaj, the principal beneficiary of this confusion of publicity with workaday artistic practice was the late Sir Jacob Epstein, of whom it can correctly be said, I think) that he was knighted precisely for having failed to be the kind of artist his admirers always assumed he was.

The scandal which launched Epstein’s career as an English sculptor—the episode of the “Strand Statues”—was one of those mildly humorous curiosities of Edwardian culture that are almost wholly devoid of intrinsic artistic interest. In 1907 the British Medical Association commissioned Epstein, who had settled in London only two years earlier at the age of twenty-four, to execute eighteen stone carvings for the façade of its new building in the Strand. These larger-than-life-size figures, a benign and not very interesting pastiche of Epstein’s gleanings in the sculpture collections of the Louvre and the British Museum, caused a sensation when they were unveiled the following year. The substance of the ensuing controversy may be seen in the newspaper article which solemnly warned that Epstein’s carvings were “a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter or no discriminating young man his fiancée, to see. . . .” It was the nudity of Epstein’s figures that caused the commotion and created the myth of his artistic audacity.

This preposterous event virtually determined the conditions under which Epstein’s entire subsequent development took place. It turned him overnight into a public figure, into an “issue” on which artists and writers, churchmen and newspaper editors and parliamentarians were obliged to take sides. But the experience had a baleful effect on Epstein’s sense of himself as an artist, however useful it was in establishing his reputation. It seems to have deprived him of whatever powers he had—they seem, from the outset, to have been small—for introspection and disinterested aesthetic analysis. It narrowed the range of his interests, and further diminished his already feeble grasp of the new art he had briefly glimpsed in Paris a few years earlier. It set him on the course of a completely public career at a time when public response, whether stupidly hostile or lavishly approving (and Epstein had it both ways in different phases of his career), was utterly without reference to aesthetic merit, or even to aesthetic questions. Thereafter he was dependent, to an extent almost unparalleled among the artists of his time, on the accidents of patronage for those rare occasions in which his genius could really flower.

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And yet, despite this fundamental dislocation of his energies, it is not out of order to speak of Epstein’s genius. That it survived so many wearisome and inglorious encounters with the Philistines—for the Strand affair was only the first of Epstein’s many fruitless controversies—is something of a miracle. But its survival is also a measure of his true gifts, which were not at all for those monumental projects he repeatedly essayed throughout a long career. Epstein’s forte, on the contrary, was a mode of psychological portraiture which permitted him an emotional and expressive amplitude utterly removed from the archaic allusions and constrictions of feeling that are so deadening in his monumental works. Confronted with a particular personality that really excited him, Epstein showed a great talent for dramatic characterization and for a virtuosity in the modeling of clay that this mode of sculptural representation requires to an extraordinary degree. The only real artistic purpose that Epstein’s notoriety served was in placing him in the position to do the portraits of so many famous people. Epstein was the kind of artist who needed exceptional subjects. He lacked those powers of conception and invention which allow certain artists to make something memorable, and all their own, out of whatever material or experience comes to hand. This is only another way of saying, perhaps, that he was fundamentally not a modernist at all. In taking hold of one of the least radical aspects of the art of Rodin—his portrait style—and endowing it with a quasi-Expressionist inflection of his own, Epstein produced his most enduring work. At his best—the portrait of Joseph Conrad is, in my opinion, the outstanding example—he did indeed raise this portrait genre to the level of genius.

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Artists like Epstein, the bulk of whose oeuvre explores so few aesthetic questions and is so unvarying in the solutions it seeks, pose enormous difficulties for the author of the kind of lengthy monograph which Mr. Buckle has here Undertaken. The temptation is always to dwell on scandal and anecdote, on potted cultural history and extravagant claims, in order to escape the endless repetitions to which an art at once so copious in examples and so small in intellectual compass lends itself. Mr. Buckle has not, to say the least, resisted this temptation. His monograph suffers from the further handicap of having been undertaken at the request of the artist’s widow, and thus occupies a place beside those pious and petrified writings—in the historiography of modern art, they constitute a virtual genre in themselves—whose principal function is to convey the impression that their subjects, and they alone, comprise the center of the art-historical stage. It is understandable, and perhaps even commendable, for Lady Epstein to entertain this view of her late husband’s achievement. For Mr. Buckle to write an entire book on this assumption is simply absurd. With a nonchalance that would be breathtaking if it were not so patently farcical, he refers to Epstein—and without feeling any need to argue the point—as “the greatest sculptor of modern times.” The rather conventional illustrations of Jewish life on the Lower East Side which Epstein contributed to Hutchins Hapgood’s The Spirit of the Ghetto, and the money for which allowed him to quit America in 1902—these prefigure, for Mr. Buckle, the “violence and pathos which we associate with the German Expressionists of the next two decades . . .” From a writer so egregiously insensible to artistic discriminations one might at least expect some useful scholarly apparatus, but Mr. Buckle provides none whatever. There is no bibliography, and what he grandly entitles a “catalogue raisonné” of Epstein’s oeuvre is nothing but an undocumented list of titles. The 665 plates constitute the only really useful feature of this expensive book, and even they are not of the highest quality.

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In the history of modern sculpture Epstein occupies a marginal, but not an uninteresting, position. On several occasions—when he got involved with Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, and Vorticism, and then again when he met Brancusi—he produced work which signaled an alliance with the modern movement that he very shortly abandoned. These brief forays into modernist form provide a clue not only to the limits of his art but to the qualities of his best work. If one compares his portrait heads to Rodin’s, for instance, one can see the extent to which a kind of passionate sculptural caricature has been made to do the work of what, in Rodin, is a feat of sculptural construction. This element of caricature is powerful in Epstein, but it placed the artist at a sculptural disadvantage wherever he had to deal with more than a face, and it is for this reason that Epstein’s heads are invariably more successful than his figures. This purely sculptural limitation is also, I think, indicative of a larger failing. In choosing to become an English rather than a French artist—and it was, for him, a very conscious choice—he opted for the kind of career that would not oblige him to be judged, or to judge himself, by the highest achievements of his time. A serious study of Epstein’s accomplishment, far from skimping this crucial point, would have to take it as its major premise.

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