Commentary Magazine

Epstein: An Autobiography, by Sir Jacob Epstein

Bitter Autobiography
by Alfred Werner
Epstein: An Autobiography. By Sir Jacob Epstein. E. P. Dutton. 294 pp., 95 illustrations. $6.00.

To begin with, this is no real autobiography but an overly generous selection—especially of articles pro or contra Epstein (mostly the latter) published in the British press between 1908 and 1939—from the sculptor’s scrapbook. The volume would have gained considerably if Epstein had drawn upon the talent so happily evident in his sculpture—his gift for sloughing off non-essential details.

The author’s own contributions to this work are, in the main, angry comments on angry comments. In the opening pages of the volume, an honest effort is indeed made by the sculptor to write the story of his life, but at the end of twenty pages he has already raced through his first twenty-seven years. Still, this is the only place in the book we can get a more or less unobscured sense of Epstein’s striking personality. Then commence the outbursts of indignation and moods of frustration that link the clippings of the 1908-1939 period. The artist’s description of his early life on the “teeming East Side” of New York during the 1880’s and 1890’s is thin and unsatisfying. He says little more than that “Rembrandt would have delighted in the East Side.” Looking back in 1939, when most of this book was written and the emergence of Nicholson, Moore, Giacometti, and others had begun to make him look old-fashioned, Epstein maintained that the wholesome influence on him of the Jewish East Side during his formative yean helped him to keep a “human point of view” in his sculpture, to inform his work with “human rather than abstract implications.” But sculptors like Gabo, Pevsner, and other products of the Judengasse developed in the direction of radical abstractionism for all the influences in youth of a Jewish milieu.

We learn something about Epstein’s early readings, his studies at the Art Students League in New York, then at the Académie Julian in Paris (where old Bouguereau fumed at “ce sauvage Américain”), his visits to the British Museum where he saw the Elgin Marbles, Greek sculpture, the Egyptian rooms, and the Polynesian and African collections. Very few words, however, are spent on Epstein’s family, Orthodox immigrants from Poland who grew rich in the New World and with whom he had little in common. It is only from other sources that we know about Epstein’s early struggles in London, where he and his young wife (a Scottish girl nowhere mentioned in the book) lived in two bare rooms, with most of his income coming from what he made at night as a model in an art school. Curiously, their daughter might have gone entirely unmentioned too, if the portrait bust the father made of her had not provoked an outburst from a critic: “Even the soul of a child is not safe in his hands.”

A brief “Post-script: 1954” sketchily covers the decade and a half since the first publication of the autobiography (then entitled Let There Be Sculpture). These were no longer years of struggle, though one of his sculptures was rejected by several museums and another received a good deal of hostile comment. Several of his statues were installed in public places, among them a Madonna and Child in a London convent, and a group, Social Consciousness, in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Famous men, Churchill, Nehru, and Bertrand Russell among them, now sat for the squire of Hyde Park Gate, but the hand that can so successfully reveal a sitter’s traits in a portrait bust fumbles at describing them in words. (Missing from this new edition is the catalogue of his works that appeared in the 1940 edition; brought up to date, it would have been a useful aid to collectors and art historians.)

Reading the attacks made on him in an England dominated until recently by unimaginative, timidly naturalistic sculpture, one can easily understand how Epstein developed what bordered on a persecution mania. To make things worse, some of the attacks were prompted by xenophobic and anti-Semitic motives. The most scurrilous kind of Jew-baiting was stooped to in the New Age article of 1924 in which Epstein was accused of having projected “certain bestial characteristics” into the faces of decent people, of having expressed the “subconscious racial Hebraic life,” where “power is the motive force of man, and woman is but an instrument of sensuality.”

Such Stuermer-like assaults, though rare, were painful and bewildering, especially since Epstein—his early infatuation with the Lower East Side notwithstanding—had no conscious connection with Judaism or Jewish life. “I have never joined in all-Jewish exhibitions of art,” he explains, almost apologetically. “Artists are of all races and climes, and to band together in racial groups is ridiculous.” Just as Captain Dreyfus never understood why millions of Frenchmen were arrayed against him, so Epstein is baffled by the resentment he inspired in England’s Edwardian upper middle class.

In some ways it was unfortunate that Epstein forsook post-Dreyfus, post-Impressionist France for Edwardian England, where foreigners were suspect and so respectable a movement as Impressionism was regarded with raised eyebrows. In France he would have had more allies: he might have been spared that bitterness, that pathological sense of isolation, which makes him absurd and unfair in his judgment of critics and alien artistic movements. Art critics, he writes, “are recruited either from the ranks of journalists or are disappointed failures as artists.” He dismisses abstract and surrealist artists as amateurs with private incomes and plenty of time “for that social intercourse so necessary for the propagation of advanced ideas.” One cannot help comparing his self-pity with the undaunted, uncomplaining spirit of such a stepchild of modern culture as Van Gogh. For all his laments, it is a fact that from 1907 on Epstein had many commissions, including some very remunerative ones.

One sorely misses humor, charm, and style in this book. Here and there, however, it is is relieved by flashes of irony, especially when he is writing about people he did not care for. On the Futurist Marinetti, for example, whose “impudence was as great as his energy,” he writes that after a tempestuous stay in London he “went back to give birth to Mussolini,” while his British associates “made frantic efforts to enter the Royal Academy.”

No more appropriate observation could be made about this book than the one implied in Epstein’s own statement: “Surely the best communication of the sculptor or the painter is through his work and in no other manner.”


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