London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 6: Portrait Busts and Elemental Carvings

The sixth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

These little works are scattered round the world, but I happened to snap them on exhibition in the West End. The Epstein centenary exhibition of 1980 was not your modern blockbuster, with a glossy colour catalogue and punters who plod their weary way through crowded time-slots. The Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street was small and friendly; nobody told you not to photograph and not to view too close. I have their catalogue still: only 24 pages of plain paper, folded and stapled in the middle like a school exercise book; black-and-white photographs. But the devoted presenters were a powerhouse of British art.

Henry Moore wrote: “Jacob Epstein was a great sculptor … particularly in England. It was through him that sculpture became important to a large number of people who otherwise never thought of it. … he took the brickbats and made things easier for people like me, coming after him.”

Lord Clark: “He started as a master of style, he ended as a master of truth.”

Anthony Caro: “The bronze portrait heads he made, particularly of the men, have been unsurpassed since his death. They have life and generosity of spirit, and these are indeed great gifts in the making of art.”

Epstein busts

figures 26 to 28

Figure 26 shows the front rank of the company, with Epstein himself leading the charge in wedge formation. Under a cavalry-style sturm-cap his eagle eye scours the field ahead, his bladed nose cleaves the air (figure 27). On his left flank rides Einstein, with Vaughan Williams covering the rear “like an eighteenth century admiral whose word was law”. Epstein’s back line looks strong, with Chaim Weizmann and Sunita, “a big woman who liked pepper in her whiskey.”

Figure 28 sounds a gentler note, unexpectedly delicate and refined – almost decadent. On the wall are Epstein’s illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal. Little Piccaninny gazes with a knowing innocence, like the negro page in a rococo boudoir. Someone has thoughtfully brought two bunches of marguerites in a wicker basket to soften the stark environment of a modern art gallery. In front of the flowers, Esther wears a single bloom on her corsage. Her left breast is bare, her shoulders are delicate (figure 29). I would have liked to add more, but googling to identity the sitter, found that Esther Garman was Epstein’s daughter who committed suicide. Enough.

Epstein busts

figures 29 to 32

The head of Paul Robeson (figure 30) was reconstructed in bronze from sketches of the sitter. Epstein has assembled a complex personality into an equilibrium that looks both powerful and fragile. Robeson was a college graduate, a renowned US football player from 1917 to the early 1920s, an All-American athlete and the singer-actor who immortalized ‘Old Man River’. He played Othello to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – one of the high points of my years in England. And yet there is a look of “The Insulted and Injured” in Robeson’s face, like that of a child on the verge of tears. The head is strangely poised on a V shaped neck, with a Λ shaped tuft of hair at the top, slightly off balance with the base. The humble aspiration in his uplifted eyes and the determination in his powerful jaw are unforgettable. Epstein recognized a συμμαχον , a fellow fighter. In that period – the 20s and 30s – when fascism was fashionable and ethnic prejudice was the social norm, a Jew or a Negro often needed to struggle for the simple right to be regarded as human; moreover for a creative or a performing artist there is also the perpetual struggle to achieve αρετε : the best from one’s potential.

Areté is evident in Epstein’s iconic bust of Einstein (figure 32). I have included a view from Einstein’s right (figure 31) and from his left (figure 33); because my sainted-mother-in-law of-blessed-memory, when we took her round the Tate, remarked that the right side of the face was racked with cloud compelling thought while the left was … and here she used an Austrian word which I do not remember but which sounded very gemuetlich vaeterlich. Epstein described him thus: “His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination that delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt.”

Chaim Weizmann (figure 34) recruited Einstein for a fund-raising trip to the USA; the dynamic duo raised a couple of million dollars for the Hebrew University. However, in Epstein’s busts one can see the difference between these two very eminent Jewish scientists: the one a seeker after knowledge as the way to wisdom (figure 32), the other a seeker after knowledge as the path to power (figure 34).

More Epstein busts

figures 33 to 35

The Weizmann bust (figure 34) always reminds me of Lenin (figure 35). At first I thought it was because both men were Russians of similar phenotype (Tartar cheekbones, rounded skull) and both of them chose to sport their beards in the Imperial style; but seeing the two of them side-by-side by Einstein, I feel sure that Epstein’s Weizmann (figure 34) resembles Andreev’s Lenin (figure 35) in psychology as well as in physiognomy. They confront the world with the same domineering attitude: the cocky stance, the “sneer of cold command” (that is, when such people are not trying their winning ways by being utterly charming).

Andreev has skilfully caught a likeness in Lenin; Epstein has caught Weizmann with equal skill – but Epstein’s modeling digs beneath the skin. Somehow, all those wrinkles on the bronze surface mount up to expose unbearable inner tension. Weizmann complained that he was “the Prisoner of Rehovot”: sidelined on the political chessboard, restricted to building the finest research institute in the Middle East – a mere bagatelle for his powerful intellect. Verbally equivalent (to what Epstein is telling me in bronze) would be Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on this type of world betterer: his short story about Lenin, “the brain which could take the world apart and put it together again”, seething with frustration in peaceful Zurich.

Epstein busts

figures 36 to 39

Sunita (figure 36) was the model for Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square; so was her son. Having rashly described the son as Hindu-looking without knowing who the models were (figure 15) I was relieved to find a Hindu phenotype confirmed in this portrait of his mother (figure 36). (The Madonna of course is not only Hindu: Sunita said that Epstein had made Her far more beautiful than Sunita looked). The next three figures show how subtly Epstein could morph Sunita’s features, playing theme-and-variations on the phenotype. In figure 37 he has shifted Sunita to the European side of Indo-European, keeping her big straight nose (“bignose” the Chinese called their first Dutch sailors) and her big chin; but toning down her high cheekbones, slightly receding her forehead and softening the firm delineation around her own heavy-lidded eyes (figure 36).

In figure 38 he composes a really busty bust, drawing attention to the bosom by elongating her neck, throwing back her head and further receding her forehead. In Sunita’s final morph (figure 39) only the catalogue told me this was still the same model. Sunita has morphed into Israfel – who in turn will morph into Lucifer. In preparation for her eventual metamorphosis into a male angel, her breasts have been suppressed by tight banding (figure 39). The face has become more oval, and her hair has curled away from cold-climate Indo-Euro-Sino straight hair with relatively shallow waves (figure 36; hair that lies flat and keeps you warm) towards a hot-climate springy Afro-Arabian bush (figure 39; hair that spreads out and lets the breeze through). This is in step with her/his name-change, from the Indo-European sounding Sunita to the Semitic sounding Israfel.

“Great is Diana of Ephesus”. Huntress and protectress of wild creatures, protectress of women in childbirth, Diana Artemis Cybele, the Great Mother, Mother of the Gods, plays theme-and-variations on all her creatures. She creates a chimpanzee and, with a few deft touches of DNA, composes an Einstein. People and other animals, adults and children, cats and dogs and wild birds; Epstein showed great skill in depicting the nature of many different creatures, but behind all his variations lay one underlying theme. In his own words: “Man touched by God”.

Annabel Freud (figure 40) is wearing her baby bonnet, the youngest grandchild of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman. This is another example of Epstein’s superb skill in portraying children.

Epstein busts

figures 40 to 42

I cannot identify the woman in figure 41; she does not look famous nor spiritual nor exotic nor tormented (although there is a touch of ancient grief bravely borne in the ringed eye-sockets and the upturned corners of a mouth fixed halfway between smile and sob). A remarkably plain Jane with a lumpy hairdo, parted down the middle, pulled back in a bunch and cut straight across the nape at a safe length: neither sophisticatedly short nor glamourously long. A very unusual face for Epstein; so ordinary and dumpy, he must have liked her quite a lot.

Mrs Godfrey Phillips (figure 42) was the wife of an industrialist. She was a great patron of the arts. Epstein has paid tribute to a delicate-featured woman of great sensitivity, modesty and attentiveness, with fine eyes ever-open in their search for areté.

The Elemental Carvings

I snapped these two carvings (both of them originally named Elemental) while they were on show in the Anthony d’Offay gallery before being shipped out to the South Pacific (figures 43 to 47). The attendant courteously allowed me to photograph these works, rarely seen in London, and I gave him my best slides as a token of thanks. The one is a female (figures 43) arching her back, perhaps in sexual ecstasy (figures 44 and 45).

Epstein's Elemental carvings

figures 43 and 44

Woman Possessed (figure 44) is now in the National Gallery of Australia, and this description is from their website:

The woman, who seems to be consummating her union with a god, lies back clenching her fists, with body arched upward in pose reminiscent of Lydia Sokolova at the climax of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps … Sokolova [who in middle age coached Margot Fonteyn] described the final moments of her dance… “I dropped to the ground and lay backwards, raising my body in a taut arch…” Epstein attended the London performance of this ballet and made sketches…

Woman Possessed (originally called Elemental) is carved from Hoptonwood stone, a marble introduced by the young Henry Moore, who said he liked it because it was an English stone and he was English.

Epstein's Elemental carvings

figures 45 to 47

The title Elemental was transferred to a carving in alabaster (figure 46). According to the sculptor, it was the product of his “primitive woodland surroundings” (number 49 Baldwins Hill on the edge of Epping forest, 250 yards from Loughton bus stop opposite Homebase; good info from this Loughton website).

An apelike creature, squatting and hugging its knees (figure 46). What is it – hominid or hominoid?

Despite its 30s-style perfection of ovoid form, this translucent lump of stone brings to mind Darwin’s unforgettable account of some living conditions that really were elemental: “Tierra del Fuegans … naked and uncovered from the wind, rain and snow … sleep on the ground coiled up like animals … I can scarcely imagine that there is any spectacle more interesting and worthy of reflection, than one of these unbroken savages” (Voyage of the Beagle).

To my mind Elemental resembles a squatting baboon even though it does not have the doglike muzzle of a baboon. So my last photograph of an Epstein sculpture in London was this elemental creature curved into itself, squatting in a far corner of a Mayfair art gallery (figure 47) self-sufficient and self-contained like a real baboon keeping watch on some lonely krantz in the Karroo.

Read the last of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in and around Hyde Park

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