\”Intellectually it [sculpture] requires a far greater effort of concentration to visualize a work in the round. I find it difficult to work on more than two busts in the same period. Also in carving there is absolute finality about every movement. It is impossible to rub out and begin again. This fight with the material imposes a constant strain. A sudden flaw or weakness may upset a year\’s work.\”
Sir Jacob Epstein was a pioneer of modernism in his use of \”direct carving\” and of \”primitive\” art as a means of conveying the deepest abstract feelings. He sparked animosity throughout his career with his desire to shatter the taboos surrounding the representation of sexuality and his use of expressive distortion of the figure that was more influenced by non-Western art than the classical ideal. Epstein leapt to public attention in 1908 as a result of the debate over his carvings on the British Medical Association building in London\’s Strand. He achieved the architect\’s desire for \”a project as wide in scope as Whitman\” in the eighteen figures representing the eras of man and woman. Although austerely classical-realist in style, they nevertheless offended the public\’s sensibilities with their candid images of nudity and pregnancy.
Sir Jacob Epstein was an American-born British sculptor who helped pioneer modern sculpture. He was born on November 10, 1880 to Polish Jewish refugees living in New York\’s Lower East Side. He studied art there as a teenager, sketching the city, and joined The Art Students League of New York in 1900. Then he worked in a bronze foundry by day, studying drawing and sculptural modeling at night. He relocated to Europe in 1902 and attended Auguste Rodin\’s classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1905, he moved to London, and a few years later, he acquired British citizenship.
The general feeling today is that Epstein was an oddity, an anomaly. In general, his body of work is misinterpreted. Epstein\’s contribution to the history of 20th-century art has undoubtedly been underappreciated. Even though Epstein may not have been a major stylistic innovator, it is reasonable to claim that he was a trend-setter. One would find it difficult to dispute Epstein\’s significance when considering some of the things he popularised, such the acquisition of African art, the advocacy of direct carving, and the use of readymade objects in sculptural schemes. Epstein, for better or worse, is responsible for elevating sculpture to the fore of British media reports on the arts. Even while, in retrospect, pieces like Rima or Genesis may not have been the best ever created at the time or even by the artist, the truth remains that they sparked conversations about representation, identity, and aesthetics in a way that was unprecedented in England.
Despite his intimidating presence and rare outbursts, he generally acted politely and quietly, and his discourse covered a wide range of topics. His New York accent and bohemian style never completely left him, especially when it came to money, which frequently gave him concern. Henry Moore\’s memorial to him stated that \”Epstein took the brickbats for modern art,\” yet despite a display of fortitude in his work, he was severely wounded by criticism and attacks on his work. At times, he appeared to love and court his status as an outsider.
Epstein also helped to change the Eurocentric viewpoint of many artists and critics. His excellent collection of African and Pacific sculptures, probably one of the best private collections of non-Western art at the time, was purchased by the British Museum after his death. Some two hundred of his plaster casts were donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and to kibbutz Ain Herod in Galilee. Other artists followed the path Epstein blazed into non-Western art.