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Sunflower by Jacob Epstein


Sir Jacob Epstein’s reputation as a sculptor rests chiefly on his prolific output of exuberant and expressive portraits and, to an extent, has been consolidated by the frequent controversy attending the realisation of a number of his monumental works and major commissions. However, between 1910 and 1915 Epstein worked sporadically on a group of semi-abstracted pieces inspired in part by his ‘ardour for machinery’ which are amongst his most outstanding achievements.1Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture – An Autobiography, Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1940, pp. 70–1. Perhaps more importantly, they can be considered alongside the similarly stylised, reductivist carvings by Nadelman, Brancusi and Modigliani, as heralding a new spirit and vitality in sculpture influenced by so-called ‘primitive’ art forms and by experiments with the dissolution and reconstruction of form in contemporary painting. 

Somewhat paradoxically, Epstein himself later questioned the significance of these experimental pieces. In what may seem to have been an uncharacteristic loss of nerve the sculptor recalled that by attempting ‘to extend the range of sculpture we are led into extravagance and puerility’; that following his ‘experimental pre war days’ he determined to return to a ‘normal manner of working’ and marvelled at being ‘so bold as again to carve and model a face with its features’. Although he considered that ‘to think of abstraction as an end in itself is undoubtedly letting oneself be led into a cul-de-sac’, Epstein acknowledged the benefit of ‘the discipline of simplification of forms, unity of design, and co-ordination of masses’ implicit in this approach.2ibid. 

These attributes underlie the poignancy and success of all the pioneering works of the period, assimilated for the most part from study of the newly acclaimed ‘primitive’ art forms which provided a 

liberating influence for early modern sculptors who were concerned with alternatives to illusionism in art … The art of African and other ‘barbaric’ people, as Gauguin and Gaudier-Brzeska referred to pre-Greek classical cultures, seemed appropriate models for restoring a sense of the mysterious and awesome in life, the primordial nature of man and matter, the irrational force that had made sculpture potent. In the art of Gauguin and Epstein this led to the making of surrogate idols, modernised Buddhas and Egyptian-like solar deities that were never to know the prayers of a supporting cult …3Pioneers of Modern Sculpture (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain, 1973, foreword by Albert Elsen, p. 19. 

This passage could well apply to one particular carving from Epstein’s ‘experimental pre war days’. That work, the Sunflower (fig. 1) carved about 1910 in San Stefano stone, was recently acquired for the Gallery by the Felton Bequest.4Acquired by the Felton Bequest for the National Gallery of Victoria 1983; San Stefano stone, 58.5 x 26 x 24 cm; accession no. S1-1983; provenance: the artist’s estate, Schinman collection; exhibited: Anthony d’Offay, ‘Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill Period’, 1973; Arts Council, ‘Vorticism and its Allies’, 1974, no. 89, illustrated; Davis & Long, New York, ‘Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age’, 1977, no. 24; Whitechapel Art Gallery, ‘British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century’, 1981, no. 35; Arts Council, ‘Pioneers of Modern Sculpture’, 1973, no. 98; Literature: Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1963, illustrated p. 48; Albert E. Elsen, Origins of Modern Sculpture; Pioneers and Premises, Phaidon, London, 1974; illustrated p. 125; Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1976, illustrated p. 116. 

Epstein was born in New York City in 1880 in the teeming lower east-side of Manhattan. As a student, he attended classes at the Art Students League in New York but ultimately looked to Europe and its great public collections for instruction and inspiration. Using the proceeds of a commission to illustrate ‘The Spirit of the Ghetto’ by Hutchins Hapgood, Epstein embarked for Paris, arriving in October 1902. For the next two years he was enrolled at the Academie Julian and became a regular visitor to the Louvre where he was particularly impressed by early Greek, Cycladic and Egyptian sculpture, and to the Trocadero which gave him access to a good collection of ‘primitive’ work. In 1905, Epstein travelled to London becoming a British citizen two years later. Towards the end of 1910, he returned to Paris for a further two years, during which time he met Picasso, Brancusi and Modigliani. 

  

It was prior to these meetings, however, that Epstein completed Sunflower which, in context, must be considered a remarkable and prophetic work. Executed some three years before his own seminal work, the Rock drill of 1913–15, Sunflower appears to echo the reductivist and primitive carvings executed by Brancusi and Modigliani between 1908 and 1915. It already demonstrates the new respect for the integrity and character of the medium (‘truth to material’) and the consequent emphasis in avant-garde work on closed, static and simplified forms and the preference for direct carving over modelling. As with the early carvings of Brancusi and Modigliani, the work by Epstein displays a particular interest in the geometric treatment of parts of the body – pointed ovals as eyes, cylinders as necks and torsos, ridges or furrows for hair. Sunflower offers three possible interpretations – as a face, a flower or a symbolic representation of the sun itself. The sun theme was popular with the sculptor who was simultaneously working on the large Sun god relief carving which was soon abandoned and not completed until 1930. A note in Epstein’s autobiography bears witness to an early fascination with the same theme. 

When I left school and attempted working on my own I was not at all clear in my mind as to how to work out my ideas for sculpture. I started two large works, one of which I remember was a group of sunworshippers. I have since seen Egyptian figures which bear a remarkable resemblance to this early group of mine.5Epstein, op. cit., pp. 28–9. 

Sunflower would seem to embody the spirit and purpose of early 20th century sculpture and with its saw-toothed halo of sun-rays anticipates the aggressiveness and angularity of the sculptor’s later Vorticist carvings. The radical step towards abstraction made by this particular work, is readily appreciated when it is considered that Epstein had completed only two years previously, the breathtakingly ambitious commission for a series of eighteen over-life-size carvings of figures for placement along a parapet of the British Medical Association building in the Strand. The famous ‘Strand Statues’ (of which the Gallery owns two full-scale plaster models) were intended to represent ‘man and woman in their various stages from birth to old age – a primitive, but in no way a bizarre programme’.6Epstein, op. cit., p. 34. The group of eleven plasters, presented to the Gallery in 1971 by Lady Epstein, included two models for the ‘Strand Statues’. They were the Pregnant mother with child, accession no. E7-1971; and a Male figure, accession no. E8-1971. Even if the anatomical distortions in several of the proposed figures – all nudes – were possibly of a slightly provocative nature, the overriding impression of the final decorative scheme is one of an imaginative but unquestionably classicising approach. The step between the essentially traditional figuration of the ‘Strand Statues’ and the radical stylisation of Sunflower is great indeed. 

As in Epstein’s own output, so in the early development of a new sculptural tradition, the Sunflower carving is remarkable for its resolution and pioneering spirit. An explanation of this sudden appearance in the sculptor’s oeuvre of such a ‘brutally simplified’ work,7Vorticism and its allies (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974, p. 42. may lie in the suggestion that the original purpose of Sunflower was to form part of an outdoor decorative project. This circumstance is given credence by the caption, ‘Garden Carving’, apparently written by Epstein’s close friend, Τ. E. Hulme, below a 1913 photograph of the work. The incorporation of the carving in an experimental scheme may have encouraged an unusually flexible and spontaneous treatment of a work whose subject reflected its proposed location. 

Sunflower demonstrates in a particularly lucid and eloquent manner the revolutionary developments which led, early this century, to a revitalised sculptural tradition. It also amplifies an understanding of Epstein’s contribution to that tradition as currently represented in the National Gallery of Victoria by some fifteen works including eleven plasters and four bronzes.

Geoffrey Edwards, Curator of Sculpture National Gallery of Victoria (in 1983).

 

Notes

1          Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture – An Autobiography, Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1940, pp. 70–1. 

2          ibid. 

3          Pioneers of Modern Sculpture (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain, 1973, foreword by Albert Elsen, p. 19. 

4          Acquired by the Felton Bequest for the National Gallery of Victoria 1983; San Stefano stone, 58.5 x 26 x 24 cm; accession no. S1-1983; provenance: the artist’s estate, Schinman collection; exhibited: Anthony d’Offay, ‘Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill Period’, 1973; Arts Council, ‘Vorticism and its Allies’, 1974, no. 89, illustrated; Davis & Long, New York, ‘Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age’, 1977, no. 24; Whitechapel Art Gallery, ‘British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century’, 1981, no. 35; Arts Council, ‘Pioneers of Modern Sculpture’, 1973, no. 98; Literature: Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1963, illustrated p. 48; Albert E. Elsen, Origins of Modern Sculpture; Pioneers and Premises, Phaidon, London, 1974; illustrated p. 125; Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1976, illustrated p. 116. 

5          Epstein, op. cit., pp. 28–9. 

6          Epstein, op. cit., p. 34. The group of eleven plasters, presented to the Gallery in 1971 by Lady Epstein, included two models for the ‘Strand Statues’. They were the Pregnant mother with child, accession no. E7-1971; and a Male figure, accession no. E8-1971. 

7          Vorticism and its allies (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974, p. 42.