Byline: John Cornall
Contemporary art making waves in the popular press is something we have come to associate with New British Art in the 1990s but, according to June Rose's new biography, our contemporary enfant terribles fall a long way short of the scandal achieved in the first half of the 20th century by modernist sculptor Joseph Epstein.
The New York-born sculptor's predilection from his beginnings had been for the monumental - 'to carve mountains' - and he was lucky as a young unknown in London in 1908 to receive a major commission to produce relief carvings for the British Medical Association building in the Strand. The resulting relief figures in Polynesian style representing, as he put it, 'the primal facts of man and woman', caused a furore and the tone for Epstein's career was set.
Rose's modest study of 300 pages gives a full account of Epstein's life in the public eye and she takes as her central theme, as the artist himself did in Let There Be Sculpture, in 1939, the notion of Joseph Epstein as a devil-maycare outsider figure frequently at odds with both public and art world.
It was mostly the nudity in Epstein's work that roused a prurient interest in public and press. Twenty years after the BMA debacle, his his Night and Day sculptures for the new St James Park underground station proved equally provocative and after protests in the Mirror and Daily Express, Epstein was required to personally remove an inch-and-ahalf off from the penis of the boy among the relief figures he had carved.
For Epstein all this notoriety was, in turns, boon and impediment. His work, allied to the artist's reputation for the bohemian lifestyle, offered the staid British public titillation and not only dealers but also showmen and popular entertainment hucksters recognised the cash potential of this. As late as 1961, some of Epstein's major works including Jacob and the Angel (now in the foyer of Tate Britain) were on permanent display in the anatomical department of Louis Tussaud's at Blackpool viewed in high season by as many as 17,000 people a day.
The downside of the public attention Epstein received was the fuel it gave to his critics. Before 1914 Epstein the stone carver had been admired by avant-garde figures like T.E.Hulme and Henri Gaudier. In the thirties the likes of Paul Nash and Henry Moore were unsympathetic and many accused him of being too crude, a sensationalist, a modeller in a time of carving. Were the outsized genitalia on his monumental figures really necessary? Did his portrait bronzes not tend toward caricature? On the other hand, as Epstein seems to hint in his autobiography, was there not something rather unpleasantly parochial about his rejection by the avant-garde at this time, a timely failure to understand his JewishAmerican roots? …