Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill. A passionate story

Naked Woman flaunting her genitals

Eric Gill, A Roland for an Oliver / Joie de Vivre, 1910

Three young artists revolutionized the history of western sculpture, just before the First World War. Their works stand out as both forceful and poignant in this new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art.

You can hear what Royal Academy Senior Lecturer Graham Greenfield has to say on 26 November at Dulwich Picture Gallery

by Anna Maria Di Brina

I step out of the stunning exhibition “Wild Thing” on avant-guard sculptors Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill at the Royal Academy with a strong feeling of ambivalence.
I feel deeply heavy-hearted and, all the same, gratefully uplifted. My endorsed belief in creativity capable of mightily changing life evenly matches a profound sense of frailty and powerlessness of the human condition.

What is this all about?

Henri-Gaudier Brzeska was a young, talented, French sculptor, a “bright-eyed wild thing” as poet Ezra Pound reported after meeting him in 1913 (and where the title of the exhibition comes from!). We are insightfully helped to imagine the light in his eyes and the strength of his imagination at work while creating sculptures like the Wrestler, in lead, heavily muscled, or the incredibly energetic and abstract Birds Erect, in limestone. His vitality and humour emerge from his carvings as well as from his Futurist Sketches, featuring amusing animals in motion. The feeling is of really encountering the man, the young energy of the young spirit.

Three birds

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Birds Erect, 1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

And all of a sudden we learn that at the early age of 23 he was shot dead on the front line in the First World War. It’s a shock. Nothing worse, nothing more unbearable. The cut of a life destined for great things. A devastating loss, for his partner, who went mad, for his friends, whose effort was to tirelessly keep and celebrate his memory and talent, and for us, who will never see any of the works he was planning.

Eric Gill surprises the viewer with the double faces of his production.
A fading out Crucifix is paired with a naked and lavish woman, flaunting her genitals (see A Roland for an Oliver, above). In the same room co-exist the intertwining, scandalous-at-the-time figures of Ecstasy and the loving series of Mother and Child, the painful, medieval-like Crucifixion and the provocative, phallic carving of the Golden Calf.

I imagine his unrestfull mind behind the scenes and cannot but admire the striking energy coming from both sides and periods of this English-born sculptor’s work.

The most astonishing of these artists is without doubt Jacob Epstein.
A Jew from New York, relocated in London, he became a central figure for the renovation of sculpture in the early years of the 20th century.
Copulating doves carved in marvellous white marble, totemic naked women rendered in Polynesian-like style, primitive heads and uncanny pregnant figures populate his room in the show, making evident his intense research into materials and forms as well as the themes of birth, sex and fertility.

And yet, so much tells us of a struggle, of a painful, new awareness of a changing world, likely revolting beyond control, abruptly governed by rules becoming, as such, less human.

Bronze torso of a robot

Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from the 'Rock Drill', 1913–16, Tate

Rock Drill waits us at the end of the room, a majestic, haunting, menacing alien.

With its bronze, tragic torso positioned nearby, it stares at us both like a devastating android and a sorrowing victim, a monster and an amputated relict. It (or he?) embodies the achievements of man’s mind as well as his foolishness, a mysterious and poignant glance from an altered world.

I cope with my ambivalent feelings.
I’m focussing on where they come from.
I now feel as if the foetal form, with his rounded masses, secretly embedded in the armoured, harsh structure of the Rock Drill, could just hint at the striking dialogue of the opposites so powerfully fostered by these artists, bright minds at the edge of one of the darkest periods in history.

Dear South London readers of DOV, please note that Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, in the last year of his life, had his studio in Putney, under the railway bridge, and that Jacob Epstein was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.

The Exhibition “Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill” is at the Royal Academy of Art until 24 January 2010. Find out more.

You can attend the exhibition Talk by Graham Greenfield, RA Senior Lecturer, on Thursday 26 November 7.30pm at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

About this article

Anna Maria Di Brina

About Anna Maria Di Brina

Anna has worked as book editor for Publishing Houses and as freelance art journalist in Italy. Now she is bringing up her two little daughters and trying to put her finger on living in (South) London.
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One Comment

  1. Anna S 17 Nov 2009

    If the talk by Graham Greenfield is half as good as his talk on Anish Kapoor a couple of weeks back, it’ll be well worth attending. I came away from his last lecture full of new ideas and thoughts about Kapoor, which made my subsequent visit to the exhibition much more rewarding. Thanks Graham!


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