home features exhibitions | interviewsprofileswebprojects | gazetteer | linksarchive | forum

Wild Things: New Beginnings

Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska and Gill at The Royal Academy  24/10/09-24/1/10


When a single work of art heavily influences sculptural practice for virtually a century, it is not surprising that it stands out in an exhibition of a hundred or so pieces. It is surprising, however, to discover that the work was largely destroyed as soon as it was made. Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill, which was only reconstructed with the help of an enthusiastic Cornish mining company, is one of a number of reasons to visit the Royal Academy’s exhibition.

Wild Thing at the Royal Academy is an exhibition that brings together the work of three very different sculptors from very different backgrounds, each of them finding expression for their artistic non-conformism at the end of the belle époque. This exhibition focuses on the period 1906 to 1916, the period that bridged two remarkably different eras and established pure form as the new beginning of English sculpture.  During this time, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill carved out a radical new future for the plastic arts. They moved away from the sterile representational forms and classical ideals of the Victorians and Edwardians, and towards a new dynamism which expressed the world order of the machine age and the horrors of world war.

Like their literary counterparts, T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound who were constructing a new poetic, Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska and Gill were drawn to London as the physical vortex for the era’s avant-garde ideas and the creation of a new sculpture. From their diverse backgrounds and starting points the sculptors crossed each other’s paths and, in different ways complemented and reinforced each other’s work. Epstein was from New York, an orthodox Jew of Polish extraction; Gaudier-Brzeska was the son of a French Carpenter; and Eric Gill was from Brighton, a Catholic-in-waiting and the son of a Calvinist Minister and South Seas missionary. The strength of this exhibition, of reacquainting the trio with each other (and the public with them), is that it displays the individuality of their work as well as their collective rejection of the old and their shaping of the new. Intentionally or otherwise, Wild Thing serves as a reintroduction to Epstein, a recognition of Gaudier-Brzeska, and a rehabilitation of Gill.

Gill’s reputation has been unduly tarnished by the attention to his sexual non-conformism. The dominance of Gill’s life over his art was not helped by Fiona McCarthy’s (excellent) 1989 biography. Its detailed accounts of Gill’s ‘my family and other animals’ approach to carnality, was doubtless accurate, but ultimately a distraction to those wishing to explore his artistic rather than sexual practice. Omitting sexual imagery entirely in an exhibition of Gill’s work would necessarily misrepresent him, but to allow it entirely to dominate would have the same effect. Being curated by Richard Cork, the exhibition’s presentation of Gill is sensitive, scholarly and even-handed. The beautiful Portland stone sculpture Ecstasy (left) is displayed prominently, but without over-advertising that its models were Gill’s sister Gladys and his brother in law. (And those wanting to find out that Gill’s title for this piece was ‘big group fucking’ will have to delve into the thorough and beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue or Gill’s diaries.)

The Madonna and Child series, Naked Mother and Child and Garden Statue – The Virgin (below right) are exquisite examples of devotional sensuality. Gill’s more secular sculpture such as Boxers (1913), is dynamic and enthusiastically primitive, and shows Gill as a precursor of more recognisably modernist forms of representation.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska shared Gill’s enthusiasm for primitive forms, whether in his representation of humans, animals or other subjects. His Wrestlers, like Gill’s Boxers, clearly demonstrates the same rejection of classical forms. There is a striking similarity in these pieces to works by Picasso in the 1930’s (such as Acrobat), and Matisse in the 1950’s (for example Flowing Hair).

Like Gill (and Epstein), Gaudier-Brzeska carved direct from stone rather than relying on moulds and casts, an appropriately primitive method. Unlike Gill however, Gaudier-Brzeska showed astonishing originality in his experimentation with semi-abstract forms in works such as Redstone Dancer and Bird Swallowing a Fish (below X2). As with other artists of the Vorticist movement, Gaudier-Brzeska felt that pure and semi-abstract forms were the only ones capable of representing, and giving sense to the machine age.

Gaudier-Brzeska is the ‘wild thing’ of the exhibition’s title. When Ezra Pound first met the young Frenchman he characterised him as ‘a well made young wolf or some soft- moving, bright-eyed wild thing.’ The lack of recognition in this country for Gaudier-Brzeska’s work is puzzling. If this is because he is too ‘foreign’, either in nationality or taste, that would be unfair. England has a record of accommodating and acclimatizing to the unfamiliar. If Gaudier-Brzeska is finally recognized as a result of this exhibition, that will be sufficient measure of its success. Until as recently as last year, and the Pompidou Centre’s exhibition dedicated to him, Gaudier-Brzeska has been similarly under-recognized in his native France. (Perhaps the general release of Savage Messiah, Ken Russell’s 1972 film of Gaudier-Brzeska’s life, would see his popularity rise. Featuring a young, naked Helen Mirren, it would be a deviously populist way of advertising his talents, as well as her’s.)

If Gill is well represented in Wild Thing, the Gaudier-Brzeska works are unrepresentatively weak, certainly compared with the Pompidou centre exhibition, and indeed some of the works at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. With some notable exceptions (Bird Swallowing a Fish, and Birds Erect), the more radically abstract impulses of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work are missing from this exhibition. This is a shame. On balance, his oeuvre is significantly more radical and challenging than Gill’s, at least in terms of experiments in form. However, the Gaudier-Brzeska work exhibited here emphasises the harmony with Gill’s work rather than its more telling dissonance. Beautiful though they undoubtedly are, sculptures like Singer and Mermaid owe more to the tradition that Gaudier-Brzeska was leaving behind than the new sculptural landscape he was beginning to map out; so that the wild is left out of most of his things. The under-representation of his radical forms means that the exhibition fails adequately to convey the irony of his early death. Struggling to find forms which gave meaning to the machine age, Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in action in 1915 in the first mechanised war, in which tanks and lightweight machine guns maximised the efficiency of killing.

Jacob Epstein’s contribution to Wild Thing is perhaps the most satisfactory. Having tired of the more classical training ground of Paris, Epstein moved to London where he was inspired by his friend Gill to experiment with direct carving. Although Epstein’s early work bore resemblance to Gill’s, his later visits to Paris brought him in close contact with Brancusi and Modigliani. The influence of more abstract forms then becomes evident in Epstein’s English output. The exhibit Doves (1913-15) (below left) shows three versions of a pair of doves in various stages of mating. The first version is relatively naturalistic, less so the second. By the third version, the representation is more strongly abstract. Taken together the series seems to chart the general development in Epstein’s use of form.

From the theoretical perspective, the philosopher T.E. Hulme saw the move toward abstraction in English art as part of a general shift away from classical naturalism and towards a more geometric form of representation which would ultimately find fulfilment in the idea of machinery. In art, this mechanism was already finding expression in the Vorticist paintings of Wyndham-Lewis. In sculpture, it is evidenced in works such as C.R.W. Nevinson’s Automobilist or Machine Slave, with its emphasis on the angular and the mechanical. The head of the automobilist, or driver, is constructed from forms that bear resemblance to car engine parts, man merging with his machine.

Epstein’s Rock Drill is perhaps the greatest expression of man in the machine age, and of the potential horrors that mechanisation could create.

Wild Thing is particularly strong in showing the development of Epstein’s masterpiece through the numerous preparatory sketches drawn from private collections and galleries (below). A consistent feature of these drawings is the perspective. The viewer, the individual citizen, is always forced to look up, subjugated before he has even taken in the image. The machine bears down upon us all. On looking up, we see an armour-plated torso, part human, part animal and part machine. It sits astride a massive rock drill mounted on a huge, phallic tripod. (It was the first time in England that a work of art had incorporated a ready-made object.) Mounted on top of his symbolic machine-gun, the driller clasps the trigger with a single hand. It is a depiction of man and machine in which they have become one, but where the machine is dominant. The driller’s gender has also been conflated: powerfully male yet carrying what appears to be its own offspring in its stomach, a mechanical, hermaphrodite everyman. It is sinister, powerful and frightening.

Despite its obvious connotations of mechanised violence and of war, Rock Drill was conceived before the outbreak of World War I, and can be seen as depicting the symptoms of war rather than responding directly to its effects. Having only exhibited Rock Drill once, Epstein dismantled it, sold the drill and made a cast of the torso. Epstein himself referred to the work as ‘the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into.’

Despite its only having been exhibited once, Rock Drill had been viewed in private by a number of sculptors and had entered public consciousness through photographs published in newspapers. It was only in 1974, when Richard Cork curated a Vorticist retrospective at the Hayward Gallery that the idea of reconstructing Rock Drill came about. The project originally looked like failing as no rock drill could be found to match the original. Fortunately, Holman Brothers, the world-renowned Cornish mining company, stepped in and volunteered its museum piece. Perhaps we need to be reminded what Frankenstein looks like so that we won’t bring him to life again.


Matt Cox 19/1/10