The tone of Stephen Gardiner's book is encapsulated in its confrontational subtitle, 'Artist Against the Establishment'. Its main shortcoming is that it so tirelessly adheres to this formula, describing Epstein's life as, essentially, the same situation endlessly repeated. Great artist with unsettling power to penetrate the very essence of the human soul is: misunderstood by philistine public / plotted against by rival artists, who secretly knew they were mere pygmies standing in his huge shadow / deliberately insulted and ignored by curators and museum directors who failed to appreciate his genius (circle as applicable).
There is a fair amount of truth mixed up with the oversimplification. Epstein was, indeed, persecuted. His BMA figures were reviled and eventually hacked to pieces on the thin pretext that they posed a threat to passers-by walking along the Strand; his large figures of Night and Day on the London Underground building in St James's were paint-bombed at regular intervals; Rima, his monument to W H Hudson in Hyde Park, was similarly defaced on numerous occasions. Opposition to his work was not only on aesthetic grounds. In June 1925, the right-wing British Guardian reported on the latest scandal surrounding Epstein's Hudson memorial, noting that 'the agitation against the hideous and disgusting monstrosity for which the Jew Epstein is responsible is not the first occasion on which objection has been raised to this Jew being commissioned to execute work for British public memorials'.
Epstein sinned, in the eyes of many of his enemies, against an ideal of racial purity. Not only was he an American Jew of Polish descent, which was bad enough, he also went against the Graeco-Roman tradition and looked back to the tribal art of Africa and Oceania (Epstein had an enormous collection of ancient non-European sculpture). The frisson of shock which greeted every ambitious new sculpture from his studio seems to have derived largely from this sense of Epstein as a creator of alien things, horrible freaks of a decadent imagination. Late in his life, the artist was dismayed to learn that a man called Tony Crisp, 'an ice-cream manufacturer', had bought three of his largest works and had put them on display 'in a cheap Oxford Street sideshow that was accompanied by a brash notice guaranteeing sightseers' money back if they were not shocked by the sculpture'.
You can understand why Epstein might have been paranoid, but his biographer seems, if anything, more paranoid still. Even in the most mild-mannered reviews of the artist's work, he finds evidence of a secret desire to do him down. And he happily reinvents the past with hindsight, a habit most spectacularly apparent in his description of the New York tenement fire which, when Epstein was a 15-year-old art student, destroyed most of his juvenilia: 'Was it arson? Was this his first experience of the jealousy which his genius inspired . . .?' Art students can be a jealous, insecure bunch, but they aren't in the habit of burning each other's houses down.
No event in Epstein's life is allowed to be something that just, well, happened. Khrushchev, shown Epstein's Lazarus on a visit to Oxford, said it was the sort of thing that gave him nightmares. 'Once more,' Gardiner concludes with terrible portentousness, 'an Epstein had reached deep into the human psyche, even Khrushchev's'
The materials are there, between the lines of this biography, for a quite different account of his achievement. Yes, Epstein was persecuted, and yes, he was, for a brief period (the period of the Tate's Rock Drill, that intimidating portent of the horrors of the Great War), a significant artist. But his attitudes to sculpture were increasingly tinged by a kind of cloying sentimentality. There was something awfully pedestrian about a lot of his work - not just those tame busts which he produced in his role as a society portraitist, but also the large set-piece sculptures which shocked the English public of his day.
Such sculpture continued to look quite like modern art, largely because Epstein (like Picasso) borrowed so assiduously from the art of other, older cultures - but it was conceived in an almost mid-Victorian spirit and rooted in rather antiquated ideas about the universal appeal and morally therapeutic function of serious art. Writing about Ecce Homo, which he described as 'a symbol of man, bound, crowned with thorns and facing with a relentless and over-mastering gaze of pity and prescience our unhappy world', you notice not only his fantastic arrogance but also how much like a Pre-Raphaelite he sounds. His sculpture expresses worthy sentiments concerning Our Common Humanity in a style that blends the self-consciously modern and the stalely academic. There is something horribly wishy-washy at its core, which reveals itself in his titles: Ecce Homo, Genesis, Human Consciousness.
Epstein's life neatly fits the paradigm of the Life of the Modern Genius. All the elements are there: the persecution, the bohemian lifestyle, the endlessly complicated love life (which reached its extraordinary climax when his first wife, Peggy, shot his mistress and eventual second wife, Kathleen). The only thing missing is conclusive evidence that Epstein really was a genius. It is just possible that he may have been a merely interesting artist; not a Titan, but a petit matre.
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