BOOK REVIEW / Sleeping and wrestling with the enemy: James Hall on a new biography that tries to clean up the shocking sculpture of Jacob Epstein. 'Jacob Epstein: Artist Against the Establishment' - Stephen Gardiner: Michael Joseph, 20 pounds

DAVID SYLVESTER recently described Richard Hamilton as 'a maddeningly difficult artist to place', and the same might be said for the American-born, British sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1958). The basic facts of his life and art are pretty clear, but there is still no consensus as to what to do with those facts. The catalogue for the 1987 exhibition in Leeds and London typified the problems of getting hold of Epstein in one go: the organisers opted for specialist articles on different aspects of his work, and no general essay.

Epstein is a maverick. On the one hand he is the pioneering collector of tribal art, the friend of Brancusi and Modigliani, the enfant terrible whose monumental sculpture was as shocking and unashamed as his private life; on the other hand, he is the prolific purveyor of expressive portrait busts to the great and the good, the implacable foe of Surrealism and abstract art, and an occasional flower painter. His most celebrated work, the man-machine Rock-Drill (1913), was an aesthetic orphan, a one-off. According to taste, this vast repertoire attests either to the inventiveness and versatility of a rebel, or to the eclecticism and vulgarity of a dilettante.

Either way, Epstein's sensational CV, and the fact that he is one of the most well-documented artists in history, makes him an ideal subject for a biography (there are thousands of reviews and editorials, contemporary monographs and correspondence with various mistresses and collectors, as well as his autobiography Let There Be Sculpture). If there has not been a biography until now, it may just be because his supporters feared that the steamy life would stain the art.

Stephen Gardiner's Jacob Epstein: Artist Against The Establishment is a labour of love. Its 523 pages are stuffed with names, numbers and quotes. Yet sadly, Gardiner's proximity to his material has blinded him to the thorny issues raised by his hero's life and art. It is hagiography, and its author is the sanctimonious defender of the faith. He relies on lazy assertions rather than strenuous arguments, and the reader is frog-marched past one impeccable masterpiece after another.

Gardiner makes a mockery of Epstein's art by attempting to sanitise it. The first victim of the clean-up operation is Eric Gill, who collaborated with Epstein when the latter was making the tomb of Oscar Wilde for Pere Lachaise (1911-13). Gill, we learn, was 'a craftsman whose work was strikingly unimaginative', chiefly remembered for ' 'Gill Sans', a simplified and weak version of classical type' (this despite the fact that Gardiner's book sports Gill Sans type); worse still, Gill's sculpture 'had a cheap and smutty side . . . that smacked of an obsession with sex'. At this point, we wonder how Gardiner will explain away the couilles de taureau on Wilde's tomb, but they are not even discussed. It is taken for granted that Gill had a monopoly on sexual obsessions.

Gardiner's strategy becomes clearer when he deals with the scandal over Rock-Drill: 'only the Guardian reviewer had the sense to see the drill for what it was, devoid of sexual overtones.' A quick glance at preliminary drawings such as Man Woman shows this to be absurd. Of the huge alabaster carving Jacob and the Angel (1938), in which the bodies and faces of two wrestling figures fuse together, Gardiner baldly states: 'there are no sexual connotations (as has been suggested).' Rather than make the usual reference to Brancusi's The Kiss, he trots off spurious comparisons with Baroque art. In fact, the sculpture is probably a self-portrait, one that expresses the tense relationship between the modern artist (Jacob Epstein) and the authorities, in the form of the angel. He fights and embraces them simultaneously - sometimes he has to sleep with the enemy.

Gardiner will have no truck with the suggestion that Epstein had a symbiotic relationship with the society in which he lived: one loses count of the number of times one reads tally-hos such as 'the artist couldn't be tamed; there was no compromise in art', even as Gardiner exhaustively details how Epstein churned out saleable flower paintings in the Thirties, or, in 1914, made portrait sculptures of soldiers in order to get a job as a war artist. Too much of this book belongs to the Lust for Life school of biography.

Scarcely any successful contemporary artist escapes censure. We know that Henry Moore is in for a hard time when Gardiner finds it 'curious' that while Epstein suffers a nervous breakdown on being called up for the First World War, Moore is 'training men for the front in bayonet practice'. This silly insinuation paves the way for Moore being cast as the ungrateful, machiavellian turncoat.

Modern architecture, too, comes a cropper when Gardiner tries to paint a pretty picture of Bloomsbury (Epstein and his retinue moved there in the Twenties). Despite the monumental scale of the place, he calls it 'a delightful community of garden squares framed by the calm of 18th-century architecture', and then notes that this 'backwater' was 'massacred' by the construction of Senate House in 1937.

Yet the architect of Senate House was Charles Holden, who used Epstein on the British Medical Association and London Underground buildings. They would have collaborated again on Senate House, if the authorities had not vetoed Epstein. Holden's monolithic white ziggurat would have made a perfect setting for colossal caryatids such as Adam (1939). Here Gardiner becomes the spokesman for Merrie England, and the opponent of an uncouth and very Epsteinian aesthetic.

Epstein has only recently come in from the critical cold. This hectoring, vindictive book will surely do his reputation more harm than good. The scholar Evelyn Silber convincingly argues that Epstein 'introduced into the traditionally literary and genteel milieu of British art the disturbingly primal world of sexual instinct, rendered with a shocking immediacy that only Bacon has subsequently rivalled'. Gardiner will have none of that, and has thereby thrown away Epstein's strongest card. We are left with a sphinx without a riddle.

(Photograph omitted)