The Scandalous Epstein
Suddenly, the young Jacob Epstein found himself the most notorious artist in Britain. The naked, life-size statues he had produced for a prominent new London building on the Strand were denounced in 1908 by the National Vigilance Association. Epstein was astounded to discover that he had been attacked on the Evening Standard's front page. Describing his nude figures as an "outrage", the newspaper warned its readers that his carvings were "a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter to see."
Epstein was a brilliant young innovator. He had grown up in the close-packed vitality of New York’s Lower East Side, the son of refugee Polish immigrants deeply attached to the orthodox Jewish faith. But Epstein was free-thinking. After studying in Paris where he was nicknamed "the American savage", Epstein came to London in 1905.
After the Strand statues rumpus, the next explosion occurred in Paris. Epstein's gigantic Tomb of Oscar Wilde, dominated by the winged figure of a "flying demon-angel", was installed in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. French indignation focused on the size of the carved figure's prominent genitals. They were eventually destroyed by two enraged English ladies wielding umbrellas.
His most daring work was called Rock Drill. Showing an immense robot mounted on a real drilling machine, this radical masterpiece was condemned in 1915 as "a nightmare" and "an abortion", a "kind of gigantic human locust" which was "indescribably revolting". But Epstein remained undismayed, and continued to make defiant pieces obsessed with virility, fertility, procreation and birth. They ended up transforming the possibilities for modern sculpture. And Epstein's successors, ranging from Henry Moore to Antony Gormley, owe him a profound debt.
Richard Cork is an award-winning art critic, historian, broadcaster and exhibition curator. He studied Art History at Cambridge, where he gained a Doctorate in 1978. After beginning his career as Art Critic of the London Evening Standard and Editor of Studio International, he became Art Critic of The Listener, Chief Art Critic of The Times and, more recently, Art Critic of The New Statesman. He now writes for The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday and a wide range of international art magazines.
In 1989-90 he was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, and from 1992-5 the Henry Moore Senior Fellow at the Courtauld Institute. A frequent contributor to BBC radio and television programmes, he has curated major exhibitions at Tate, the Hayward Gallery, the Royal Academy, Barbican Art Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery and elsewhere in Europe, most notably in Berlin, Milan and Paris. He has acted as a judge for many leading art prizes and commissions, among them the Turner Prize.
His books include a ground-breaking study of Vorticism, awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize in 1976; Art Beyond the Gallery, winner of the Banister Fletcher Award for the best art book in 1985; a major monograph on David Bomberg, 1987; A Bitter Truth: Avant-garde Art and the Great War, winner of The Art Fund Award in 1995; Jacob Epstein, 1999; and four acclaimed volumes of his critical writings on modern art, published by Yale in 2003. His last book, Michael Craig-Martin, was published by Thames & Hudson to coincide with the artist’s 2006 retrospective exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.
In 2008 he curated A Life of Their Own, an exhibition of young sculptors including Roger Hiorns, Eva Rothschild and Lucy Skaer at Lismore Castle in Ireland. In 2009 he curated Wild Thing, an exhibition at the Royal Academy on the three young men who revolutionised modern sculpture in Britain before the First World War: Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill. His new book, The Healing Presence of Art, is a pioneering history of western art in hospitals. It will be published by Yale in 2011.