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Exhibition review: Epstein: Stories in Stone at Coventry Cathedral

13 May 2022

An exhibition expands on the Coventry works, says Jonathan Evens

Garry Jones Photography

Heroic Torso, 1954, by Jacob Epstein, a head-and-shoulders bronze of Liverpool Resurgent (1956), on loan from Goldmark and on show outside the US for the first time

Heroic Torso, 1954, by Jacob Epstein, a head-and-shoulders bronze of Liverpool Resurgent (1956), on loan from Goldmark and on show outside the US for ...

BASIL SPENCE, the architect for Coventry Cathedral, considered Jacob Epstein to be the greatest sculptor of the 20th century. Commissioning him for Coventry must have seemed to Spence to be a straightforward proposal. The cathedral’s reconstruction committee, however, raised objections due to Epstein’s reputation for controversy, one member even commenting, “But he is a Jew.” Spence quickly responded, “So was Jesus Christ.”

© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein. Photo TateOn loan from the Tate, Jacob and the Angel, 1940-41, Jacob Epstein, purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation, 1996

When Epstein came to prominence, he, Eric Gill, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who, between them, would bring about the genesis of modern sculpture in Britain, were considered wild things, sculptors in revolt against the ideas of then contemporary sculpture. As Richard Cork showed in his 2009/10 “Wild Thing” exhibition, these three drew on non-Western indigenous arts to create work that was direct emotionally, spiritually, sexually, and in the actual making, through use of direct carving.

Epstein believed his work “to be a return in sculpture to the human outlook, without in any way sinking back into the flabby sentimentalising or the merely decorative that went before”. Ecce Homo, given to the cathedral at the wish of Lady Epstein and dedicated on 22 March 1969, is an example, with its blunt, uncompromising Christ standing resolute in the face of Pilate’s condemnation.

Carved from a single block of Subiaco marble in 1934-35, this piece, which may also reflect Epstein’s own defiance in the face of a 20-year absence of commissions for his more monumental sculptures, provoked more of the uncomprehending mockery that had accompanied his earlier major works. Its position in the ruins of the old cathedral creates synergies with the destruction and suffering caused by the Blitz.

Epstein said that his tendency had “always been religious”, as most “great sculpture is occasioned by faith.” The curators have sought to draw out this tendency in works such as Maternity and Genesis by locating them within the cathedral’s Lady chapel to create associations with our Lady.

His Jewish upbringing in New York had made Epstein familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Bible, while his reading in his teens included the New Testament. Jacob and the Angel, on loan here from Tate Britain, is one among many sculptures on biblical themes, including later ecclesiastical commissions such as Madonna and Child for the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus in London, Christ in Majesty for Llandaff Cathedral, and St Michael’s Victory over the Devil for Coventry.

Although a pioneer of modernist sculpture in Britain, Epstein was one of many artists, including other Jewish artists, engaging in this period with religious imagery (and often specifically with images of Christ and his crucifixion). Francis Bacon, Romare Bearden, Marc Chagall, Sidney Nolan, Abraham Rattner, Graham Sutherland, and others found the image of the crucifixion to be a visual and emotional equivalent to the suffering imposed and endured in the Second World War and the Holocaust in particular.

Others, including Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, Ervin Bossányi, Arthur Boyd, Bernard Buffet, Maurice Denis, Hans Feibusch, Eric Gill, André Girard, David Jones, Colin McCahon, Emil Nolde, John Piper, Christian Rohlfs, Georges Rouault, F. N. Souza, and Stanley Spencer expressed a modernist preoccupation with religion and spirituality in this period.

That is the context in which Epstein’s religious work needs to be assessed and understood, including both the interfaith element to the engagement of Jewish artists with the person of Christ and the opportunities that the destruction caused by war provided for the repair and building of churches, thereby providing commissions for artists, as at Coventry. Epstein’s permanent works at Coventry are all located outside Spence’s jewel casket of a cathedral. This exhibition brings Epstein inside the casket and offers a taste of that wider context by viewing his work as jewels alongside works by Piper, Sutherland, Geoffrey Clarke, Hans Coper, Elisabeth Frink, John Hutton, and many more.

In the portrait busts (including Paul Robeson and Iris Beerbohm Tree), which kept Epstein solvent as an artist, we see his empathy and humanism. In his monumental sculptures, we see his and our battles with our internal emotions, the misunderstandings of neighbours, the violence that we so routinely enact, and, through it all, a resilience and grace that enables reconciliation and embrace. As the Dean hopes, this is an exhibition that can lead us to reflect on our “own stories, and how they become embodied in the building and landscape of our lives”.

“Epstein: Stories in Stone” runs until 31 May. coventry2021.co.uk

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