Dec 2009 Journal

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Art notes (review)


Courage and primitivism go hand in hand at the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Wild Thing. The title derives from Ezra Pound’s description of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska as ‘some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing’. The artist sadly died on a French battlefield in 1915 at the age of 23.

Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill shared a desire to return to the prehistoric roots of their art, seeking the raw energy found in tribal carvings. Epstein, son of refugee Polish-Jewish immigrants, grew up in New York’s dense Lower East Side, whose multi-ethnic character stimulated his passion for African, Oceanic, Asian and Egyptian art. Moving to London from Paris in 1905, he aroused controversy with his nude sculpture for the British Medical Association. Epstein was unfazed: his declaration that he wanted to ‘carve mountains’ proved as monumental as his talent. In a quiet Sussex coastal studio, he created Mother and Child, three fertility carvings, three copulating doves and a white marble Venus rising from a pair of loving doves.

Epstein’s powerful portrait heads may be more familiar pieces, yet it is the primitive and moving strength of the sculptures in this show which demonstrates his greatness. His tender yet robust representations of motherhood - the mother’s face aching with responsibility, the child’s with innocence – and his square, almost ugly child’s head Roma - invoking the brutality of Rome - seem to be carved as sinuously as a simple line drawing, as though from one thought process. And then - flying in the face of such rounded eloquence – is the Rock Drill, considered his most revolutionary achievement. A white figure, with a stretched-out beak for a face, works a phallic-looking machine on top of a tripod. Within the man’s body is a foetus – a chilling concept of robotic man whose inner child reflects his lost humanity. We can see the augury of the coming wars, with their mechanised slaughter, but in Epstein’s day the piece was reviled.

Gaudier-Brzeska sought the same pared-down, deceptive simplicity in his portrayal of animals, birds and fish. Born near Orléans, he moved from France to Britain, assuming the name of his unconventional Polish partner Sophie Brzeska. Sweeping through many styles, his convoluted and geometric Redstone Dancer soon gave way to a simpler, more rigid expression. To some, Bird Swallowing a Fish prefigures the military bankruptcy of the Great War, which, along with so many other tragic losses, deprived the art world of this highly promising talent.

Epstein’s friend Eric Gill, son of a Brighton clergyman, was fascinated by Epstein’s carvings and equally drawn to primitivism. Despite Gill’s ecclesiastical background, his work is easily the most sexually explicit of the three, inspired by Hindu temple sculpture.

Ruth Sallon’s still-lifes, Reflections in a Teapot, at Spiro Ark, has something of Alice-in-Wonderland with a touch of Mary Fedden. Her luminous colours and symbolism using birds, Russian babushka dolls and aspects of Japanese culture are nevertheless local and London to the core. The dream-world she conjures up is heart-warming and delightful.

Gloria Tessler

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