Jacob Epstein, Venus – second version, c.1914-16, Marble, 235.6 x 43.2 x 82.6 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Gift of Winston F. C. Guest, B.A. 1927, © The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein.
Eric Gill, Mother and Child – half length, 1913, Bath stone, 63.5 x 24.1 x 24.1 cm, Private collection, Photo Roy Fox, © Estate of Eric Gill / Bridgeman Art Library.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Birds Erect, 1914, Limestone, 67.6 x 26 x 31.4 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1945, Photo © 2009. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.
Royal Academy of Arts
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The Sackler Wing of Galleries
Wild Thing: Espstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill
October 24, 2009-January 2010
The Royal Academy of Arts presents an exhibition of works celebrating the radical change that transformed British sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century. Over a period of 10 years (1905-1915), three outstanding young sculptors emerged; Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill. This is the first time that the three artists have been shown together in this revolutionary context and many of the works have not been exhibited in London before.
The exhibition contains more than 90 works featuring mainly sculptures, drawings and pastels. With rooms dedicated to the work of each sculptor the exhibition focuses on the key achievements of each artist and reveals their impact on British sculpture. The show brings together spectacular works, including Epstein’s robotic masterpiece Rock Drill, Gaudier-Brzeska’s innovative carving of Birds Erect, and Gill’s controversial carving of the sexual act called Ecstasy.
The title of this exhibition is taken from the American poet Ezra Pound, who vividly remembered meeting Henri Gaudier-Brzeska for the first time in 1913. Pound was impressed by the young Frenchman, and likened him to “a well-made young wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing.” But those last two words also sum up the feisty and daring spirit of rebellion driving the young Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill.
The origins of these three artists could hardly have been more diverse. Epstein was a Jew from New York, Gaudier-Brzeska the son of an Orleans joiner, and Gill’s father a Brighton clergyman. But between them, in a sustained burst of bold inventiveness before the First World War, they brought about the birth of modern British sculpture. The idea of wildness lay at the centre of their revolution, looking far beyond classical art to gain inspiration from what Gaudier-Brzeska excitedly called “the barbaric peoples of the earth (for whom we have sympathy and admiration).”
When Epstein came to London in 1905, sculpture in Britain was ripe for a radical overhaul. He soon befriended Gill, who declared that Epstein was determined “to rescue sculpture from the grave.” Committed to carving in stone, they both aimed at returning to the prehistoric origins of sculptural expression. They were obsessed with virility, fertility and procreation. Gill described Epstein as a man “quite mad about sex”, and they shocked contemporary viewers by placing it at the heart of their work.
Then, in 1911, Gaudier-Brzeska moved from France to London and visited Epstein’s studio a year later. The powerful Tomb of Oscar Wilde was on display there, and Gaudier-Brzeska was impressed. He quickly became an outstanding young sculptor and draughtsman. Only 23 when he met his death on a French battlefield in 1915, Gaudier-Brzeska was one of the greatest losses sustained by the arts during the First World War.
This unprecedented exhibition explores the body of work executed by the three sculptors and draws on the major themes that impressed upon the men, namely sex, fertility, the human condition, the machine age and the impact of war. The works convey the momentous sense of change taking place in London and the world at the start of the twentieth century.
Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill was organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. The exhibition has been curated by historian Richard Cork, a leading expert on this period and Adrian Locke, Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Eric Gill, Ecstasy, 1910-11, Hoptonwood stone, Object: 1372 x 457 x 228 mm, relief, Tate Collection, Purchased 1982, © Estate of Eric Gill. All Rights Reserved 2009 / Bridgeman Art Library.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Red Stone Dancer, c.1913, Red Mansfield stone, 35 x 60 x 40 cm, Tate, London, Photo © Tate, London 2009.