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Making sensations: Jacob Epstein at the National Portrait Gallery (***)

Jacob Epstein is rare among sculptors in that his work can be divided into two camps: on the one hand, his bronzes of the rich and famous; and on the other his more experimental work, often monumental and fascinating, which was often regarded as “controversial”. The National Portrait Gallery, most tellingly, has chosen to display a collection of busts which only hint at his wider output.

Exhibiting Epstein at the National Portrait Gallery serves two purposes: not only is it possible to get a wider sense of the artist (if you will, a portrait of him through his own work), but his more popular work offers the chance to see bronze portrait busts of the rich and famous. In one room, Conrad, Shaw, Nehru and Vaughan Williams all cry for attention, all sculpted in Epstein’s classic rough-textured style.

It’s Epstein’s particular style that makes his bronzes so haunting: they are brilliantly and vividly life-like. The rough, beaten look of the bronze allows for imperfections and minute detail, and he has succeeded in capturing the character as well as the look of his subjects. Thus, Shaw’s bearded head, set at a jocular angle, captures the twinkle in the eye of the raconteur telling a favourite story, just as Nehru’s clear-eyed gaze speaks to the visionary leader’s nobility, and his slightly stiff-backed stance hints at the nervous strain he was constantly under.

It can be a little eerie, walking between Epstein’s busts – they feel so close to the subject that it almost wouldn’t surprise hugely to see one of them wink. Scattered amongst them are various photos of Epstein himself, and they make for a nice combination of portraiture and the man at work. But most images of Epstein are in his studio, and they’re dominated by his monumental Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), which lived in his studio for quite some time, hinting at the wider body of work he was vilified for.

From his Oscar Wilde Memorial tombstone through to the Vorticist-inspired The Rock Drill to the often-defiled Rima in Hyde Park, Epstein’s interest in sculpture outside of the classical Greek model (including African and Indian art) is arguably the more artistically fascinating side of his work. Admittedly, his huge sculptures, often with sexual content bordering on the explicit, do not make for easy consumption, but the extreme public reaction to such work can lead to this side of his art being ignored, at least by exhibitions; thus, it’s commendable to see that the National Portrait Gallery curation doesn’t skate over it.

However, it’s a shame not to see more of the controversial pieces – they would certainly dominate a room in their size (and subject matter), but even in photos all we see are cut-off elements. I suppose, as the exhibition kills two portraiture birds with one stone, the decision makes sense, but the portrait of Epstein on display is lacking in a crucial area.

These are still wonderful portrait busts, and certainly worthy of a stop in during your visit, but it’s a shame some of the interest in Epstein’s more controversial work sparked off by the Royal Academy’s Wild Thing exhibition in 2009 hasn’t survived into this small room.


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