You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

August 19: Jacob Epstein and Modern Sculpture

Lawrence Bush
August 18, 2016

Sculptor Jacob Epstein, who trained at the Art Students League in New York and was knighted in Great Britain half a century later, died at 78 on this date in 1959. Primarily a portraitist, he was a pioneer of modern sculpture best known for his "religious and allegorical figures such as Genesis (1930) and Ecce Homo (1934–35)," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which "consisted of crude, brutal-looking forms carved directly into a megalith, often revealing the shape of the original block," and bronze portraits "characterized by subtle treatment of planes and richly agitated surfaces." Epstein "championed many of the concepts central to modernist sculpture," writes Mary Horlock at the website of the Tate, "including 'truth to material,' direct carving, and inspiration from so-called primitive art, all of which became central to 20th-century practice." To see a BBC video about his work, look below.

"Epstein believed in universal aesthetic values, consistent across time and space. In the early twenty-first century, when many people are acutely aware of cultural differences, his panoramic vision seems curiously ahistorical. Yet his monolithic concept of an international tradition is more appealing than the other monoliths -- imperialism, aggressive nationalism, communism, fascism - that sent waves of destruction across the world during his life." --Art and Architecture

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.