Sir Jacob Epstein, 'Jacob and the Angel' 1940-1

Sir Jacob Epstein
Jacob and the Angel 1940-1
Alabaster
unconfirmed: 2140 x 1100 x 920 mm, 2500 kg
Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

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Jacob Epstein is best known for his monumental sculpture and portrait busts. In the early years of the twentieth century, he was a champion of  new sculptural practices that became central to modernist sculpture such as the idea of  ‘truth to materials’ and direct carving - respecting the nature of the material and working straight into the stone (rather than from a maquette), creating with the shape and grain of the stone. Jacob and the Angel is carved from a single block (or monolith) of English alabaster, ranging in colour from a milky white to pinks and browns. It is one of the heaviest works in Tate’s collection, weighing over two and a half tonnes. There is a natural fault line in the stone that runs from Jacob’s left wrist, through the palm of his hand and across his little finger. Previous artists might have discarded a block with a flaw, but Epstein worked with the stone, accepting and using this as a natural part of the material. The work shows two colossal figures locked together - a winged figure seeming to support an exhausted man. It depicts a scene from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Jacob (who tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the birthright belonging to his elder brother Esau), while travelling back apprehensively to face his brother, finds he has to wrestle with an unknown assailant through the night. In the morning his opponent reveals himself to be an angel and messenger from God, and blesses him for not abandoning the struggle. Epstein made a number of large carvings with religious themes around this time, all displaying his interest in and inspiration from what was then known as “primitive”sculpture. Tate Director and art historian John Rothenstein later wrote of this work:

seems to have tapped the mysterious source of energy that so often animates primitive sculpture, without imitating any actual features

The use of this “primitivist” style for depicting religious subject matter was found shocking by many of Epstein’s contemporaries and critics. However, Epstein was placing himself in a different artistic tradition, looking back to the art and image-making of non-Western cultures, which he could encounter and study in collections such as the British Museum. Born in New York, Epstein had settled in London in 1905. In Paris he had met celebrated sculptor Auguste Rodin, and later, other influential avant-garde artists such as Picasso, Brancusi, and Modigliani. However he had not moved into abstraction as others at the time might have, saying:

I am interested in humanity and sculptural form and not in the abstract

Though not abstract, his style was still considered unconventional at the time and critics often characterised his works as scandalous or obscene. His work was received in the press very sensationally - he drew the sort of criticism in his early career that YBAs like Damien Hirst did in theirs. The ambiguous pose of the figures of Jacob and the Angel (are they fighting or embracing?) was so sensationalised that it was exhibited as a funfair sideshow attraction in the English seaside resort of Blackpool. It also toured around Britain and South Africa, billed as an “adults only” exhibit, with a money-back guarantee if it wasn’t “the most shocking thing you’ve ever seen”. Acquired for the nation in 1996, it is now a highlight of the Tate collection, and it is hard to see now how audiences at the time could have been so scandalised. Sculptor Henry Moore paid tribute to Epstein after his death as someone ‘who took the brickbats for modern art’ - paving the way for future artists working with similar concerns. The subject of Jacob and the Angel fascinated Epstein and may have had personal significance, not least because of his fist name - Jacob. This work has been seen as an allegory of the artist’s struggle with his materials but also as showing something of Epstein’s own struggle with how his work was received publicly. As Epstein said:

It takes courage to remain a sculptor