Sir Jacob Epstein

Female Figure in Flenite

1913

In Tate Britain

Artist
Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Medium
Serpentine
Dimensions
Object: 457 × 95 × 121 mm
Sculpture attached to (Paintable) plinth base 35 (h) x 330 (w) x 410 (d) mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1972
Reference
T01691

Display caption

This pregnant female figure stands in contrast to the dehumanised and mechanised visions of the vorticists. It reflects Epstein’s search for alternatives to classical European sculpture. In Paris in 1912 Epstein befriended Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi. Both men were producing work influenced by sculpture from ancient Egypt, Greece and Assyria, and by contemporary artworks from Polynesia and west and central Africa. Many of these works were taken to Paris from colonial territories. Modernist artists studied their formal properties, often without understanding their history or purpose. The artists admired what they saw as ‘simpler’, more ‘authentic’ cultures. This view may have been influenced by the racist images of ‘uncivilized’ peoples used by trading companies and governments, including Britain, to justify colonial occupation.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
T01691 Female Figure in Flenite 1913
Not inscribed.
Serpentine stone, 18 x 3¾ x 4¾ (45.7 x 9.5 x 12.1).
Purchased from Anthony d’Offay (Grant-in-Aid) 1972.
Coll: T. E. Hulme; reacquired by Epstein in 1917; purchased by Edward P. Schinman (1963 ?) from the Epstein estate; bt. Anthony d’Offay 1971 from Danenberg-Roman Galleries, New York.
Exh: Allied Artists Association London Salon, Royal Albert Hall, July 1913 (1204) as ‘Carving in Flenite’; ? London Group, Goupil Gallery, March 1914 as ‘Carving in Flenite’; ? Leicester Galleries, February–March 1917 (19) as ‘Small Carving in Flenite’; Waverley Market, Edinburgh, August–September 1961 (49); Tate Gallery, November–December 1961 (10, repr. pl.4); Sir Jacob Epstein’s Work from the Collection of Mr Edward P. Schinman, State Museum, New Jersey, September–December 1968 (not numbered in cat., repr. p. 12); Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Florida, October–November 1971 and Danenberg-Roman Galleries, New York, December 1971 (10,repr.); Pioneers of Modern Sculpture, Hayward Gallery, July–September 1973 (100,repr.), as ‘Female Figure’; Vorticism and its Allies, Hayward Gallery, March-June 1974 (96).
Lit: Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, 1963, p.69, repr.pls. 100 and 101. Richard Cork, Catalogue of Vorticism and its Allies exhibition, 1974, p.43.

Epstein is known to have carved at least three sculptures in a dark green mottled stone, which he called ‘flenite’, about 1913. One was a double-sided relief (12 in. x 12 in.) showing on one side the form of a child, on the other a headless woman. The other two pieces represent pregnant women and reflect the influence of African art on Epstein and many of his contemporaries at this time. Buckle suggests that these small figures were inspired by the fertility charms worn by Congolese women. Female Figure in Flenite is the more elaborate version and despite its small scale renders the pregnancy theme to startling formal effect. Seen from the side it is shaped like a question mark, the torso supported on strong sloping legs, the head and shoulders bent in a curve towards the focal point of the swollen belly. Seen from the front the piece is narrow and compact, a small upright form with something of the quality of totem. The other version, somewhat larger, is known as Figure in Flenite and is in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This figure has a more pointed head and the shape of the block is retained more explicitly in the lower half, the legs being masked by a full-length skirt.

Although Epstein was intensely preoccupied with themes of sex and procreation at this time, often violently (see also cat. nos.221 and 222, Hayward Gallery 1974), the idea of maternity is one which he took up at intervals throughout his life, from the early relief carving of a mother and child (c.1905) and the 1910 Maternity through to the later Visitation and Genesis (1930). It is also one which he treated in a number of drawings. Epstein summed up his intention in regard to Genesis in words which seem equally applicable to T01691: ‘I felt the necessity to give expression to the profoundly elemental in motherhood, the deep down instinctive female without the trappings and charm of what is known as feminine; my feminine would be the eternal primeval female, the mother of the race. The figure, from the base upward... seems to rise from the earth itself. From that the broad thighs and buttocks ascend, base solid and permanent for her who is to be the bearer of man. She feels within herself the child moving, her hand instintively and soothingly placed where it can feel his enclosed new life… expression of the head is one of calm, mindless wonder.’ (Autobiography, p.139)

This series of carvings is exceptional in Epstein’s work in that the titles emphasise the material rather than the subject. In fact, it has been established that there is no such mineral as ‘flenite’ and that T01691 is sculpted in serpentine stone, a relatively common and inexpensive substance, soft to carve. Buckle’s assertion (op. cit. p.69) that Epstein was working in a precious and almost unworkable material is therefore incorrect. It is possible that he invented the name ‘flenite’ to draw attention to the exotic qualities of the stone.

A date of 1913 can be established for T01691 since it was exhibited as Carving in Flenite at the Allied Artists Association London Salon in July that year. The figure can be identified from a small sketch made beside the entry in the Tate Gallery’s copy of the exhibition catalogue. It may also have been exhibited as one of the two Carvings in Flenite at Epstein’s first one-man show at the 21 Gallery, December 1913–January 1914. In his autobiography, Epstein states that he made ‘the two flenite carvings’ while living at Pett Level, but does not specify which two of the three; possibly they were all made there. T01691 was bought from the artist by T.E. Hulme who planned to include photographs of it in his Epstein monograph (see entry for T01820) and it is listed in his album as No.2, Small Carving in Flenite. Four drawings on a theme of pregnancy seem related to T01691. The pose of the mother is most closely anticipated in a naturalistic study for the carving Maternity, c.1910 (repr. Buckle Epstein Drawings 1962, p.60), but a series of three studies made between 1913–14 show how the themes of sex, pregnancy and birth were inextricably linked in Epstein’s mind at this time. One (repr. Buckle op. cit. pl. 127) is a sheet of notations of ideas connected with The Rock Drill which includes embryonic Venus and ‘flenite’ figures. In a second (p. 133) the mother appears draped in a long skirt and the foetus is visible within the womb. The figure is enclosed (defined?) by lines evidently suggested by Futurist lines of force. Cork (Vorticism, op. cit.) suggests that it is a study for T01691 but the much harsher and more abstract treatment of the figure suggests that the drawing may post-date T01691. One other, more fully Vorticist drawing, published as fig. xv in Blast no. 1, June 1914, actually incorporates the pregnant mother motif into the scheme of The Rock Drill.

Of one of the green flenite figures, shown at the Goupil Gallery, 1914, Ezra Pound wrote: ‘The green flenite woman expresses all the tragedy and enigma of the germinal universe; she is also permanent and unescaping… this work infuriates the superficial mind.’ (Review of London Group exhibition, published in The Egoist, 1914).

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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