Sir Jacob Epstein



In Tate Britain

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 580 × 415 mm
frame: 795 × 620 × 25 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

In 1912 Epstein designed columns of interlocked figures and animals for The Cave of the Golden Calf, a London nightclub. This related drawing depicts a nude man and woman making love. The woman holds a baby above her head. The drawing’s geometrical structure is fused with stylised forms recalling those that Epstein saw in archaic Cycladic art and in sculptures by the Fang people from what are now Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Epstein admired the expressive power of west African sculpture and built up a large personal collection. He adapted sculptural ideas from these works into his art, without necessarily learning about or appreciating their original meaning. Here he draws upon their forms to explore his own concern with sexuality and procreation.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

T03358 Totem c.1913

Pencil and watercolour on paper 22 3/4 × 16 1/2 (580 × 415)
Inscribed ‘Epstein’ b.r.
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay Ltd. (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: Purchased by Anthony d'Offay from the artist's family; private collection, London; Anthony d'Offay
Exh: ? Drawings and Sculpture by Jacob Epstein, Twenty-One Gallery, December 1913 –January 1914; Jacob Epstein, the Rock Drill Period, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, October–November 1973 (11, repr.); Vorticism and its Allies, Hayward Gallery, March–June 1974 (230); Gauguin to Moore. Primitivism in Modern Sculpture, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, November 1981–January 1982 (78, repr.); British Drawings and Watercolours 1890–1940, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, January–March 1982 (19); ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 1984–January 1985 (repr. p.433)
Lit: Richard Cork, ‘The Rock Drill Period’, Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill Period, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d'Offay, 1973, pp.5–15; Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, 1976, p.474; Richard Cork, ‘The Cave of the Golden Calf’, Artforum, XXI, December 1982, pp.56–68, repr. p.64; Alan G. Wilkinson, ‘Paris and London. Modigliani, Lipchitz, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska’, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, pp.431–43; Richard Cork, Art Beyond the Gallery in Early 20th Century England, 1985, pp.92–6, repr. p.97

Epstein was a precocious draughtsman, and included groups of drawings in many of his exhibitions and also exhibited drawings alone. The catalogue of his first one man exhibition, at the Twenty-One Gallery in December 1913, listed titles of eight drawings and stated also that ‘other drawings will be added during the exhibition’. Epstein again included drawings in group exhibitions at Brighton in the same month and at the Goupil Gallery in March 1914, but drawings from this period were not again exhibited until the year after his death, 1960. At his memorial exhibition in Edinburgh in 1961 only four drawings of this period were included, all studies for the ‘Rock Drill’.

It is reasonable to assume that the group of large Vorticist style drawings, including ‘Totem’, which were sold from his estate after his death were those that were drawn for the Twenty-One Gallery exhibition. There is no specific record that ‘Totem’ was included, and the original title of the drawing is unknown (the only drawing reproduced in a review is of the ‘Rock Drill’ seen from behind, in New Age, 25 December 1913, p.251) but its subject is comparable to those exhibited:

Mr. Epstein, at the Twenty-One Gallery in York Street, Adelphi, shows some sculpture and drawings. He seems to be obsessed by certain fundamental facts of life usually excluded from artistic representation, and we are not sure how far hieroglyphics based on the obvious physical aspect of these things can be considered to symbolise adequately their significance (Athenaeum, 6 December 1913).

‘Totem’ depicts, within a geometrical network, a nude man and woman making love, with the woman holding above her head a baby. She is painted light blue, and the man light red. The baby existed also as a plaster sculpture, painted red, exhibited at the London Group in March 1915 titled ‘Cursed Be the Day Wherein I was Born’ (repr. Bernard van Dieren, Epstein, 1920, pl.v and listed in the sale catalogue of the John Quinn collection, American Art Galleries, New York, 9–11 February 1927, 721). This sculpture appears to be a part of a larger work, since the shapes of the legs protrude below the feet which are painted onto them, although the other features are carved in detail. Richard Cork (opera cit.) compares ‘Totem’ to Epstein's plaster decoration of the columns of the ‘Cave of the Golden Calf’ club in London, which were completed for the opening in June 1912. Apart from the probable later date of the drawing, made after Epstein's contact with Brancusi and Modigliani in Paris in 1912, it is clear from the profile drawing at the right of the sheet that this totem did not reach to a ceiling, but was intended to stand in front of some support and to cap it, apparently with a separate piece.

‘Totem’ is similar to the watercolour now called ‘Study for Man Woman’ (British Museum). Alan Wilkinson (op.cit.) dates this to the 1920s on the grounds that Epstein acquired a similar primitive carving from Madagascar in 1923–4, but it is equally possible that he had seen such a carving earlier (the idea that Epstein made a sculpture called ‘Man Woman’ follows from a misreading of his wife's telegram to John Quinn of 25 June 1916 listing his unfinished works as ‘Sungod Venus Man Woman Maternity and the Rockdrill’, where each name seems rather to refer to a separate work). These two drawings are amongst the closest of Epstein's to primitive art, and Alan Wilkinson compares ‘Totem’ to sculpture both from New Guinea and West Africa. Although no source has been identified that Epstein could have seen, the similarities in design are striking, and Epstein often mentioned that his admiration of primitive art in the museums of London and Paris began long before he began to collect it himself.

A third drawing of a similar size, ‘Study for Rock Drill’ (repr. Richard Buckle, Epstein Drawings, 1962, pl.27), includes two sketches of abstracted figures making love in a similar upside down position seen from above as in ‘Totem’, but drawn in a different style of sharp angles and straight lines. This is in effect a reworking of ‘Totem’ in a more Vorticist style.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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