Many of the great modernist artists might be called artists against the establishment, so why does Stephen Gardiner choose tomake this point in the subtitle of his biography? Because Epstein, he contends, “became the most vilified artist of the century, the subject of every kind of abuse from malicious rumour-mongering to the ridicule and vandalism of his sculpture.”
It is hard to know how to verify (or quantify) Gardiner’s claim, but he makes a compelling case both for Epstein’s greatness and for his persecution. Looking at the sculptures alone, one is amazed that this should be so. Epstein was essentially a realist working in the tradition of great European artists. He did not scandalize the public with abstractions of the kind that led to attacks on other twentieth century artists. Yet it was precisely his realism, his ability to get under the skin of his subjects, so to speak,that evidently unnerved hostile critics.
The work itself has to be admired for sheer virtuosity and control over technique. It is not surprising to learn that at a very early age Epstein drew superbly and compulsively, and let nothing stand in his way—neither his skeptical father nor conditions on the Lower East Side of New York City, a haven of immigrants and gritty commerce. Yet Epstein loved this environment, moving to Europe only because he needed a culture where his art could flourish.
Though one can read the history of European art in his work, the influence of African, Polynesian, Indian, and other peoples is lavishly apparent; and it is this magnificent catholicity that is still being assimilated in the reception of Epstein’s art.