After making the ‘See Esther’ film with Neil, I thought more about the process of Epstein making a portrait bust. The bust of Esther with a flower with her rather long neck is an open image of a young woman. It sits in stark contrast to the first bust which is the subject of our film. There is something unsettling in the image and I have begun to think it is the image of a young woman resisting being portrayed by her father. Nowhere in any of the letters from Esther or Theodore am I aware of them referring to their father as anything other than ‘Epstein’. Epstein’s Portrait busts were either of lovers, small children or the Famous. The first Portrait bust of Esther is uncomfortable. Esther stares ahead. Her gaze looks to the middle distance to a space beyond the viewer, beyond the artist.
I am reminded of being a teenager and relatives asking ‘what are you thinking?’ and wanting to shout at them but not being able to. Epstein called the first bust of Esther one of his best. He was right.
The default thing Art Historians say about Epstein’s busts is that he was a genius at being able to explore the psychology of his subjects. I am not sure that this is anything more than myth making. What is great about the 1st bust of Esther in his in ability to capture Esther’s psychological state.
Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa she remains her own person resisting easy interpretation. Unlike the Mona Lisa there is no enigmatic smile.
As part of our efforts to get the Epstein Archive out to the public and show you good people what’s down here, I’ve been meeting with a group of composition students from Birmingham Conservatoire. The plan is to have 10 or so students spend some time in the archive, find some source or sources of inspiration from it and write an original piece of music which will be performed at a special evening event at the gallery in June next year.
It has been great meeting everyone and most of the students have now been up in smaller groups to have a look around the gallery and archive. What interests me the most is seeing where everyone falls subject wise: there has been very little cross over so far and, even if there was, it would be interesting to see two different perspectives on the same object/subject matter. As always, Theo Garman is a popular character because of his painting, his personality and, of course, his tragic illness and death. Sally Ryan interested one of the students, which is great as this would help give a voice to an important and underrepresented character.
The students will, as time goes on, contribute to this blog and offer their own insights into the project and how their compositions are going.
Great news about the Tea cup being returned. I think that was left quite far away. Do we have contacts for the returnees? I love this project.
I am concerned we might be wasting peoples time but somehow the whole process seems to echo the feeling of going through the Archive finding things ourselves; it’s very serendipitous and depends a lot on our attitudes as much as what more objectively is there.
Your find this week of the torn notes from Kathleen Garman’s calendar of the dates that Theo and Esther died are amazingly sad. These actual fragments of paper torn by their mother from a rolodex style calendar are easily enough to make you weep. They are the first step to the formation of a show in the archive devoted to those around Epstein who were perhaps the unwitting victims of his incredible single mindedness but also of the casual cruelty inflicted by parents on their children. Or perhaps it’s just that some young people need help and support to get through their twenties. This job of going through the Archive has made me think long and hard about parenthood. I have two children; I know I am guilty of not always being around for them, often because of commitments to do with art.
Theodore Garman, Jacob Epstein’s son, is well represented in the Archive. He comes across as a precosious child who from the off wanted nothing more but to make art. From the evidence we have his relationship with his dad appears rather distant. His death, while constrained in the back of a van being taken to a mental instition at the age of 30, is horrific. It’s clear if you consider the paintings in the collection, that all his work is a dialogue with his dad. Even the marks he makes have a similar characteristic to his fathers. I am not sure Theo would have thought his father a distant figure even though books Jacob Epsein gives Theo are signed ‘From Epstein’ rather than from ‘From ‘Dad’.
I am about the third of the way through the Stephen Gardiner’s Biog of Epstein. Epstein’s relationship with his father was truely distant.. His father, a self made property magnet, actively tried to prevent Epstien from being an artist. Epstein’s move to Europe can be seen as his means of escape.
What also is evident from our first rifling’s is the Anti-semitism that pervaded the art world in the early 20th Century.