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European & American Art
Fauvism / School of Paris gallery

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United States of America 1880 – Great Britain 1959

Woman possessed
[first exhibited as "Elemental figure"] 1932 sculptures, Hoptonwood stone
Technique: Hoptonwood stone
Primary Insc: No inscriptions
33.3 h x 102.2 w x 45.1 d cm
Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.1943

  • the artist's estate;
  • to Edward P. Schinman by 1963;
  • bought through Anthony d'Offay, London, by the Australian National Gallery, February 1981
  • Chiselled from Jacob Epstein’s favourite Hoptonwood stone, a naked woman with a mask-like face lies with back arched, hands clenched and eyes shut. Epstein had already included tribal faces in Genesis 1930 and Elemental 1932, and horizontal figures in Night 1929 and Sunita reclining (Reclining goddess) 1931, but never anything as tense as this.

    Epstein surrounded himself with traditional artefacts from around the world and saw in them an innocence of feeling lacking in the West. He also drew on his experiences of the supernatural in the encircling Epping Forest near his studio. Woman possessed leaves open whether the possession is demonic or divine, an epileptic fit or a sexual paroxysm. She may even be in a fury of frustration with woman’s role in society or with existence in general.

    In 1921 Epstein attended (and sketched from) the London performance of Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballet). The dancer Lydia Sokolova took a similar pose, as the virgin who dances herself to death in a pagan ritual in Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The rite of spring).

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • In 1932, at his studio at 'Deerhurst', Loughton, in Epping Forest, Epstein produced three carvings, Elemental (private collection), Chimera (present whereabouts unknown), both in alabaster, and woman possessed. They are strange, distraught figures and, according to the sculptor, were the product of his 'primitive woodland surroundings'.1

    Woman possessed is carved from Hoptonwood stone, a stone already favoured by Henry Moore (1898-1986) and, as Evelyn Silber has written, 'it is tempting to see the dynamic Woman possessed as a response to Moore's expansive Reclining figure 1929 (Leeds City Art Gallery)'.2 It was at this time that the careers and the carving styles of the two sculptors briefly converged. In 1929 they worked together on St James' Park Underground headquarters and in 1931 Epstein wrote an admiring foreword to Moore's exhibition at the Leicester Galleries. Both were enamoured of primitive art, which explains many similarities in the blocky stylisation of Woman possessed and Reclining figure. Despite these similarities, however, the classical repose of Moore's reclining figures could not be more distant in expression from Epstein's woman, convulsed in the classic posture of the catatonic fit or, according to another tradition, demonic possession.

    An interesting link between the convulsive posture of Woman possessed and the 'primitive woodland surroundings' in which it was made may be inferred from Richard buckle's observation that 'The woman, who seems to be consummating her union with a god, lies back clenching her fists, with body arched upward in pose reminiscent of Lydia Sokolova at the climax of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps'.3 Originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and staged in 1913 by Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev, this controversial ballet was revived in 1920 under the choreographic direction of Leonide Massine. Massine cast Sokolova as the chosen virgin who dances herself to death in a pagan ritual. Sokolova described the final moments of her dance; as the curtain begins to fall 'I dropped to the ground and lay backwards, raising my body in a taut arch, like a victim meeting the knife, resting on my shoulders, elbows and toes. Just before the curtain touched the stage the last chord of music sounded, and I collapsed'.4 A photograph of Sokolova in the role makes a compelling comparison with the pose of woman possessed. Epstein attended the London performance of this ballet in 1921 and made sketches of the passage where the men lift the maidens onto their backs.5

    Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.188.

    1. See cat. no. 37, 'Epstein', Tate Gallery, London, 1961 (exhibition catalogue).
    2. Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein, Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1986, p.51.
    3. Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, London: Faber and Faber, 1963, p.192. Buckle mistakenly dates the performance to 1929.
    4. Lydia Sokolova (ed. Richard Buckle), Dancing for Diaghilev, London: John Murray, 1960, p.167.
    5. See Nesta Macdonald, Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States 1911-1929, London: Dance Books, 1975, p.265. The sketches made by Epstein are now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. One of the drawings is inscribed by Epstein 'Sacre du Printemps'.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010