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.
- See cat. no. 37, 'Epstein', Tate Gallery, London, 1961 (exhibition catalogue).
- Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein, Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1986, p.51.
- Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, London: Faber and Faber, 1963, p.192. Buckle mistakenly dates the performance to 1929.
- Lydia Sokolova (ed. Richard Buckle), Dancing for Diaghilev, London: John Murray, 1960, p.167.
- 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