Meet the sculptors who take a walk on the wild side

PUBLISHED: 16:54 05 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:31 07 September 2010

When the American poet Ezra Pound was visiting the Allied Artists Association exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1913, he was admiring Henri Gaudier-Brzeska s sculpture The Wrestler when a slender young man darted out from behind its plinth. C est m

When the American poet Ezra Pound was visiting the

Allied Artists' Association exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1913, he was admiring Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture The Wrestler when a slender young man darted out from behind its plinth. "C'est moi!" said the sculptor - so beginning the friendship portrayed in Ken Russell's film Savage Messiah.

Recalling this meeting, Pound likened Gaudier-Brzeska to "a well-made young wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing" and the last two words were chosen for the title of the Royal Academy of Arts' latest exhibition, opening on Saturday.

Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska And Gill celebrates the radical challenge to British sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century by these daring sculptors. The idea of showing their work together for the first time came from Queens Park art historian and critic Richard Cork, who has co-curated the exhibition.

One of his aims is to show the genesis of Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture, demonstrating that he must have looked at Eric Gill's works as well as Jacob Epstein's - a connection that is already well-established. Cork believes that the young Frenchman, who had a prolific three-year career as a sculptor before being killed in the First World War in 1915, sensed that his time was short.

There is a rapid progression between each successive piece, as he absorbed influences including Vorticism, espoused by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. His sculptures can be sensuous and lyrical, as in Mermaid, or have an impish humour, as in his portrait of Pound which can be seen as a circumcised phallus. He visited Gaudier-Brzeska in his studio in a railway arch in Putney, a space that shook with passing trains and smelt strongly of reheated meals.

Although he won more appreciation in Britain than France, the Tate, then the National Gallery of British Art, rejected the offer of his estate in 1926. Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, acquired it the following year and became his major collector.

Masterpieces to be seen in the singular setting that Ede created include the painted carved plaster original of the dramatically stylised Bird Swallowing A Fish, (pictured) of which there is a bronze cast at the RA. Cork says this could symbolise the conflict beginning in France. The manner in which the fish has rammed itself down the throat of a bird apparently in shock, suggests the creatures - and countries - may be locked in combat for some time.

Wild Thing focuses on Epstein's early work - including his machine-like figure The Rock Drill - as does a new book by Raquel Gilboa. And There Was Sculpture: Jacob Epstein's Formative Years 1880 - 1930 (Paul Holberton Publishing, £20) marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the earliest Modernist sculptors in Britain.

It is a study of his personality, vision, milieu, domestic ménages, Jewishness and un-Jewishness as well as his art. He grew up above a bakery and bagel shop in New York's Lower East Side and had his first success with drawings of its Jewish ghetto. Among the anecdotes with which Gilboa enlivens her study is Epstein's father kicking the anarchist Emma Goldman out of their home when she interrupted a Passover meal in 1902.

Failing eyesight made the physical processes of sculpture a relief and Epstein went to study in Paris, home to his artistic hero Rodin, in 1902. Moving to London three years later, he first lived in Stanhope Street, near Regent's Park, and later became a member of the Camden Town Group.

His first sculpture to be exhibited in London - Kishineff 1905, relating to pogroms against Jews in the eponymous Moldavian city - incorporates elements of ancient art to express a recent situation, an approach he employed throughout his career.

This work brought him a commission for reliefs on the innovative building in the Strand which is now Zimbabwe House. The first were unveiled in 1908 to public furore when the Evening Standard condemned the sexually explicit nudity of the figures as having "a demoralising tendency" for "a certain type of mind". The reliefs were mutilated in the 1930s, on the pretext of danger from falling body parts, but the remains are still visible.

Epstein was also controversial for his bohemian private life, particularly the public relationship with his mistress and muse Kathleen Garman. The bronze head First Portrait Of Kathleen, created in 1921, the year they met, is a highlight of an Epstein exhibition opening tomorrow at the Boundary Gallery in St John's Wood.

Heads of their children Kitty and Esther are also on display. Works on paper include watercolours illustrating his interest in female eroticism and feature his famous models Meum, Sunita, Nan Condron and Betty May.

The Boundary is displaying works created throughout Epstein's career, aiming to demonstrate that his art continued to develop to the end of his life. There is a talk there on Tuesday November 17 at 7pm by Dr Evelyn Silber. Tickets are

£5, booking essential on agi@boundarygallery.com or

020-7624 1126.

o Wild Thing is at Burlington House, Piccadilly, from Saturday until January 24. Open daily 10am to 6pm and until 10pm on Friday. Tickets are £9 and concessions. Jacob Epstein (1880 - 1959) is at 98 Boundary Road, St John's Wood, until December 23. Open Wednesday to Saturday 11am to 6pm.

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