Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Rock Drill

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

Foreshortening

Glancing down over the back wall of the little station platform, I am appalled by the changed appearance of the “thirty” speed limit sign stencilled onto the road directly below. Gone are the familiar pert numerals within a neat oval, replaced by some gothic elongation, horribly steamrollered into a dead sausage in a most outrageous ratio of width to height, pulled beyond the limits of readability. What can have happened to it? Ah. This is how it really is.

thirty 2Much the same with time past, I guess. Some kids I have taught see time in two roughly equal parcels, Now and Olden Times. Now is anything within their living memory. Olden Times seem to begin (working backwards) roughly at the end of the 20th century and cover all events back to the birth pangs of the universe. Our foreshortening of previous centuries is always severe and misleading. At this distance the dead world looks trim and well proportioned, but walk up to it and you find that it is road kill, stretched and flattened out of all recognition, like Holbein’s skull.

In common with many, I have a morbid preference for a train seat facing the front, but as all the forwards seats are occupied today, I have no choice but to travel backwards. This is emphatically the wrong way, given that biologically we are made to face in one direction, namely towards the future. So now I am being catapulted backwards in time at a rapidly accelerating speed. But since time travellers are exempt from the rewind that affects their surroundings (never being reduced to babyhood or pre-existence), my brain is still working forwards, though it has to struggle against the impetus. The train is speeding up alarmingly; at this rate I will soon be back at the narrow end of perspective, wandering like an inept giant among the miniaturised scenes of my childhood.

rock drillAt the city of my destination, I find that there is nothing new to see at all. Indeed, some shops have become empty premises, reverting to the condition that preceded their opening. As I thought, this is very much time past. As the Art Gallery and Museum is unchanged, I am reduced to viewing some old favourites, in particular Epstein’s Rock Drill, whose robotic operator, perched in white over his monstrous black machine, welcomes me in his familiar, alienated manner. But of course this is a recent reconstruction of a radically modernist piece that was dismantled almost a century ago because of its unacceptable futurity. Though the drill is not reconstructed, but is a real drill – a found object, and an antique. As was Epstein’s original drill, not an antique at the time, though it would be now if it had survived. It occurs to me that the “new” drill might actually be a few years older than the “old” drill. So this is a backward looking recreation of a forward looking piece that has not survived, using an element that may be older than the original. Where exactly should I peg it on my time line?

I head back. On the ramp up to the station a very elderly man with a hard, white little beard is sheltering from the drizzle, unsmiling, as if living has little left to offer him. He holds on a pole a pink placard advertising Eyebrow Threading and Eyelash Extensions, perhaps in preparation for his imminent return to youthfulness by means of reincarnation.

My return train is already at the platform. As this is its terminus, will it proceed or reverse? Uncertain even as to which end the engine may be, I pick my seat. A fifty per cent chance, past or future. That’s fair. The train sways into movement. I have bet correctly, and am propelled towards the future, or rather back to the resumption of the present.

A few stations later, I am accosted by the oldest ticket inspector I have ever seen. His lack of height is amplified by a vicious stoop, and he proceeds like a nervous question mark. Maybe his expeditions through past and future and back again, repeated without mercy, have taken their toll on his metabolism; has he not been granted the time travellers’ immunity? He scrutinises my ticket, holding it an inch or two from his nose, and pronounces that I have offered him my outward half, not its return twin. This seems improbable, but when I ask if I might check the ticket myself, he presses it to his hollow chest and hobbles off with it, muttering that he will be back later. Which ticket was it, to past or future? And, given that they are not collected in at the barrier any more, what has happened to the other one? This is unsettling; I sense conspiracy. He does not return, and I conclude that he must be some variety of phantasm, an undead figment, a wobbling anomaly thrown up by the scraping time-plates.

At my home station it is still raining, just as it was when I started my journey. And, amazingly, my car is exactly where I left it. To my relief, I am back in the present moment. I retrieve my car keys and pick up where I left off.

The curse of curation

Found a last minute in which to call in on Revealed: Government Art Collection, finishing this weekend at the Gas Hall at Birmingham, but no doubt soon to visit a city near you with a flourish of tinny trumpets.

Core of the show is Cornelia Parker’s “playful” (read: lazy) curation of a big bunch of random pieces plucked from offices and consulates, arranged by her according to their predominant colours – a post-modern dabble which was no less meaningless at its previous outing at the Whitechapel. In his over-lengthy but timely Retromania, Simon Reynolds fastens perceptively on the dangers of “curation” in the modern music scene – music as a vast, futureless museum, with nothing left but tributes and mash-ups. Same here. Visual artists (sorry: creative agents) will soon all be custodians and samplers of heritage, with nothing to say for themselves.

The Parker mash-up has been augmented for this show by other guest curatorships, which at least serve to amplify the dangers of letting Peter Mandelson and Nick Clegg in on the act. Simon Schama’s choices are intelligent but dully historiographical, as you’d expect of a historian.

lowry coronation
I found the gallery full of local taxpayers, curious to see what return their government had got for their dosh down the years. Answer – not a lot, apparently. When officialdom gets its pale hands on purchases and commissions, discernment and quality seem to shrivel. The great big embassy panels by John Piper, for example, must be among his worst work ever. Star of the show – at least for many of the taxpayers – has to be L S Lowry’s risible little painting of the 1953 Coronation procession (above). The wall blurb frankly admits that national treasure Lowry, commissioned at vast expense to crank out a matchstick queen and coach, didn’t get to his seat on time and missed the whole thing, but came back next day to sketch the empty street. He simply invented the rest, and it shows; the result resembles perfectly a piece of mid 20th century school art as cultivated by an art teacher from the Marion Richardson “self-expression” tendency – on-no-account-teach-the-kids-anything-but-let-them-make-it-up. Which, of course, is pretty much where Lowry was coming from and what all his work looks like.

rock drillo'donoghue

A considerable relief to trot round the corner to the main Birmingham Gallery to say hello to the reconstruction of Epstein’s Rock Drill, in the pride of place it deserves. Birmingham now also has Studies for a Crucifixion, a composite carborundum print by Hughie O’Donoghue. Much of his work seems, well, rather watery, but this is big and tough, with blacks as intense as accumulated coal dust. A bit more like it …