The first thing we notice about the bust of Esther Garman, made when she was just 15, is how utterly uncompromising her gaze is. She seems to be in fight mode; her stare is hard, her head juts forward, her jaw is set. But there is no denying her physical beauty. It is only later that we find out that while the bust was being made she was unaware that the artist molding her features was her father, Jacob Epstein. Thus the scene is set for ‘The Life of the Mind,’ an intricately woven group show curated by Bob and Roberta Smith that examines love - sorry, obsession - and seeks to undermine the myth of the great and dominant male artist. Bob and Roberta Smith has been in residence at Walsall Art Gallery for the past two years, and during that time worked with Neil Lebeter to explore the largely untapped Epstein archive. The show is built around this research and displays archival material, pieces by numerous artists drawn from various national collections, and Smith’s own new work.
The story emerging from the documents on display are pivotal to the understanding of this complex show. Jacob Epstein (1880 - 1959) fathered several illegitimate children, two of whom were Esther Garman (1929’1954) and Theo Garman (1924’1954). Theo followed in his father’s footsteps to become an artist. Two of his paintings are included in the show. Both are fierce and angular battles with canvas and paint, muddy and almost completely black. In this context they seem to suggest an extreme mental imbalance.
Elsewhere in the building Bob and Roberta Smith examines the relationship between father and son, highlighting their different experiences as a successful artist, and one who might be considered a failure, as illustrated by their two lives. ‘What happens to your materials when you die if you are not successful’’ asks Bob and Roberta Smith, “they are given away to art students.” Could this be the ultimate insult’ Jacob Epstein denied the existence of his illegitimate children although his presents to them, found in the archive, might be evidence of guilt. Bob and Roberta Smith tries to redress some of the sense of injustice by making the bust of Theo that Epstein never made. However this is no loving portrait; it is made of scrap wood, with a tin for a moustache.
Back upstairs we find that in 1954 Theo was committed to mental institute. Just six months later Esther committed suicide.
In a further room we find Sorrow (1882), an exquisite drawing of the prostitute Sien by Vincent Van Gogh, that archetypal ‘mad’ artistic genius. Although here is perhaps his soft underbelly, a gifted draughtsman, wracked by a sense of sadness and loss, perhaps an inability to understand her plight, her emotion. She seems totally distant, her face hidden. Yet the marks that describe her body tell us all we need to know about how she feels. What we find here then is not the titan of popular art history but a man alienated by his own lack of empathy.
Elsewhere Tracy Emin also hides her face from the viewer. Naked she hunches over a pile of money, her posterior pointed in our direction. This is much more the punchy ‘fuck you’ that we commonly associate with female artists of her generation, totally in control of the representation and construction of her own image.
Slightly above each traditional label Bob and Roberta Smith has painted on signs of his own, musing on each of the works. Sometimes it is about the artists or why the piece is included in the show. This has the strange effect of an accompanying disembodied voice, the artist ever-present in the show, guiding our thoughts, but also tripping us up. For this is not an easy show, and he frequently ties up the idea of the artistic temperament with those of genius and madness. In fact the show is full of (probably intentional) blind alleys, shadows and confusion. As soon as you think you have caught up with one idea the next seems to be unpicking your previous thoughts. This circularity is found in Yayoi Kasama paintings of intricate circles that spill off the edge of her canvas; clearly the implication is that, in her mind at least, these obsessive ruminations could continue on forever with scant sense of a conclusion.
Epstein had numerous affairs, the longest of which was with Kathleen Garman, Esther’s mother. Epstein’s wife, Margaret, tolerated his infidelities and allowed his models and lovers to live in the family home. However, Margaret’s tolerance did not extend to Epstein’s relationship with Kathleen, and in 1923 Margaret shot and wounded her in the shoulder. Throughout this show runs the idea that the fire that seems to ignite artistic temperament is tied to the very emotions that bond and divide families, destroy and create work. They are inseparable forces, hard to understand and even harder to control.
Bob and Roberta Smith informed me, as we stood in front of the bust, that he wants to elicit a redemption for Esther; he would like to see her become the ‘Mona Lisa of Walsall.’ A fitting tribute to this complex and tragic story.