The Rock Drill


The Rock Drill (original version, 1913–1914).

Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913-15) was reconstructed in polyester resin by Ken Cook and Ann Christopher in 1973–74. It is the exemplary Vorticist art work. It shows a man on a tripod who is one with his machine. His drill is also his rigid proboscis, his hard, angled phallus. The tripod has weights (embossed Colman Bros Ltd Camborne England) on each leg, just above midpoint—which look like enlarged joints, or a bee’s pollen knee-pads (only available in black).

The rib cage of the figure is exactly like the twin cylinders on a motorbike. He is recognisably human, true, but the human body, with its curves and trim little bum, has been made-over to the angular machine: it is an armoured exoskeleton. The arms are like greaves. I thought of Seamus Heaney’s description of a motorbike lying in flowers and grass like an unseated knight. And I thought too of “Not My Best Side”, UA Fanthorpe’s marvellous poem about Uccello’s St George and the Dragon in the National Gallery. In it, Fanthorpe imagines the young girl being rather taken by the dragon’s equipment, when suddenly, irritatingly, “this boy [St George] turned up, wearing machinery”.

Thus Craig Raine on Jacob Epstein’s unforgettable sculpture. It’s astonishing to think that this piece in its various forms (lost, reworked, reconstructed) is now nearly a century old. Raine was writing about the forthcoming The Vorticists: Manifesto for the Modern World, an exhibition which will be opening at Tate Britain next month. Epstein’s truncated Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (the full-figure version was destroyed) was one of the handful of sculptures which stood out for me when I first visited the Tate Gallery (as Tate Britain used to be) and it’s since become a piece I always enjoy seeing again. Epstein’s art was frequently controversial, his Oscar Wilde Memorial of 1911 was famously declared indecent, and The Rock Drill would have seem shockingly angular and aggressive to a British art world where aged academicians were still painting medieval fantasies or trying to sculpt like Praxiteles. To us today it looks unavoidably cybernetic even though the word “robot” didn’t arrive until 1920. Flickr has some views here of the reconstructed version which I’d hope is going to be on show at the Tate. In the meantime, there’s Anthony Gormley discussing the work on BBC Radio 3 (via iPlayer) which he regards as the first Modernist British sculpture, and a favourite work of art.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Wildeana #2
Against Nature: The hybrid forms of modern sculpture
Angels 2: The angels of Paris

Wildeana 2


Further flotsam from the wilds (so to speak) of the web. The above portrait is a collage constructed by this Flickr user with pages from The Picture of Dorian Gray as the raw material. A remarkable work.


Wilde’s face in the collage portrait comes from one of the famous photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony on the writer’s visit to America in 1882. Another of Sarony’s photographs was used as the basis for this cigar advert which sought to exploit Wilde’s fashionable notoriety. Possibly the first and last time that cigars have ever been offered for sale as “aesthetic”.

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Against Nature: The hybrid forms of modern sculpture


left: Morgan Le Fay by Pierre Roche (1904).
right: The Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein (1913–14).

An exhibition of ‘fantastic’ sculpture opened at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds last week with some fascinating juxtapositions, ranging from Fernand Khnopff’s Mask to Jacob Epstein’s marvellous Rock Drill which is more commonly one of the landmarks of the Tate Britain collection. Also on display is some work by a Romanian artist I hadn’t come across before, Dimitrie Paciurea (1873–1932), whose chimeras might seem influenced by Symbolism but which look a lot stranger than the usual Symbolist statuary.

Against Nature runs until May 4th, 2008.

Sculpture has frequently been used as a medium of metamorphosis. Its malleable materials allow fantastic forms to become real as it mixes human, animal and vegetal components. This was never more so than during the late 19th century when many sculptors turned their back on classical notions of anatomy and used sculpture as a vehicle for the imagination. This exhibition begins in the late 19th century and presents a common fascination with the world of the hybrid across the various art movements of the 20th century right up to recent years with the work of Louise Bourgeois.

Figures drawn from classical mythology—sphinxes, chimeras and centaurs—were the stock subjects of late 19th century Salon exhibitions. Meanwhile, outside the gallery, the pressures of industrialisation and of Darwin’s theory of evolution provided compelling new contexts for the hybrid. To say that sculpture was ‘against nature’ at this time is to suggest two lines of enquiry: firstly that sculpture could create impossible beings that went beyond the natural order, but which evolution could potentially deliver; secondly, that sculpture presents absurd fantasy creatures by means of realistic modelling so as to suggest their ‘real life’ existence.

Despite the various positions of each successive avant-garde movement—symbolism, futurism, vorticism, constructivism, surrealism—fantasy sculpture and anatomical reinvention run across them all. Sculptors soon moved from taking on mythological subjects to inventing their own modern monsters, drawing on the machine as much as on myth, as with Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913-14).

This exhibition introduces little known sculptors from across Europe and the Americas and places them in a freakish family tree which also includes some of the ‘iconic’ images of modern sculpture. Thus the exhibition includes works by Hans Arp, Umberto Boccioni, Max Ernst, Julio González and Germaine Richier alongside Thomas Theodor Heine and Dimitrie Paciurea. It suggests a new way of looking at the emergence of modern sculpture and at its underlying continuities c.1890s–1980s.

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The fantastic art archive

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The Cult of Antinous

Angels 2: The angels of Paris

Los Angeles, despite being the City of Angels, has few angels on display outside its cemeteries, whereas European cities are full of them. These are some of the ones that caught my attention in Paris this year.


Saint Michael (1860) by Francisque-Joseph Duret in the Place Saint-Michel.


More statues of Saint Michael. The one on the left is by Emmanuel Frémiet (1897), in the Musée D’Orsay. On the right is a detail from the roof of the Sacre Coeur.

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