Genesis: A Deep Dive (Part 1)

Content warnings: this essay deals with histories of colonialism, imperialism and racist theories of evolution. I hope I have discussed these topics as sensitively as is appropriate and that you wish to read further about the darker/problematic contexts of artworks- even the ones you like. 

Genesis © The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein / Tate Images. Photo credit: The Whitworth, The University of Manchester. Source: Art UK

Art is not created in a vacuum, it is forged by our changing world- a global society which has altered spiritually, religiously, politically and ethically over time. Thus, what is ethical, what is politically relevant, and the power religion and spiritualism has held within cultural and artistic practices have altered drastically over the years. Art can be both a “tool of the powerful and also the weapon of the dispossessed” [1]. In the latter sense, an artist may use their skills in order to illuminate what has been, historically, suppressed in our national and international narratives by those who gain from its suppression. However, sometimes those artists and those who gain from suppressive narratives can be one and the same, potentially without even realising it.  In this blog post, I will discuss Genesis (1929-31) by Jacob Epstein, specifically its role within a wider canon of work and global historical narratives. 

Jacob Epstein’s Genesis is a 5ft 3in tall, white seravezza marble sculpture of a woman in the latter stage of pregnancy, with large thighs and hands and a face reminiscent of a traditional African mask, potentially inspired by Dan deangle masks from Liberia. It has a commanding presence, and is currently exhibited in Standardisation and Deviation, an exhibition which contextualises works from the gallery’s collection within the wider art historical canon, as well as histories of aesthetic tastes, industry, and colonisation. 

The fact that Genesis, when broken down to its essentials, is a depiction of a nude female figure in white marble, revolutionises the work to a certain extent, as it can be interpreted as a direct comment on the racism and sexism rife within Classicism. She is strong, characterful and is depicted as ethnically ambiguous; she represents the birth of humanity and defies the previous few hundred years of traditional European feminine sculptural principles. This defiance indicates a general movement within art during the early twentieth century, away from “the most perfect art” being “Greek art” [2], and towards a more critical viewpoint of this genre.  

Genesis’s rejection of the delicacy of the Western classical style, using traditionally non-European proportional conventions, while maintaining the use of white marble implies a direction both towards and away from Classicism. Inconsistency is prevalent in this work by Epstein, as John Berger put it, “the head of “Genesis” is carved like a wooden mask whilst the buttocks are an academic imitation of flesh” [3], which implies a break away from the “credible lifelikeness” that “had been the hallmark of European art” and a rejection “of such academically inculcated skills” [4] whilst also referring to it. Like many artists of his time (most famously Picasso), Epstein was influenced by objects he collected that originated in Africa and Oceania, and the facial features of Genesis displays this influence blatantly (due to its proportions and stylistic tendencies). This was opposed to what was generally welcomed by viewers of the time, both press and public alike, who were accustomed to, and accepted, works influenced by Classicism or those that utilised more Euro-typical formal techniques. 

In a recent episode of Inside Museums, Curator and Visual Artist, Diana Ali, described Genesis as a “celebration of all genders, races, and humankind” [5] which indicates how it is often currently perceived, more than the historical perception of the work, or object history. This perspective is entirely valid, as all art is subjective and how you relate or react to a work can be as important as its context, but it does omit the relationship it holds with more troubling, colonialist histories- particularly relating to Primitivism within art. 

Jacob and the Angel, c.1940-41. © The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein. Photo credit: Sailko (own photo), Wikimedia Commons.

Primitivist art, a now exhaustively and hotly debated feature in various art movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, places the revolutionary, anti-European art establishment nature of this work into serious question in our modern times. Even though when “artists made use of primitive art they adopted a critical stance (…) to the civilized norms of their own society” [6], there is an uneasiness within the 21st century viewer when viewing ‘Primitivist art’, particularly when contextualised in histories of colonialism and imperialism. The movement of these objects, often sacred or bound-up in the traditions of day-to-day life of the people who crafted them, were removed (often forcefully) from their context. They were later reused as models or muses for, predominantly European, white, male, and, often, privileged artists, which means this type of art is inseparable from these violent histories. While I’m quite sure Epstein’s intention was to go against the grain of what was considered powerful and beautiful within the specific period, location and political climate Genesis was created in, the power dynamics within this work in relation to its sources and inspirations, furthers this idea of the white, male, genius artist. Rather than empowering those most marginalised, it exoticized them further and took even more agency from those who made the objects that inspired this piece.

The fact that Genesis and the character of Eve, which this work may represent, relates to an icon of the Christian faith, when it was used as somewhat of a weapon and a motivation for colonists and imperialists, is an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Missionaries “played a key role in the imperial process: their role was to spread the same faith and world view that drove the military side” [7] during imperial invasion and occupation. As such, the religious nature of this work is problematically contrasted with the origins of the concept of ‘Primitive’ art, exacerbated by how much it is informed by objects plundered in this period.  

The idea that this work represents the ‘first’ woman, a mother of creation, is also deeply problematic, due to the concept of social evolution which placed those from nations who had been the target of colonialism as being ‘evolutionarily behind’, or ‘inferior’, to Europeans. This is related to social Darwinism and eugenics, popular during the mid-to-late 19th Century, when the concept of ‘race’ became truly mainstream. So, rather than mistreating the indigenous peoples of a place because they came from a different, or supposedly ‘less developed’ country (i.e.: xenophobia/notions of European superiority), there was a supposed ‘scientific’ basis that further backed-up racism/bigotry towards these peoples and the control of their lands, wealth and property. This was further propagated by Darwin in his book, The Decent of Man (1871), which apparently sanctioned these “ideas of ‘primitive’ peoples” being “supposedly lower on the evolutionary scale than White Europeans who were invariably presented as the model of evolved civilisation” [8]. This theory of social evolution served as a rationalisation as to why European countries were permitted to commit the crimes perpetuated during colonisation and imperialism. The classification of ‘Primitive’ art also serves this narrative, implying that these objects that were stolen or (sometimes) traded, were products of a society ‘less socially evolved’ than White Europeans.  

The use of non-Western formal techniques and aesthetics also proved challenging for contemporary viewers in 1931, when it was first displayed, for an entirely different, if potentially oppositional, reason. As Anne Middleton Wagner put it: 

“What proved difficult was the reconciliation of physiognomic “blackness” and physical “whiteness” with a character and narrative traditionally seen as white through and through.” [9] 

And there we will leave it for now. This essay has discussed the background of this work fairly thoroughly, but the equally fascinating physical history of Genesis and how it was critically received will be examined further in part two of this essay.  

END OF PART 1 

Visual References 

Jacob Epstein, Genesis,1929-31, seravezza marble sculpture, 162.5×83.8×78.7 cm, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. 

[1] Procter, A. (2020) The Whole Picture, London, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, p.16 

[2] Nolde, E. (1912) ‘Primary Sources 5b: Extracts from “On Primitive Art”’ in Newall, D (eds) and Carter, W. (cont.) Art and its global histories: a reader, Manchester, Manchester University Press/ Milton Keynes, The Open University, p.253. 

[3] Berger, J. (1961) ‘Epstein’s Pyrrhic Victory Over the Philistines’, The Observer, 3 September [Online]. Available at: https://www.newspapers.com/image/257676354/?terms=%22John%20Berger&match=1 (Accessed 13 April 2022) 

[4] Wood, P. (2017) ‘Modernism and its margins’ in (eds) Art after Empire: From Colonialism to Globalisation, Manchester, Manchester University Press/ Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 26-29.  

[5] Inside Museums: Manchester’s Whitworth (2022) BBC 4, 5 April. 

[6] Rhodes, C. (1994) Primitivism and Modern Art, London, Thames and Hudson, p. 110, pp. 200-1. 

[7] Procter, A. (2020) The Whole Picture, London, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, p.126 

[8] Burdett, C. ‘Post Darwin: social Darwinism, degeneration, eugenics’, The British Library, 15 May 2014. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/post-darwin-social-darwinism-degeneration-eugenics (Accessed 3 September 2022) 

[9] Wagner, A. (2005) Mother Stone, New Haven, Yale University Press, pp.221-222. 

One thought on “Genesis: A Deep Dive (Part 1)

  1. Love this piece. I look forward to part two. She has so many amazing stories attached once going public. I never tired of Genesis seeing her every day for 6 years and many a morning giving her a nod with the odd one-way natter.

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