Genesis: A Deep Dive (Part 2)

Content warnings: this essay deals with histories of colonialism, imperialism, antisemitism and sexual harassment against women. 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 – Ruby.

In my previous blog post, I discussed Genesis in the context of colonialism and imperialism due to its position within the canon of Primitivist art. In this, the second part of this essay, I will dive deeper into the actual physical history of the work and why this work does not belong in a vacuum, but how its journeys throughout the last century illustrate our changing perceptions of aesthetics and the wider political developments happening throughout Europe. 

The history of Genesis and how it has been viewed, exhibited, and displayed, indicates a significant shift in how the Western world, specifically in the UK and Germany, has viewed work informed by non-European formal influences over the last ninety years. There were mixed reviews from both art critics and visitors alike when Genesis first premiered at the Leicester Galleries in London. One letter sent to the Manchester Guardian regarding this work, by Muriel E. Edmunds, dated 24th April, reads:  

“Epstein’s “Genesis” is permeated with vitality – the vitality of a primitive mother, fiercely and passionately loving her unborn child; fiercely and passionately protecting it from harm. Surely a sculpture which represents such emotion is beautiful.” [1]  

Newspaper cutting in a scrapbook recording the media response to Genesis when it was first unveiled in 1931. This scrapbook is currently on loan to us courtesy of the Bossom family and can be seen on display in our Standardisation and Deviation exhibition.

However, despite Epstein’s somewhat conceited view that Genesis was a “work so revolutionary that ‘generations of sculptors and sculpture are shattered and sent flying into the limbo of triviality’” [2], when the work was first unveiled in 1931, the public’s perception and reaction was predominantly negative. Its first exhibit generated headlines such as “Monkey-like Figure with Face Like the Missing Link” [3] and “Epstein’s Latest Masterpiece: ‘Chamber of Horrors Most Suitable Place’” [4], informing readers how to interpret the work in an incredibly reactionary fashion. This reaction uncovered deeply racist and Eurocentric viewpoints from those reviewers, which is further exposed by the use of a photo of this work, and Epstein himself, in The Eternal Jew. This photo book was anti-Semitic propaganda published by the Nazi party in 1937, around the same time as the Degenerate Art Exhibition was held in Munich, which exhibited numerous examples of artwork, not only produced by Jewish artists, but those whose work fitted into the category of Primitive art, and potentially included works by Epstein himself [5].  

The above image of Epstein with Genesis appeared in the Nazi propaganda photo book The Eternal Jew.

The physical work of Genesis was initially collected by Conservative MP Alfred Blossom, who allowed it to be shown in the controversial West Bromwich Tradesmen’s Association Christmas Exhibition at West Bromwich Town Hall, in which it was displayed in a manner more suited to a side-show, than an artwork created by one of Britain’s leading modernists [6]. This degradation of the work continued well into the mid-twentieth century, to the point in which it was exhibited as a tourist attraction in the basement of Madame Tussauds in Blackpool, alongside other works by Epstein, including Jacob and the Angel (1940-41) and Adam (1939) [7].  

After being collected by managing director of Granada Television and Labour MP, Alexander Bernstein, in 1962 [8], Genesis was purchased by the Whitworth, aided by Friends of the Whitworth, in 1999 [9], it is now considered one of the most iconic pieces in our extensive collection. 

This is a much-simplified version of the history of the object that is Genesis, which implies the narrative of a kinder, politically improving, anti-racist society emerging from the ashes of war, racism, and fascism; but knowing what we know about this piece, and our current global political climate- this is blatantly untrue.  

We should also examine how we view her presently more critically; most people have a similar reaction to Diana Ali or Muriel E. Edmunds- that she is a positive portrayal of a powerful pregnant woman, a representative of a global whole. However, I personally have also seen another type of interaction- sexualisation, occasionally to the point of groping. Obviously, as a member of the Visitor Team, I try to make sure people don’t touch any artworks, but sometimes you don’t get there in time to prevent it. Unlike other artworks being touched, this form of tactility is inherently sexual and, while other statues that represent nude bodies, particularly those which depict women, experience similar interactions, there is an added racialised undertone when sexualising the depiction of a body so clearly informed by the histories I have previously discussed.  

Kara Walker, A Subtlety or the Marvellous Sugar Baby. Source: gigi_nyc on flickr, own photo. Used under Creative Commons NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.

This reminds me of the visitor interactions with another artwork, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields and the kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (2014). The main aspect of this work was a 75 ft long, 35 ft tall sculpture of a sphinx, with exaggerated physical features influenced by racist stereotypes of Black women, made from sugar and polystyrene and was exhibited at the soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Refinery in New York. The predominantly White audience who viewed this work did not interact with it in the way you would with a memorial (what it is), with reverence and care, but more like a spectacle- posing for pictures and miming grabbing her nipples. One visitor, Nicholas Powers, a professor of Black literature at SUNY Westbury, wrote: 

 “I forced myself to go to the backside of the statue and saw what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene gestures in front of the ass and vulva of the ‘Subtlety’.” [10] 

So, unsurprisingly, the aforementioned treatment of Genesis is not an isolated occurrence, but a part of a larger continuum of the hyper sexualisation of women of colour, artificially recreated in these spaces and projected onto these works of art.  

Artworks such as Genesis have been explicitly shaped by colonialism, imperialism and post-colonialism. They, and the interpretation concerning them, would not exist in their current form without these structures. This work now, despite its political and controversial nature, is generally lauded and well-received which implies a certain cultural dissonance that we seem to share regarding how the past shapes our present. If we are to discuss works like Genesis solely in terms of how it is presented contemporarily, rather than in the context of colonialism and imperialism, we, potentially, fall victim to the narrative of considering our present as far away and disconnected from these histories- which is very dangerous indeed.

This mini essay has discussed Genesis within the context of colonialism, ‘primitivism’ and post-colonialism, the latter denoting a linear progression of cause and effect within the viewing, interpretation, and display of art over the last century or so. The end of Empire, concept of post-colonisation, etc. is a narrative which suits a neoliberal establishment, both within the art world and outside of it, as ‘post’ implies a clean cut off point. It is “not an ending, but a break” [11], and these concepts and forms of societies we are so sure we are ‘post’, are merely transfigured into a “new terrain or context, eroding some of the boundaries which made our occupation of an earlier moment seem relatively clear [20]. For instance, the sexualisation of Genesis, to the point of visitors grabbing her breasts, is rooted in the physical and sexual violence committed against women during the colonisation process, as well as the misogyny of our current times.  

References 

[1] Cronshaw, J. (2010) Carving a Legacy: The Identity of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), published PhD thesis, Leeds, The University of Leeds, p.225. 

[2] Cronshaw, J. (2010) Carving a Legacy: The Identity of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), published PhD thesis, Leeds, The University of Leeds, p.211. 

[3] [4] Scrapbook containing newspaper cuttings which record the shocking and racist media response that ‘Genesis’ received when it was first unveiled (1999), Edinburgh Dispatch, 1931, Oxford Mail, 1931, Standardisation and Deviation, The Whitworth, 2021-. 

[5] MoMA (n.d) List of Works [Online]. Available at https://www.moma.org/collection/provenance/works?locale=en (Accessed 10 April 2022) 

[6] Cronshaw, J. (2010) Carving a Legacy: The Identity of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), published PhD thesis, Leeds, The University of Leeds, p.230 

[7] Garlake, M. (2011) ‘Finding Epstein’s Adam’, Art and Christianity, Issue 67, pp.13-14. 

[8] Art Fund (n.d) Genesis by Sir Jacob Epstein [Online]. Available at https://www.artfund.org/supporting-museums/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/7328/genesis (Accessed on 10 April 2022) 

[9] The Whitworth (n.d) Genesis [Online]. Available at http://gallerysearch.ds.man.ac.uk/Detail/17965 (Accessed 8 April 2022) 

[10] King, J. ‘Man Explains Why He Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit’, Colorlines, 14 July 2014. Available at: https://www.colorlines.com/articles/man-explains-why-he-yelled-kara-walker-exhibit (Accessed 20 August 2022) 

[11] Hall, S. (2001) ‘Critical Approaches 5.4: Extracts from “Museums of Modern Art and the End of History” in Newall, D (eds) and Charlesworth, A. (cont.) Art and its global histories: a reader, Manchester, Manchester University Press/ Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp.275-276. 

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