Saturday, 19 December 2009

Shameful Sculptor Eric Gill

If you walked around the recent sculpture exhibition at the Royal Academy whom might you think was a sinister sculptor? Knowing no facts on the matter, you could be forgiven for thinking it Jacob Epstein, whose menacing iron sculpture Rock Drill, has been recreated. This piece, unbelievably constructed 1913-1915, is a prelude to every robot that we have seen in movies over 50 years later.

The work of Eric Gill (1882-1940), on the other hand, is beautiful in its simplicity. His works demonstrate the affinity between art and architecture perfectly. We know his pieces without ever knowing they are ‘pieces’, so well do they meld with the building.

The Art Deco façade of the BBC (Broadcasting House) incorporates Gill’s sculpture of Ariel & Prospero. This is a perfect example of how his artistic work integrates with the building: we perceive it as a whole, a part, of the architecture.

There was a talk at the RA entitled Saint or Sinner? Re-assessing Eric Gill. Now, I haven’t heard the talk nor have I read Fiona McCarthy’s biography of him. All I know is that Gill is guilty of some very unsavoury practices that have ruined his reputation as a godly man and an artist.

Gill’s behaviour was thoroughly reprehensible but he was also a genuinely talented artist and craftsman. He did some marvellous illustrations that remind me of Aubrey Beardsley and some of the artists who were doing lino cuts in the first quarter of the last century. An excellent letterer (he designed the typeface Gill Sans) he also carved the letters and designs on war memorials, gravestones and in churches.

I first became aware of him when I saw his linear two-dimensional sculptured panels not unlike the ancient friezes that decorated the buildings of Rome and Athens. Gill’s figures and animals, however, are simple, naïve and primal. And all the more striking because of this.

But when I visited this exhibition – which was excellent – I felt very uncomfortable. I like his work. I think he was a designer and sculptor of great talent. But I couldn’t help thinking about the dark side of him and this cast a shadow over enjoyment of his pieces.

I tried to tell myself that I must disassociate the artist’s predilections from his work. I must not let it cause a barrier between me and the pieces. I tried not to let my dark thoughts affect my enjoyment of his work. Unfortunately, they did. His talent is now tainted for me.

If only those of us who feel we have little natural talent could have one small piece of the gift that these artists display. We wouldn’t squander it, would we. We would revel in our gift, embrace our talent, nurture it and let it flourish. And it would be something pure, would it not. Or would it.

Could it be that the great creative force and superb style that a few artists have are only kindled by dark, sinister and wicked acts. Are these deeds and the shame of them, the price they (and sadly others) pay for the beauty of their art. I don’t know if it is a truth or a convenient excuse but I think, given the choice, I might just settle for mediocrity.



Bryan said...

Deep thoughts. The art is excellent.

jpbenney said...

“Are these deeds and the shame of them, the price they (and sadly others) pay for the beauty of their art” is a very fascinating question, but one that resonates greatly with the character of much underground culture.

Many people have seen a conflict between Gill’s Catholicism and his strong sense of sin, but he was far from unique: the whole Decadent movement was influenced by the conflict between the Church’s rigid moral sense and its forgiveness of sinners - an attitude which can be rooted as far back as Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love and which was influential as far as the 1970s.

Aside from his art, I have come to see Gill as perhaps the original hippie for his aims at small-scale community and belief in the sanctity of manual labour. In many ways he was quite close to Dorothy Day - if in behaviour precisely the opposite.