Monday 3: Torso in metal from ‘Rock Drill’
Here we see the bronze torso of a machine-like robot. We can see the ridges on the chest imitating ribs with an opening in the middle as though giving a glimpse of the organs within. This gives a human quality to the sculpture. The shoulders and biceps appear strong but the lower arms either don’t exist or appear thin, weak, broken and handless. The head looks as though the robot is wearing a protective visor with only a slit for its eyes. The head is looking downwards as if in cowardice.
This sculpture was created by the American-born sculptor Sir Jacob Eptein who in his early 20s studied and lived in Paris where he spent much of his time visiting the Louvre, particularly focusing on ancient and primitive sculpture whose influence can be distinctively seen in his art. He then moved to England and after six years of living here he officially became a British citizen in 1911.
This sculpture is very different from that displayed in its original setting at an exhibition in 1915. Originally the torso was made out of plaster which was then sat upon a real-life rock drill which would have made the sculpture much more ‘menacing’.
The early 20th century saw the awakening of a new era, moving from the industrial age into the age of machines. This was a seemingly exciting and powerful revolution. A group of artists, including Epstein, wanting to celebrate machines and explore different ways of portraying art during this new energised period were known as vorticists. These avant-garde artists/thinkers were headed by the radical artist and critic Wyndham Lewis who developed a style similar to that of futurists in Italy and also the cubists whereby his style portrayed machine-like, angular and semi abstract forms - two of which can be seen in this sculpture.
When it was first exhibited in 1915, it would have looked like a monster. Epstein has said that it symbolised ‘the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into’. By 1915 Britain had been fighting the First World War for about a year and the atrocious realities of what the new machine age actually meant were coming into focus, so many artists like Epstein abandoned vorticism and the movement died just like the millions of people during the war because of modern guns, tanks and other machines. This is probably why Epstein changed the sculpture. By taking away the rock drill and removing the hands it makes the figure appear defenseless, exposed and less destructive.
Overall, at first glimpse, it may remind you of a character from films such as the Terminator or others when robots want to take over the world, but the closer you look the real truth becomes evident where you feel the robot’s vulnerability and shame of being a machine.