Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2023
Mark Antliff Sculptors Against the State: Anarchism and the Anglo-European Avant-Garde University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2021. 284 pp.; 10 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271089454)

In 2023 the political nature of sculpture barely needs stating. Over the past two decades, the toppling of statues has become a nexus between state-sanctioned violence and defiance against its monuments. Yet there has been little reflection on sculpture’s capacity to counter social injustices. In this context, Mark Antliff’s exploration of sculptors’ connections to anarchism between 1908 and 1914 is timely, even if the specificity of this moment of reflection is left unspoken.

Antliff’s history of the cultural politics of London and Paris looks beyond painters’ and graphic artists’ anarchist credentials, well-established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to focus on three sculptors at the forefront of the medium’s period of vitality and experimentation in the run-up to World War I. Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915) provide the nodes around which the author identifies networks of anarchist activity. Given the differing political and cultural contexts in which the British-American, Italian, and French artists each lived, worked, and exhibited, Antliff includes a variety of individuals and publications under the anarchist umbrella. Their defining quality is their opposition to the state, which at the very start of the book Antliff characterizes as “not only a constellation of bureaucratic and coercive institutions but a state of mind and a set of social relationships,” continuing, “I will demonstrate the myriad ways in which the medium of sculpture was treated as integral to a radical movement whose participants saw the arts as a catalyst for a new set of social relations and psychological dispositions deemed antithetical to those propagated by the state” (1).

Over four chapters, one each for Epstein and Boccioni, and two for Gaudier-Brzeska, the thread of anarchism brings together sculptures in varying degrees of abstraction, dealing with sex, violence, and imperialism, and ranging from the monumental to the ephemeral to the hand-held.

Opposition to the state is clearest in the first example, Epstein’s Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1909–12) in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, a privately commissioned public sculpture which raised issues of censorship and sexuality. For his monument to the Irish writer, Epstein carved a winged demon-angel from Hopton Wood stone. Following its installation in 1912, its genitalia was covered and then plastered over at the behest of the cemetery conservator and the préfet de police. 

Avant-garde artists in Paris and London leapt to Epstein’s defence. In spring 1913, L’Action d’art, a journal founded by philosopher, poet, and cultural impresario André Colomer, published a petition disputing this act of censorship by Paris’s municipal government. Its signatories included Guillaume Apollinaire, Alexander Archipenko, Frank Rutter, and Wyndham Lewis. While ostensibly supporting Epstein’s artistic liberty, this campaign’s opposition to the state also functioned on a second level, that of Wilde’s sexual freedom, protesting his incarceration. Antliff opens the intellectual landscape of this study by connecting Colomer and his esteem for Wilde as the author of The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) with the individualist “egoism” of German philosopher Max Stirner and the theory of intuition developed by the renowned French philosopher Henri Bergson.

In June 1913, a few months after the L’Action d’art petition, the Premiere Exposition de sculpture futuriste du peintre et sculpteur futuriste Boccioni was held at the private commercial Galerie La Boëtie in Paris and showed another sculptural direction for individualism and intuition. In Bergson, Boccioni found an alternative to the academic, state-sanctioned making and viewing of art, as well as a dynamic approach to matter and motion. Boccioni published his ideas in Pittura scultura futuriste (1914) and embodied them with the plaster sculptures of striding figures he first showed in this exhibition, which culminated in his best-known work Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). For Antliff, this sculpture encapsulates the rhetoric of F. T. Marinetti, the leader of Futurism, who was inspired by the blend of Bergson with anarchism, militarism, and aestheticized violence in Georges Sorel’s anarchist-syndicalist Reflections on Violence (1908) and expressed devotion to anarchism and “beautiful ideas worth dying for” in the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (1909). 

While the Futurists shared a banner of anarchist nationalism, Antliff synthesises Boccioni’s formal experimentation with Marinetti’s Sorelian politics and in so doing risks treating their views as interchangeable. By contrast, he characterizes Gino Severini, a Paris-based Futurist painter and close friend of Boccioni, as an anarchist dandy aesthete in the tradition of Wilde. Due to this, and his involvement with L’Action d’art, Severini is addressed in the chapter on Epstein. The division of chapters in the book aids the marshalling of complex material, but it is at points where the three sculptors’ milieux intersect where the exciting, expansive consequences of Antliff’s approach are most apparent. Each chapter reads independently, and these moments are rarely reflected upon. This is again apparent in the two chapters dedicated to Gaudier-Brzeska, who we first meet in the opening chapter, commenting on the work of Epstein.

Among this book’s subjects, Gaudier-Brzeska is the most overtly, and fervently, committed to anarchism. As such, there is a wealth of primary material in the form of autobiographical statements and journals including La Guerre sociale and Les Hommes du jour, as well as the existing literature on the artist’s politics by his early biographers. Antliff repeatedly uses the former to add nuance to the latter, and it is in these two chapters where he makes the most compelling connections between political contexts and artworks.

The first is dedicated to the earlier part of Gaudier-Brzeska’s career and specifically to his self-fashioning as an anarchist, apparent in Alfred Wolmark’s portrait of him in black and red. Painted in the summer of 1913, it dates from the beginning of Gaudier-Brzeska’s friendship with the American poet Ezra Pound. Gaudier-Brzeska’s conversion of Pound to anarchism, and the concurrent evolution of his sculpture and particularly the use of direct carving, are the subject of their own chapter. Antliff makes a strong case for Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (1914) and its deliberate evocation of the Rapa Nui statue Hoa Hakananai’a (1000–1600) in the British Museum as an anti-imperialist gesture. Also noteworthy is the argument that Gaudier-Brzeska’s handheld sculptures, such as Ornament Torpille (1914), were not only anti-academic and antibourgeois, but fundamentally individualist.

This book succeeds in finding common political ground not only between Epstein, Boccioni, and Gaudier-Brzeska, but between a commissioned, carved, funerary monument, a plaster figure exhibited in a commercial gallery, and a small cut-brass form made for a friend. Scholars of modern sculpture may be frustrated by the reluctance to dwell on the specificity of the medium or draw overarching conclusions. In this rigorously researched and densely written book, Antliff’s allegiance seems to be to text over artworks; Wilde, Marinetti, and Pound each threaten to eclipse Epstein, Boccioni, and Gaudier-Brzeska. Yet the richness of archival detail ensures that Sculptors Against the State: Anarchism and the Anglo-European Avant-Garde makes a valuable contribution to the scholarship on the cultural politics of early twentieth-century London and Paris and provides many paths to further investigate sculpture against the state.

Rosalind McKever
Curator of Paintings and Drawings, Victoria and Albert Museum