Sculpture is notoriously hard to photograph or even film – though possibly it works with 3D technology – and it’s sometimes almost as difficult to display well. With their familiar proportions, portrait busts ought to be relatively easy to install and light, but I’m not a great fan of the NPG’s permanent displays, rows of heads against the wall, or in central clusters.So the temporary exhibition on the half-landing of busts by Jacob Epstein is a visual delight that invites the viewer to move between and around the heads, observing all the sculptor’s skill in modelling features, surfaces, textures and mass, to give the works compelling presence.
Very notably, the commanding bust of Ramsay Macdonald, whose appearance in other portraits, photos and film footage often suggests shambling indecision, is here endowed with confidence, maturity, energy, indicating how tragic his final failure of leadership may have been.That of Nehru, on a smaller scale, suggests inner depth and weight of care under necessary inscrutability.Epstein did not know these sitters intimately, and his rendering of their expressions does not depend on any knowledge of their history or emotions, yet it powerfully conveys individual personality, often more vividly than through painting or drawing. As Michael Caines notes of the NPG group, the viewer has the 'weird sensation' of being able to look the sitters in the eye, although equally unnerving is the fact that they don't look back, nor do they have have the blind stare common to sculpted busts. Epstein's rough surfaces convey a most convincing equivalent to 'live' faces and fabrics.