Jacob Epstein:
Taylorism and Masculinity on the Eve of the Great War

The origins of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913) and its meanings have been historically confused by two historical coincidences: the date of execution is the same as that of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, his first ready made and the year 1913 is the last year before the Great War. Another complicating factor was the shocking Futurist Exhibition of 1912 at the genteel Sackville Gallery. While the presence of Futurism was very impactful for a number of British artists, Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) kept his distance, according to some of the most recent research on the artist by Jonathan Lee Crenshaw, the artist declared that the Futurist manifesto was “silly gospel.” Apparently unimpressed, he elaborated, “..these Italian charlatans were welcomed with open arms..” But a year later, the sculptor produced a visionary cyborg man-machine, an industrialized non-human made of old fashioned plaster. The mechanized male clutches at an actual drill, appropriated by Epstein who undoubtedly built the plaster form to fit the powerful tool. Despite the fact that a sketch of the drill was shown in 1913, the finished sculpture was not exhibited until 1915 at the Goupil Gallery. Apparently the delay in exhibiting the work was Epstein’s desire to make it a kinetic work. He said, “I had thought of attaching pneumatic power to my rock drill, and setting in motion, thus completing every potentiality of form and movement in one work..” but this idea was discarded and the figure was exhibited mute and silent and menacing. The contrast between the white plaster figure, matte in tone and texture, and the shiny black drill emphasized the human-machine contrast, while connecting the incompatibles remorselessly.

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In light of his earlier works, the nude males, marching along the Medical Frieze of the British Medical Association Building on the Strand and the censored and mutilated Winged Angel/Sphinx marking the tomb of Oscar Wilde, the Rock Drill is an emphatically phallic and signifies masculine drive towards violence and destruction and perhaps procreation: the need to create and destroy. The literature of the period, perhaps predictive of the coming war, glorified masculinity and heroism. As the work of Epstein exemplified, the ideal male was young and Greco-Roman in his shining moment of beauty. It was this glow of glorious youth as a social trope that made the scything of the bright young men in the War such a poignant tragedy. But the perfected male was classed, an epitome available only for the upper classes who engaged in “sport.” The British experience with the Boer War had highlighted the poor health of lower class males and their unfitness for the rigors of war. Epstein’s figure was not just masculine, it was decidedly working class, large and strong and, as British critics rarely pointed out, American, a point that will be elaborated upon later.

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Epstein’s hyper-masculine machine was a bitter answer to the classical male nude–a stunning updating of the Neo-Classical male nude. It was probably an anomaly for its time and, given the fact that Epstein later destroyed the sculpture, out of step for his own inclinations. By time the Rock Drill was made public, the Great War had begun and had shown itself to be a war of the future indeed, a war in which as Siegfried Giedion would later intone, “mechanism takes command.” The standard interpretation of what happened next rests upon the tragic death of the very promising artist, also a sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Breszka (1891-1915), who was killed in 1915. His death was announced in BLAST by Ezra Pound:

Mort Pour la Patrie. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: After months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed at a charge at Neuville St. Vaast, on June 5th, 1915.

In his biography of the young artist in 1916, Pound wrote,

It is part of the war waste. Among many good artists, among other young men of promise there was this one sculptor already great in achievement at the age of twenty three, incalculably great in promise and in the hopes of his friends.

Almost at once after the death of Gaudier-Breszka, Epstein dismantled the horrifying vision of the future of humankind, harassed to machines, amputating its long legs, removing the drill, leaving a stunted trunk and futile bent arms, handless, overseen by a twisted visored head. It is this dismembered helpless 1916 version of Rock Drill that appears in all art history books, often with no indication that it is not really a complete work but a fragment of something that no longer existed. The pathos of the destruction of the plaster figure was disguised somewhat by the bronze casting of the leftover thought. All that was left of a towering and frightening prediction of things to come, was a small and castrated broken machine, no longer a man, no longer a machine, just broken toy.

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Epstein’s interpretations of his own work emerged later, decades after the war, distilled and assembled into discernible meaning, often reading backwards and spoken through the War. Richard Cork, the authority on Vorticism, stated that by 1918, Epstein had a complete breakdown, a situation that undoubtedly conditioned his explanations of his pre-war work. In discussing the Rock Drill in his autobiography, Epstein said,

It was in the experimental pre-war days of 1913 that I was fired to do the rock drill and my ardour for machinery (short-lived) expended itself upon the purchase of an actual drill, second-hand, and upon this I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity,only the terrible Frankenstein’ s monster we have made ourselves into.”

Indeed in an interview given in 1931, Epstein stated,

The Rock Drill is not entirely abstract. It is a conception of a thing I knew well in New York and in my feeling of that thing as a living entity, translated in terms of sculpture. It is a thing prophetic of much in the great war and as such within the experience of nearly all, and it has therefore very definite human associations.

The reference to New York probably refers to his time in the city, drilling foundations for the buildings to come. Although his time working with a drill, 1900-1901, was brief, Epstein certainly had experience with the machine and understood how the laborer had to struggle to first learn how to use the drill, then to control it and finally to master it. The Drill is such a powerful being with a strident life of its own that it must be constantly cajoled into partnership. But on whose terms? Andrew Causey in his 2010 article,

Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill: Man and Machine,” wrote that “The Rock Drill..reflected increasing anxiety at the role of machines in everyday life and the demotion of industrial workers to the level of mechanicals. As craft worker and tool were replace by men who no longer enjoyed independence of action but became instead mere minders of machines, and were machines on the way to becoming independent agents?

Causey, like Crenshaw, situated Rock Drill in procreation, as if the nine foot high statue was claiming the artist-creator role, with the artist, man, machine playing multiple roles of father-mother. However, by far the most poetic and powerful analysis of this work comes from Antony Gormley, who described “the man-made-man, riding technology, that is intent on splitting the earth.” The great British sculptor, who uses his own body as the template for all of his figures, noted that the power of the Academy, even well into the twentieth century was still very impactful and perhaps it was this lingering and moribund tradition of “simpering,” as Gormley put it, male nudes that Epstein finally tore himself away form with Rock Drill. Due to his interaction with Brancusi in Paris when he was completing the commission on Oscar Wilde’s tomb and his experience of the non-Western sculptures at the Trocadero, Epstein was able to re-conceive the male body in a more fundamental or “potent” fashion, honed down to one powerful need, procreation as symbolized by the drill-penis, with a “strong sexual charge.” Gormley, a defender of this now obscure artist, stressed his technique of direct carving and this “radical” move into modernism that far exceeded anything that was being done with sculpture at this time. At the same time, Epstein explored the basic poles of life: sexuality and death, found perhaps in African works, moving beyond Picasso’s formal reading of the same tribal art.

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However, as much Epstein changed as the result to his Parisian education at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts and as much as his experience in London turned him into an English citizen, he was an American by origin and there are definite links between his country of origin and Rock Drill. In the year 1948, Siegfried Giedion published Mechanization Take Command in which he examined the history of how labor became wedded to the machine, particularly through the assembly line process. As early as the eighteenth century, workers had to conform to the rhythms and speeds of the operations of moving parts, whether of a particular machine or the organization of the factory itself. The question of how to unite humans and machines so that the disparate entities could operate with maximum efficiency was solved in the late nineteenth  century by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), who founded the field of scientific management. Taylor, an engineer for Bethlehem Steel Works in Pittsburgh, where he began what Giedion called

a through analysis of a work process. Everything superfluous must go, for the sake efficiency and, as Taylor is ever stressing, for the easing of labor, its functional performance. Work should be done easily ands far as possible without fatigue. But always behind this lies the constant goal to which the period was magically drawn production, greater production at any price. The human body is studied how far it can be transformed into a machine.

But what is truly interesting is the next passage written by Giedion: “Taylor once constructed a great steam hammer, whose parts were so finely calculated that the elasticity of its molecular forces served to heighten its efficiency.” But Giedion did not elaborate any further. For an understanding of this “steam hammer” it is necessary to read a contemporary account of this machine. Taylor died in 1915, and, after this death, a series of “addresses” were given in his honor in March and October. These accounts of the life and career of Taylor and his philosophy of the efficiency of labor, called “Taylorism,” were published in 1920. Included in this volume was a “Letter from Wm. A. Fannon,” who discussed Taylor’s redesign of the steam hammer, a huge press that was critical to the forging of steel. The first steam hammer dated back to the 1840s and, from that time forward, the huge multi-storied structure straddled the floor of the mill and pounded steel. As Fannon related,

It was a well known fact up to that time, that the design of all steam hammers had been along certain lines. This design was such that, the hammer being of a rigid frame, it would in time, through the jar of the operation, crack and break up the frame of the hammer itself. There was also the need of a hammer capable of working forgings of a larger size than had hitherto been attempted. So, in order to  build a more durable hammer, and one which would overcome this serious defect of the rigid frame, Mr. Taylor designed one which was unique in its plan and flexibility. It was similar to jointed spider legs, and it had a stretch and coil like a spiral spring. With the piston and head, this hammer weighed twenty-five tons, and then the steam was let into the cylinder on top, it struck a blow of seventy-five tons. 

The reinvention and redesign of the steel hammer at Nicetown’s Midvale Steel suggested to Taylor that human motions and their sequence could also be reconfigured. Alan Briskin in his 1998 book Stirring of Soul in the Workplace noted that the

..steam hammer not only worked at three times the speed of similar steam hammers but also didn’t wear out as quickly..His most important discovery was that the resiliency of the machine depended on the elasticity of the parts during motion. The hammer was mounted on an apparatus resembling steel spider’s legs that absorbed the power of each blow. In this way, he was able to keep the hammer snapping back into proper alignment The lesson would not be lost when he later devised processes for human labor: the redesign of work processes was also to account for human fatigue..With the utmost conviction, Taylor was discovering the most efficient ways to turn the human body into a mechanism.

Aside from the description of the Taylor’s steel hammer resembling the design of Epstein’s Rock Drill, the sequence from re-designing a machine for more effectiveness and more resilience led to the re-thinking of how the human being physically carried out his or her own job. The worker was timed with a stop watch and reprogramed to work not just better but faster, leading to greater work productivity. According to  Daniel Sidorick at Rutgers University,

..he first used a stopwatch to gauge the performance of machine tools, but he soon applied the same techniques to measure the motions of human workers.  As Taylor formulated and refined his approach to scientific management at a succession of companies in the Philadelphia region from the late 1870s to the early 1900s, he increasingly regarded workers as elements of the production process.  In his view, their actions could be precisely molded, with the right incentive schemes, by a new type of management that left no leeway for personal discretion.

As incentives to cooperate with his theories, Taylor, who moved on to Bethlehem Steel, increased workers’ wages, if they performed as required. The result was an elevation in industrial production and an increased equation between humans and machines. The steam hammer possessed the thin and flexible legs of an organism, a man with legs open and flexed, allowing it to absorb the hammer’s blows.

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Epstein’s man was operating another version of the steam hammer, literally becoming the “spider legs” part of the hammer, flexing and absorbing the blows of the drill which hammered into the rock. The principle of the drill was the same as the principle of the hammer. In his book, written in 1913, the same year as Rock Drill was created, Compressed Air Practice, Frank Richards assured the reader that rock drills “are built to be operated some by compressed air and some by steam..The rock drill is only a smaller steam hammer..” This section of the book appeared earlier in a 1907 article Richards published in a trade periodical, published in Pittsburgh, called The Industrial World.

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A few years later in 1910 Eustace M. Weston, wrote in Rock Drills: Design, Construction and Use,

The rock drill with its hundreds of crushing blows per minute, doing the work of ten or twenty men, came to help the minder extract bodies of low-grad ore: to enable the engineer attack problems undreamed of before..Twenty to thirty thousand rock drills are at work in the world today..Cheap roads, paving,and building, cheap rail and transportation and low-priced metals, we owe largely to the rock drills, and even in death the rock drill helps to provide our graves with head stones. This might reminds us that the history of the rock drill has something of tragedy and terror connected with it. In many mining fields the standard percussive rock drill is not operated without the cost of valuable human lives.

In other words, there is another direction for research and scholarship to investigate: the rock drill itself, which, as it turns out, a long and lively history. For example in 1891 in England The Institution of Mechanical Engineers published their proceeding which included reports on the rock drill, noting its close association with the steam hammer, and continuing with an account of a completion of numerous designs of rock drills. The existence of a copious amount of research and surprisingly rich amount of writing on a common industrial tool, the rock drill, does not necessarily suggest that Jacob Epstein or the members of his circle were aware of the history of the rock drill, but the drill was of vital importance in the two most industrialized nations in the world, England and America.

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In addition, it was an American engineer, Frederick Taylor, who rethought the worker and saw this worker, not as as human but as a machine. In the end it is not important to what extent  Jacob Epstein was conversant with the minutiae of rock drill history, the symbolism of the drill and how the visual and physical joining of the man and the machine signified the loss of humanity for laborers in the twentieth century. Although “Taylorism” would take many decades and two wars to be absorbed into the workplace, both blue and white collar, Epstein was prescient in intuiting the paradoxical redefining of masculinity when a man put his hands on a machine.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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