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The Physical Spirit: Divine Sex, Beauty and the Grotesque in the Art of Eric Gill

September 25, 2012 by David Vega in Art, Artists, Design, Featured, Features, Iconoclasts with 0 Comments

It would be unfair to judge Eric Gill the artist by his spotted personal life; it would be equally unfair to judge Eric Gill the man solely by his body of creative work. In essence, it is impossible to define or assess a character of such complexity. A letter cutter, sculptor, typeface designer, and writer, Gill managed to embrace several different art forms, impacting the 20th century art and design world in a few short years. What is most impressive, however, is how Gill incorporated the erotic with divine reverence, inviting his viewers to consider the possibility that the two are not mutually exclusive impulses. In doing so, this distinctly curious artist managed to boldly challenge the aesthetic norms of a post-Victorian society while still maintaining the respect of the religious institutions that supported much of his work.

Gill first began his career in 1903, cutting stone inscriptions for various clients in London’s Hammersmith district under one Edward Johnston. Gill had a deft hand and business was soon thriving. He decided to start his own studio and moved to Ditchling in 1907, bringing with him assistant Joseph Cribb. Johnston decided to join the two. Along with a fourth man, Hilary Pepler, they founded The Guild, a community of like-minded individuals dedicated to the protection and the promotion of its members’ work, the Catholic faith and domestic simplicity.

Here in Ditchling, Gill felt free from the watchful eyes of modest society, frequently working in a rough tunic (sans undergarments), reminiscent of the robes of medieval monks, or writing tracts on the proper role of the craftsman in society. He valued the hard, honest work of a simple artisan of the old days who would cater to the common man just as readily as to the well heeled. As a founder of Distributism, the “3rd position” between communism and capitalism, Gill argued that skilled labor and the general populace should control the means of production, rather than the state or elite property owners.

“On those occasions I was caught unprepared. I did not know such beauties could exist. I was struck as by lightning, as by a sort of enlightenment. On that evening
I was thus rapt. It was no mere dexterity, that transported me; it was as though a secret of heaven were being revealed.” — Eric Gill, on his first introduction to typography

It was during the early years in Ditchling that Gill carved his first figures in stone and wood, reviving the direct carving method rather than the common practice of sending models to be cast by industrial means. (Across the English Channel in France, Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi would do the same). These years would also introduce him to sex as a subject in his sculpture: after hearing art critic Ananda Coomaraswamy’s discussions on Indian art in 1908, Gill began to mimic the images of Hindu gods overseeing coupled figures mid coitus carved on temple facades.

This act of blending the divine and the erotic was not new to British eyes, of course; printmaker Aubrey Beardsley had been focusing on the erotic in his decadent work years before. Had Gill read Nietsche’s Birth of Tragedy, he may have found that British reserve and Apollonian rationale both benefitted from a dose of the Dionysian cults of the east. The kind of art that blended reason with ecstatic release was a pure one.

Gill’s sculptural commissions soon increased in number and in 1911, he had his first exhibition in London to great success. This did not go unnoticed. By 1914, he was chosen to carve the Stations of the Cross at the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. A new convert, Gill found that the prestigious commission reinforced his growing interest in religious matters. It may well have been that the mystical nature of the early Catholic church appealed to him; the symbols of the church as bride and Christ as groom may have fit in perfectly with his new religious ideology, justifying the view that human sex was only an earthly manifestation of a blessed act that begged to be brought to the public sphere.

His interest in sex as divine act has been the subject of discussion for several decades, especially now after his sketches and writings have been examined by a new series of biographers. A man obsessed with these things, Gill found that human desire could only find true satisfaction were it to be elevated to the holy and the sublime. This held true for the forms of everything he imagined, whether it be letter or flesh. More often than not it involved the latter. There were countless hours of study devoted to the anatomy of others and his own erect member, watching animals mating and his friends playing tennis in the nude. Appendages were drawn and redrawn in the studio, subjects of dutiful worship. All was carefully recorded in his diaries and sketchbooks, a collection of life’s beautiful, carnal possibilities. Were it not for the ghastly discovery in 1989 by biographer Fiona MacCarthy—that Gill had committed heinous abuses, sexually molesting his children and sleeping with his sister (not to mention the family dog)—he may have simply been relegated to the shelves of other sex-obsessed artists who easily jump from reclining nude to Madonna and Child.

This is exactly what makes Gill so problematic for most critics and art scholars today. How does one reconcile the brilliance of a man’s talent with his reprehensible human behavior? It’s true that once MacCarthy’s biography became public, Gill’s moral reputation was destroyed. The art world, however, has been much more forgiving: his reputation as a master craftsman remains untarnished, and his woodcuts, sculpture, prints and typeface have been given more attention than ever before.

Gill shines best when one studies his simple linear expressions. One can’t help but admire his most famous font, the self-referential Gill Sans, widely used by the BBC, or the more traditional Perpetua, based on Roman inscriptions. He explains his view on the art of designing fonts:

“What is good lettering? That was the job before me. And at every point a justification must be found in reason. What is decoration but that which is seemly and appropriate? Ornamental typography is to be avoided no less than ornamental architecture in an industrial civilization he states in his autobiography. The truth is that a thing fit for its purpose is necessarily pleasant to use and also beautiful.” — An Essay on Typography (London, J.M. Dent, 1931)

He continues his discussion of simple, beautiful design:

“My one complaint against machine-made goods is precisely this: that they too often hide their light under a bushel of “design.” Think how decent alarm clocks might be if they were just as plain and well-made outside as they often are inside!
I think an artist is not a person who makes things beautiful, but simply one who deliberately makes things as well as he can — whether he is a clock-maker or picture-painter. I think that if you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself…”

Regardless of his talent, not everyone can so easily forgive him of his transgressions. There is an ongoing call for the removal of the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral and his sculpture entitled “The Creation of Adam” that stands in the lobby of the Palais des Nations, now the European HQ of the U.N. in Geneva. Is it possible for the viewer to ignore the crimes of the creator when he knows full well how the work came into being? Have we gotten past the anti-semitism of Wagner, or forgiven Caravaggio—painter, killer, and homoerotic depicter of young boys—his sins? The answer to that question is a subjective one, perhaps left for another debate.

A special thank you to the archivists at The William Andrews Clark Library in Los Angeles, who have been working diligently on organizing its collection of sculpture, woodblock prints, engravings, drawings, sketchbooks, and copper and zinc plates by the artist. It will soon make this vast collection available for public viewing, further inviting the public to make its own conclusions.

Images: Eric Gill’s Work Courtesy of The Estate of Eric Gill / Bridgeman Art Library

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About David Vega

David Vega is an L.A. based writer with so many interests he might need three lifetimes to fully explore them. When not collecting chairs, building bikes, making wine, shucking oysters, climbing Machu Picchu, or learning how to build houses from hay, he can be found on his laptop at a cafe near you.

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