Epstein first came to admire Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal in 1904 as a student in Paris and was increasingly drawn to the poet’s vision of man’s struggle between good and evil that had particular resonance in the difficult years of the 1930s preceding the Second World War. A chance encounter in Paris in 1936 with George Macy, founder of the Limited Editions Club of New York, resulted in an exciting commission for the artist. Macy was impressed by Epstein’s recent series of flower paintings and invited him to illustrate a book of his choice, thus prompting Epstein to suggest Baudelaire’s poems.
The resulting series demonstrates the intensity of Epstein’s imagination and his exceptional ability to conjure compelling and dark images of the moral conflict innate in human existence. The present work was shown in an exhibition of thirty-seven drawings from the series at Arthur Tooth & Sons gallery in London in 1938. Epstein explained his motivation for the project in the accompanying catalogue: ‘Solely to satisfy a craving of my own I have made these drawings… This Bible of the modern man has long called to me, and brooding upon the powerful and subtle images evoked by long reading, a world comes forth filled with splendid and maleficent entities’ (the Artist, quoted in An Exhibition of Drawings by Jacob Epstein for ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ of Charles Baudelaire (exh. cat.), Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd, London, 1938, n.p.). Despite Epstein considering these works amongst the best in his oeuvre, the exhibition was slated by critics who reminded viewers that Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was banned for many years after its publication in 1857 on grounds of blasphemy and obscenity. An evocative and dynamic example from the powerful series, Hymne à la Beauté is a testament to Epstein’s inexhaustible creativity and defiant ambition.
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