Ninety-four

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Ecstasy

1910-11 by Eric Gill
The Tate

When Gill’s contemporaries first saw his sculpture Ecstasy they recoiled at such a vivid depiction of a couple ‘fornicating’; when exhibited with Wild Thing at the Royal Academy, the piece is referred to in terms of its notorious subject of a couple in the ultimate embrace. Though Ecstasy is clearly provocative in both subject and title, it could hardly be called grotesque. It is a piece beautifully calm, encouraged by the simplicity of white stone and smooth limbs, uncomplicated by a background that does little more than provide a quiet frame. Mounting his piece on a block, or rather allowing it to emerge from it, increases the subtlety of the sculpture; the protagonists are hidden from one side and seem at one with their material. Gill’s characteristic style of figure also encourages this simplicity. They are naked not only literally but also in their stripped back form — made up of simple strong limbs, Egyptian-like hands and feet, and faces that betray little individuality. However, this is not to say that they are without expression, as these characters are full of emotion; passion as the woman clings, pulling her partner towards her, yet tenderness as his head is lost in her shoulder, too close to kiss. Ecstasy is clearly an emotion, the experience of the sublime, yet here it is not with hot-headed obsession that it is found but with a deep and exalted calm, shown in the intense serenity of her face, eyes finally closed.

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