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Blasting beyond Britain.

A Fortnightly Review of

The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World

Tate Britain Gallery, London.
Through 4 September 2011.

By Andrew Thacker.

FOR A LONG TIME, Vorticism has been understood as the only significant avant-garde art movement that emerged in Britain in the years immediately prior to the First World War, a period when many artistic ‘-isms’ emerged across continental Europe, including Cubism, Futurism, and Post-Impressionism. It was only with the publication of the modernist little magazine BLAST, in 1914, and the First Vorticist Exhibition at the Doré Galleries in London in 1915, that a similarly aggressive and confrontational art movement appeared on British shores, led by the self-styled ‘enemy’ painter and writer, Percy Wyndham Lewis.  With Vorticism abstract modern art had arrived in Britain.

Ezra Pound, in a 'vortograph'.

The current retrospective at the Tate Gallery offers the most important and detailed account of Vorticism since the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1974.  It also offers something of a corrective to the standard story of Vorticism sketched above by including fascinating information on Vorticism’s early origins in an exhibition in Brighton, along with a Vorticist exhibition held in America in 1917, and a widening of the focus away from the work of Lewis.  Although Lewis was later to claim that ‘Vorticism was, in fact, what I, personally, did and said at a certain period’, this show also features prominently work by Jacob Epstein, the female Vorticists Helen Saunders, Jessica Dismorr, and Dorothy Shakespear, as well as the photographic experiments – Vortographs – carried out by Alvin Langdon Coburn in collaboration with his fellow American, the poet Ezra Pound. And although Vorticism is rightly called a British movement, it was, as was so often the case with modernism in this country, populated with many artistic exiles, such as the Polish sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Americans such as Ezra Pound and Epstein.

INDEED, THE EXHIBITION makes a bold opening statement: the first room is devoted to Birmingham Art Gallery’s reconstruction of Epstein’s Rock Drill, which unnervingly blends the artist’s interests in fertility and industrial production. I was intrigued to notice that the name of the manufacturer of the commercial drill used by Epstein, ‘Holman Bros Ltd Camborne England’, is still clearly visible on the ‘legs’ of the piece. The exhibition then follows a rough chronology, with a useful overview of the central figures in the modern art world of London in the years 1912-14. We can see how Vorticism emerged with Lewis’s Rebel Art Centre as a counterblast to the Italian Futurists and the French Cubists – even though the differences between such movements may have seemed, to outsiders at least, marginal: an initial prospectus for Lewis’s Rebel Art Centre even described itself as the ‘Cubist Art Centre and School.’

Blast, No. 1.

One of the most lasting Vorticist objects has been the magazine BLAST, the ‘Review of the Great English Vortex’ of which there were only two issues. A room in the exhibition devoted to it contains many of the works of art reproduced in its pages, including Edward Wadsworth’s Cape of Good Hope and Lewis’s Timon of Athens. It is also a nice touch to include copies of the reprinted BLAST for visitors to examine, although the photocopied pages blutacked to the walls reminded me somewhat of spaces devoted in galleries to children’s activities!  Perhaps the curators were reminded of some of the bewildered remarks of the contemporary British press upon the first Vorticist exhibition, such as the Daily Mail’s comment that ‘Almost any child between the ages of eight months and three years can be a first rate Vorticist if it [sic] is given some lightly coloured paints, bottle of blacking and mama’s new white tablecloth.’

The Mud Bath. (Bomberg)

SUCH COMMENTS, OF COURSE, fail to do justice to the many rich and complex works produced under the Vorticist umbrella: Nevinson’s Marching Men of 1916 shows vividly how Vorticism tackled the destructive dynamism of the First World War; while David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (which seems a little cleaner than the last time I saw it in the Tate) demonstrates how Vorticism developed the Futurist interest in energy and abstraction and turned it in a new direction, with cleaner lines and primary colours that point to many developments in modern art later in the twentieth century.  Lewis’s The Crowd, a seminal depiction of the way in which modern urban experience subjugates both the individual and the mass – while stimulating the vision of the artist – dominates the room devoted to the Doré Galleries exhibition of 1915, and rightly so, as it is key work in the development of modernist art in this country.

Red Stone Dancer. (Gaudier-Brzeska)

Some of the very best Vorticst works were its sculptures, and the idiosyncratic work of Gaudier-Brzeska is well-represented here, including the faintly preposterous phallic head of Pound and the rather more subtle and elegant Red Stone Dancer.  Some great Epstein sculptures in green serpentine, such as the Female Figure of 1913, continue the high standard in this medium.  Importantly, it was the sculptural work of Vorticism that Pound was to praise so highly – in a series of articles for another little magazine, The Egoist – and the work of the sculptor upon stone was to offer Pound a stimulating metaphor for his own poetic carving upon language.

THE FINAL ROOM is devoted to the exhibition held at the Penguin Club in New York in 1917 and is an intriguing way to finish.  The show was organised by Pound, while based in London, and the Irish-American patron and collector, John Quinn.  The important role in the story of modernism played by patrons such as Quinn has become more well-known to scholars and critics over the last twenty years, and although the Penguin Club exhibition received little press attention in America, it indicates yet again just how modernism was entangled with the concerns of economics and a commodity culture that, at times, its experimental formalism seems to oppose. Quinn added a number of key Vorticist works to his own personal collection, many of which then found their way into American collections after his death in 1927, thus ensuring a presence for the movement in America.

Wyndham Lewis.

Lewis later argued that the horrors of the First World War ended the appetite of the British public for abstract art and, returning from his own service as a gunner in the war, he went ‘underground’ in the 1920s lamenting how Vorticism, as the first English avant-garde, was ‘blasted’ aside by the larger guns of the military conflict across Europe.  However, it is useful to be reminded both of the energy and excitement that Vorticism exemplified and of how its ‘blasting’ of the staid aesthetic norms that ruled in London in 1914 spread beyond the borders of an England that was described in the first issue of BLAST as an ‘industrial island machine, pyramidal’.


Andrew Thacker is Professor of Twentieth Century Literature at De Montfort University, Leicester, the co-director of The Modernist Magazines Project, and author or editor of several books on modernism, including The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms (2010) and The Imagist Poets (2011).

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One Comment

  1. Alan Wall wrote:

    Henri Gaudier was actually French, not Polish, and he died fighting in the French army during the Great War. He changed his name from Gaudier to Gaudier-Brzeska to acknowledge the large part played in his life by the Polish woman Zofia Brzeska, whom he met in a Paris library, and subsequently co-habited with in London.

    Tuesday, 11 October 2011 at 14:39 | Permalink

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