A new Tate Britain exhibition is taking a timely look at Britain’s pioneer modernist movement. Its title, The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, tells you all you need to know about the ambitions of its bright-eyed founders.
Jack Watkins explores this little-known corner of art history…
The European art world of one hundred years ago was ‘ism’ crazy. On the heels of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, there was Fauvism and Expressionism, Cubism, Tubism, Constructionism and Futurism – to name just a few, emanating from different parts of the continent or linked to specific artists. It was only to be expected that a group of bright young chaps in London should get together and decide that Britain needed an ‘ism’ of its own – hence the birth of Vorticism in the summer of 1914. Unfortunately, along came the First World War and the impetus of the movement went up in flames. Today it’s just a footnote among the ‘isms’. Tap your average gallery-goer on the shoulder, and they’ll make a pretty good stab at explaining what Cubism was about, but the Vorticists…?
Almost a century after the movement’s arrival, then, the Tate Britain exhibition is long overdue. Enter the world of Percy Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. What you’ll immediately notice about those names is that many of them were not British. As the show is at pains to demonstrate, Vorticism wasn’t, after all, some parochial little British ‘ism’, but drew much of its energy from the connections of its associate members with Europe and America. Its fascination with movement, machinery and the modern world in general was the well-spring of its senior sister movement, Italian Futurism.
To return to our baffled gallery-goer, though, who were the Vorticists – and what were they about?
The first thing that you see writ large on the exhibition walls before a reconstruction of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (and just how alien did this weird insect-like specimen seem in 1914?) are the grand declamatory statements from Blast, the Vorticists’ short-lived journal, with its radical typography and shocking pink cover, through which they gave vent to their motivations. This was an intellectual and literary movement as much as a visual one, and Blast pronounced upon everything. Never was sweeping generalisation deployed so shamelessly: ‘The English Character is based on the Sea’… ‘The Modern World is almost entirely Anglo-Saxon in its Genius’… and so it rages on. Maddeningly inconsistent, it attacks the fabled English ‘sense of humour’ at one point, and later blesses it. Stories by Rebecca West and Ford Maddox Ford were included too.
It’s easy to sneer at Blast’s student rag intensity of now (you can read facsimile copies in the exhibition) but the pages bristle with barely containable energy even after all these years. Vorticism burst out of frustration with the cultural inertia of the Edwardian period and aimed to jerk people out of their dull, processed reactions and sentimentality, and to spark a reconnection with the elemental and the primitive, while embracing the dynamism of industrial change.
Ezra Pound, the American poet and critic who was one of the group’s cheerleaders, defined the vortex as ‘that point in the cyclone where energy cuts into space and imparts form to it’. If that still leaves you baffled, probably it wasn’t intended to provide easy answers. While other radicals of the time – Bloomsbury Group painters like Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, or the Camden Town painters led by Walter Sickert – also broke with traditional pictorial values, they still offered some sort of narrative to grab hold of. Vorticism, by contrast, with its distorted, de-personalised bodies, its geometrical forms and angles, dragged you kicking and screaming into the world of 20th century abstraction. Brzeska’s Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound may have the simple, spare massiveness of an Easter Island figure, but paintings like Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd and The Workshop make few concessions to the man-on-the-street seeker of accessibility.
Lewis was Blast’s editor, the archetypal angry young man – a controversial figure to a later generation for his embrace of Fascism, but a major player nonetheless. His own take on Vorticism was thus: ‘Think of a whirlpool… At the head of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’
Lewis had exhibited with the Camden Town Group and worked alongside the Bloomsburies as a member of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, which had specialised in artsy household furnishings for the well-to-do. True to form, he’d soon fallen out with them, however, and in Blast denounced the Omega as ‘Mr Fry’s curtain and pin cushion factory’.
In truth the Vorticists’ natural bed-fellows were the Italian Futurists, with their angry embrace of machinery, but Lewis could be bitchy about them too. In fact, it was Futurist leader FT Marinetti’s Manifesto, published in The Observer, listing rebel artists such as Lewis and Gaudier-Brzeska among his disciples, that stimulated the furious assertion of independence and the formation of the Vorticist group. Marinetti, disappointed, concluded that the English lacked both passion for the future and the thirst for revolution. Lewis simply attacked Marinetti’s ‘limited imagination’ in Blast.
Of course, such exchanges read like pointless intellectual skirmishes now. The one signed-up British member of the Futurists, Christopher RW Nevinson, never joined the Vorticists, yet three of his paintings featured in the exhibition make apparent his natural fellowship. Bursting Shell recaptures the effects of an explosion and, with its seering lines, might be a Vorticist motif. Marching Men combines the Vorticist love of angles with the Futurist flair for movement. The Arrival is a visual essay in the ability of Futurists and Vorticists to find beauty in dislocation, at the dawn of internationalism and the age of transatlantic travel.
Unsurprisingly, despite the eloquence of its spokesmen, critics reacted with incomprehension to much of the Vorticist output, and to abstract artists in general. The movement was certainly short-lived. It only ever had one major exhibition, in 1915, and Blast was limited to two editions. After you leave the exhibition galleries, the picture facing you on the wall – The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel – is by William Roberts, who was but 20 when the group enjoyed its brief flowering. In Roberts’ strange, almost cartoon-like style, it shows the major figures: Pound (discernible by his massive pompadour), Lewis and a boyish Roberts himself, seated around a table in the London restaurant, in seemingly amicable discussion, several members clutching copies of Blast. Soon, though, most of these figures would have signed up for the war effort – Gaudier-Brzeska was actually killed in the fighting – and the movement would begin to wane.
Two years after the war Lewis officially pronounced Vorticism dead. It was the first British movement to truly embrace Modernist ideas, though, and the reverberations caused by its break with the past can still be felt today.
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World continues at Tate Britain until 4 September.
See www.tate.org.uk/britain or call 020 7887 8888 for more info.
Ian Rastrick Fine Art in St Albans specialises in work of this era