The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World

by Sue Hubbard

Tate Britain until 4th September

Blast It was the modern art movement that brought London, if not quite kicking and screaming, then rather reluctantly out of its Edwardian gentility into the 20thcentury. Most people had never seen a Cézanne or a Van Gogh. The continental ‘isms’ of Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism were more likely thought of, if they were thought of at all, in the manner of foreign food. Something best kept ‘over there’, safely on the other side of the Channel. Vorticism with its continental influences was to change all that.

During the Edwardian period (1901-10) mainstream British culture was vehemently isolationist and the modern art scene tiny. There was a small avant-garde that revolved, on the one hand, around the Bloomsbury Group – Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and the artists of the Omega Workshops with their French inspired aestheticism and there was the gritty, more socially conscious Camden Town Group that collected around Walter Richard Sickert. But mostly the art establishment, dominated by the Royal Academy, was inward looking and mildly xenophobic.

[Photo: Blast No. 1: Review of the Great English Vortex, June 20, 1914 (Edited by Wyndham Lewis), The Poetry Collection, State University of New York at Buffalo, © Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis by kind permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity).]

Between November 1910 and January 1911, the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, organised by Fry at the Grafton Galleries introduced an incredulous British public to painting by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. It caused a massive rumpus. Two years later Fry organized the Second-Post Impressionistic Exhibition: British, French and Russian Artists that included Picasso and Matisse. These exhibitions were to mark the gradual acceptance of European art within these islands. But it was during the summer of 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Europe plunged into war, that Vorticism stormed into London with a whiff of Italian Futurism smoking at its heels. Waving its manifestos it punctured the genteel upper class experiments of the Bloomsbury group, whose own artistic and sexual boundaries were being tested by Lytton Strachey on a more microcosmic level when, on noticing a stain on Virginia Woolf’s dress, he enquired rather peremptorily whether it might be semen.

Now, with its heady mix of militarism, arrogance, bombastic slogans and phrasemaking, its jagged angles, excitement and love of speed, Vorticism is the subject of a major new exhibition at Tate Britain. Brought together by the belligerent ego of Wyndham Lewis the movement became the focus of major (and diverse talents) such as Jacob Epstein, the poet Ezra Pound who gave it its name, T.S. Eliot and Henri Gaudier-Brezeska – one of the great talents lost to the First World War who died in the trenches at the age of 23. Documenting this period has proved problematic when artists such as Edward Wadsworth and William Roberts went off to fight only to discover, on their return from the Great War, that many of their paintings had been either lost or destroyed.

Although Wyndham Lewis initially worked with Fry’s Omega Workshops to create Modernist home furnishings to introduce the moneyed classes to Modern art and design, he fell out with Fry over Fry’s apparent dishonesty concerning a commission form the Daily Mail to create a Post-Impressionist room at the annual Ideal Home Exhibition. Lewis took his damaged amour propre and the artists Cuthbert Hamilton, Jessie Etchells and Edward Wadsworth and set up a rival avant-garde group, the Rebel Art Centre. In so doing he dammed the Omega Workshops and the Bloomsbury set: “As to its tendencies in Art, they alone would be sufficient to make it very difficult for any vigorous art-instinct to long remain under its roof. The idol is still Prettiness, with its mid-Victorian languish of the neck, and its skin is ‘greenery-yallery’, despite the Post-What-Not fashionableness of its draperies” adding, for good measure, on another occasion that “Post Impressionism is an insipid and pointless name invented by a journalist [Fry], which has been naturally ousted by the better word “Futurism”in public debate on modern art.”

This new avant-garde, an uneasy alliance between the Lewis and the Sickert groups, was to be confirmed in the Cubist Room of a mixed show in the Brighton Public Art Galleries under the snappy title: An Exhibition of the work of English Post-Impressionists, Cubists and others. The magazine Blast was its mouthpiece where, in the first issue, Pound claimed:‘The vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.’ This was the era of the manifesto and Blast borrowed from the propagandist style of the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti, whose manifesto was launched in 1909, and from Apollinaire’s L’Antitradtion futurist. Manifeste-synthèse (Futurist Anti-Tradition Manifesto) published in Italian in 1913 in the Futurist newspaper Lacerba.

From 1909 to 1918 Wyndham Lewis and his associates struggled to establish a distinct identity for their art within modernism. Blast with its futurist typography and its surreal polemic veered between blasts and blessings: “Blast the years 1837 to 1900! Blast the abysmal inexcusable middle class!” “Bless Bridget Berrwolf Bearline Cranmer Byng Frieder Graham The Pope Maria de Tomaso…”. Published as a response to Marinetti’s attempt to assume leadership of the Rebel Art Centre the young French sculpture Gaudier-Brzeska was a signatory, though Jacob Epstein, whose Rock Drill is often seen as the quintessential Vorticist work, was not and his involvement with the group remained altogether more tenuous. Yet Blast’s legacy has been enduring; it has been an influence on everything from contemporary text-based artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay to concrete poets and punk magazines.

Yet the quarrel with Marinetti and Futurism has tended to obscure the fact that Vorticism was a genuinely groundbreaking British avant-garde movement. The ‘masculine’machine aesthetic was to ‘blast away’ the decadent ‘feminine’ culture of Edwardian England in favour of a purifying hardness. This thinking was encapsulated in a lecture given by the philosopher T.E Hulme on ‘Modern Art and Its Philosophy’ in January 1914 where he spoke of what was ‘austere, mechanical, clear cut, and bare.’

This exhibition at Tate Modern brings together over 100 works, including David Bomberg’s painting The Mud Bath, 1914with its bold zigzags and sculptures such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s monumental and priapic Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound 1914 – a fusion of Easter Island primitivism and the sort of phallic power that was to be embraced by both Pound and Lewis in their subsequent espousal of Fascism. This is the dark side of Vorticism and one not sufficiently explored here. For despite the remark by the art critic Richard Cork (who was instrumental in the movement’s rediscovery in the early seventies) that neither Pound nor Lewis “could be considered Right-wing at the time. They were simply saying that the old Victorian culture no longer worked, that art had to come to terms with the age of the machine,” this ignores Lewis’s puerile Nietzscheanism, his casual fascism and misogynist thinking that blares from every page of his war mongering, yet brilliantly experimental novel,Tarr.

Yet despite this political amnesia the exhibition is excellent on the importance of the previously ignored transatlantic exchange of ideas that influenced the Vorticists and highlights new research that examines the only two Vorticist exhibitions mounted during the lifetime of the group: one in London at the Doré Gallery in 1915 and the other at The Penguin Club New York in 1917 facilitated, with the help of Ezra Pound, by the visionary collector John Quinn. The Tate is also showing the rarely seen Vorticist photography of Avin Langdon Corbon, claimed as the first ever abstract photographs, and a number of newly revealed works by key women Vorticists such as Jessica Dismorr, Dorothy Shakespeare and Helen Saunders.

But the main success of The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World is that it underlies the electrifying force and vitality of this movement and the profound effect that it had on the modernisation of the visual arts in this country. It was one of Britain’s most exciting and genuinely radical moments in art that swept away cosy Edwardian assumptions of drawing room prettiness. Yet by the time the first Vorticist exhibition took place in June 1915, the slaughter of the First World War was well under way and the idealisation of the machine simply looked, at best , naive; an apology for boy’s toys. Technology, it seemed, was not going to provide the western world with some bright Utopian future but leave millions of dead on the battlefields of Europe.

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