The Great English Vortex

Tate Britain’s Vorticism exhibition revisits one of English art’s most radical and yet mysterious movements.

Tate Britain’s Vorticism exhibition revisits one of English art’s most radical and yet mysterious movements.

"Vorticism ... was what I personally did and said at a certain period," wrote the painter and author Wyndham Lewis before the Tate's Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism exhibition in 1956 -- his attempt to explain what the avant-garde group, active in London between 1914 and 1917, actually stood for. Lewis has recently received renewed critical attention; Tate Britain's new display highlights the range of voices featured in the two issues of the Vorticist periodical Blast (which Lewis edited) and in its exhibitions in London's Doré Gallery in 1915 and New York's Penguin Club two years later.

Lewis's assertion appears outside the exhibition, but his narrative is immediately challenged by William Roberts's The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915 (1961-62). Roberts depicts the key figures more democratically: Lewis remains central, but several others are given equal prominence, including Ezra Pound, who gave Vorticism its name. Significantly, given Vorticism's emphasis on masculine power and Lewis's notorious misogyny, two female artists -- Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders -- burst through the door, but on entering, the viewer is confronted with a huge, strikingly phallic sculpture: Jacob Epstein's Rock Drill (1913-15), which, if not clarifying Vorticist principles, highlights their preoccupation with man's reshaping the earth with dynamic machinery.

This celebration of technology mastering the natural world led the Rebel artists -- as Lewis and his associates were termed after breaking with theBloomsbury artist Roger Fry -- to be closely linked with Italian Futurism, both by critics and the Futurist propagandist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. In this exhibition, which proceeds chronologically, Vorticism's birth is documented in a series of amusingly indignant communiqués, mostly written by Lewis and signed by others, distancing the new development from Cubism and Post-Impressionism.

Vorticism was characterised primarily by what it opposed: its manifesto, published in Blast's first issue (June 1914), contained few aesthetic precepts, providing instead a lengthy list of what the artists disdained. (Given the searing vitriol of his later novels, one imagines that many choices were Lewis's.) Above all, the Vorticists defined themselves against Futurism, which Lewis dismissed as Marinetti's "automobile and Nietzsche stunt", and had a complicated relationship with CRW Nevinson, who helped Marinetti (ubiquitous in London between 1910 and 1914) write The Futurist Manifesto Against English Art.

The manifestos in Blast differ from their Italian (and, though unmentioned here, Russian) counterparts not just in content but also tone: Marinetti's radical seriousness is replaced by self-effacing British humour. Their lists of those to "Bless" and "Blast" may feel somewhat arbitrary (like "In" and "Out" columns in fashion magazines) but they provide some idea of who the Vorticists actually liked. Their choices are surprisingly traditional, including Swift and Shakespeare: Lewis's 1913 illustrations for Timon of Athens are presented here as a crucial point in his stylistic development.

For all the marginal artists showcased -- the relatively unheralded Frederick Etchells, Edward Wadsworth and Dorothy Shakespear feature beside Lewis, Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska -- Nevinson emerges as the most intriguing figure (surely deserving his own exhibition), his occasional presence making his absence all the more conspicuous.

Nevinson's Bursting Shell, with dark triangles pointing towards a spiral (or vortex) which shatters the brickwork around it, offers an experimental perspective often lacking in the self-proclaimed Vorticist works. However, Returning to the Trenches, which Lewis allowed to appear in the "War Number" of Blast (July 1915), records Nevinson's shift towards a more realist aesthetic and suggests the underlying reason for the Vorticists' failure to capture the public imagination.

As Epstein conceived his Rock Drill (which he destroyed after its original exhibition -- the one here is a reconstruction) in autumn 1913, 439 miners died in an explosion at the Senghenydd Colliery in South Wales. Immediately before the First World War, certain avant-garde groups believed "ordinary" human lives dispensable in the quest for technological advance, and when conflict broke out, modern artists raced to enlist.

The horrors at the Western Front brought home the folly of placing mechanisation above all to Nevinson, working as an ambulance driver, as well as Epstein and his circle: suddenly, Marinetti's War, the World's Only Hygiene and the Vorticist celebration of industrial might looked more insulting than incendiary. The French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who moved to London in 1910 and became one of the best-known Vorticists, died at Neuville St Vast in June 1915: his letters, postcards and photographs feature below the manifesto he wrote for Blast's second issue, the announcement of his death added as a sad postscript.

Amidst the carnage, the Doré Gallery exhibition aroused little enthusiasm; before the second New York display in January 1917 (organised by the US collector John Quinn, whose support ensured a Vorticist legacy), the group had essentially dispersed. Lewis, Roberts and others enlisted or were conscripted, and the process of defining Vorticism through constant textual and visual practice was prematurely curtailed.

In the Tate's final room, devoted to the 1917 exhibition, one more voice emerges: Alvin Coburn, whose portraits of Lewis, Pound, Epstein and Wadsworth sit alongside his "Vortographs" - the first abstract photographs, made with interconnected mirrors fitted over a lens. These feel closer to the experiments of Man Ray and other Surrealist fellow travellers of the Twenties than Cubism or Futurism, and are the closest anyone involved came to exploring that most modern art form, film, which fascinated the continental avant-gardes but represents a strange absence not just in Vorticism but across British modernist culture.

Determined to distinguish themselves from all around them, with limited success, the work of the Vorticists remains an ill-defined combination of traditionalism, primitivism and Futurism. Yet Vorticism is still the most radical episode in English art history, more avant-garde than the often tepid Surrealism of the Thirties. This exhibition cannot clarify Vorticism's aims, but offers fresh insight into its composition, and suggests that even if it was too aggressive for war-weary audiences, it captured many more artists than Wyndham Lewis deigned to admit.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Carl Court/Getty
Show Hide image

To stop Jeremy Corbyn, I am giving my second preference to Andy Burnham

The big question is whether Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper will face Jeremy in the final round of this election.

Voting is now underway in the Labour leadership election. There can be no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner, but the race isn't over yet.

I know from conversations across the country that many voters still haven't made up their mind.

Some are drawn to Jeremy's promises of a new Jerusalem and endless spending, but worried that these endless promises, with no credibility, will only serve to lose us the next general election.

Others are certain that a Jeremy victory is really a win for Cameron and Osborne, but don't know who is the best alternative to vote for.

I am supporting Liz Kendall and will give her my first preference. But polling data is brutally clear: the big question is whether Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper will face Jeremy in the final round of this election.

Andy can win. He can draw together support from across the party, motivated by his history of loyalty to the Labour movement, his passionate appeal for unity in fighting the Tories, and the findings of every poll of the general public in this campaign that he is best placed candidate to win the next general election.

Yvette, in contrast, would lose to Jeremy Corbyn and lose heavily. Evidence from data collected by all the campaigns – except (apparently) Yvette's own – shows this. All publicly available polling shows the same. If Andy drops out of the race, a large part of the broad coalition he attracts will vote for Jeremy. If Yvette is knocked out, her support firmly swings behind Andy.

We will all have our views about the different candidates, but the real choice for our country is between a Labour government and the ongoing rightwing agenda of the Tories.

I am in politics to make a real difference to the lives of my constituents. We are all in the Labour movement to get behind the beliefs that unite all in our party.

In the crucial choice we are making right now, I have no doubt that a vote for Jeremy would be the wrong choice – throwing away the next election, and with it hope for the next decade.

A vote for Yvette gets the same result – her defeat by Jeremy, and Jeremy's defeat to Cameron and Osborne.

In the crucial choice between Yvette and Andy, Andy will get my second preference so we can have the best hope of keeping the fight for our party alive, and the best hope for the future of our country too.

Tom Blenkinsop is the Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland