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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide