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20 June 2011

The Great English Vortex

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

By Juliet Jacques

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.

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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.

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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.