The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World Mark Antliff, Vivien Greene and Robert Upstone
Tate Publishing 2011
The Vorticist movement—if such it can rightly be called—was short-lived, but is widely seen as an important and influential reaction to the modernist experiments which emerged in Europe in the years immediately preceding the Great War. Largely dominated by Wyndham Lewis, the recent exhibition was another in a line which seeks to examine the significance of English artists in this period. It follows on from the recent shows on Wyndham Lewis's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, and the Camden Town Group at Tate Britain in 2008. However, this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue have a more difficult task in persuading the viewer that the movement really was the profound influence on twentieth-century English art that many, Wyndham Lewis himself included, believed it to have been.
Vorticism, as a group and a supposed movement, announced itself to the world with an exhibition at the Doré Galleries, London in 1915. This was followed in January 1917 with a collection of Vorticist work at the Penguin Club in New York. Prior to these official exhibitions, Lewis had helped to organise a 'Cubist Room' as part of An Exhibition of the Work of English Post-Impressionists, Cubists and Others at the Brighton Public Art Galleries. The publications Blast. No.1 (July 1914), and Blast: War Number (July 1915) were displayed alongside the various artworks. All of these events featured Lewis as a central figure, along with the poet Ezra Pound, who first coined the phrase 'Vorticist,' alongside the philosopher T.E. Hulme, who provided the movement with its theoretical basis.
One problem highlighted by the exhibition is that, of the three most impressive works on show, two are by artists who quite deliberately refused to belong to the group, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein, while the third is by the prodigiously talented Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in action in 1915. Bomberg's Mudbath, painted in 1914 and displayed here, was the highlight of his only one-man show, in July 1914 at the Chenil Gallery in London. Despite its lack of critical reception, it marked out the artist as the leading English painter of the time. Other Bomberg paintings from this period, Vision of Ezekiel (1912), Ju-Jitsu (1913), and In the Hold (1913-14) clearly demonstrate that he had absorbed lessons from the Cubists but had developed a style that, while experimental, was a genuine response to the dilemma posed by the gulf between abstract and representational painting.
Epstein's Rock Drill (1913-15), is, even in its reconstructed state, a fabulous revelation and shows beyond words just how the very nature of Vorticism as personified by Lewis and his associates was doomed to failure. An automaton figure sits astride a mechanical tripod, while the drill itself is a huge phallus-like structure which exudes power and strength. The armoured figure is watchful, as if intent on driving the drill deep into the floor beneath. One can almost hear the primitive engine of the drill roaring as the bit crashes into the rock, splitting it apart.
Epstein's great work screams modernity at every level. Prior to the machine age, drilling and breaking rock was amongst the hardest and most physical of work - note, for example, how many thousands of navvies were required to physically cut and lay our railway system in the nineteenth century. Here an automaton-like figure and his machine can do the work of dozens of men. This is the dream and fantasy of the modern age, a time where man will be released from the drudgery of physical labour. Yet it was this very dream which saw the end of Futurism and Vorticism and the ambitions of so many artists and writers of the period. Lewis was keen to distance himself from Marinetti and the Futurists, and especially their worship of the machine and high speed, yet Vorticism necessarily endorsed these ideas through its constant theme of modernity.
It is easy for us now to look back and judge the artists of the pre-war period as naïve and somewhat mistaken in their view that a bright new world was on the horizon. But, in so many ways, it must have felt like that. The motor car was about to be mass produced, steam ship travel had achieved a pinnacle of speed and luxury, and flying machines were extending their range. Modern weapons, not least the enormous Dreadnought battleships, surely meant that war would not be entered into lightly: the great powers were now balanced, and Europe had enjoyed a generation of peace. Surely a golden age was about to be unveiled. Within this context, and although partially a riposte to some of the tenets of Marinetti and Futurism, Vorticism set itself to be a modern movement which was quite deliberately about the present and future.
The outbreak of war blew this optimism to shreds and neither the Vorticist movement nor the individual artists involved ever fully recovered. The myth of modernity exploded around them. Rather than the salvation and blessing that they had expected, it was a curse which damned everyone and everything. The great machine age was the enabling factor which provided the means to kill and maim more men in a single day than at any other time in history - nearly 60,000 men were injured on July 1st 1916 at the Somme, with some 20,000 dead. Rock Drill was a prescient warning, that the new, more powerful machines would bring inhumanity with them. Yet the work also reminds us that great art can transcend the context of its production: it is such a powerful construction that it makes much of what surrounds it in this exhibition look second-rate.
An exception to this is the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a work which, like Janus, looks both forwards and back. The title indicates where Gaudier-Brzeska was looking into the past. 'Hieratic' is the generic term used to describe sculpture (often free-standing heads) produced in association with ancient Greek or Egyptian religious practice. While it should not be supposed that the artist was attempting to suggest that Pound was in any way a deity, the simplified curved lines and linear form represent an attempt to harness the majesty of ancient, primitive structures to contemporary stylistic influences, and it is hugely successful. The head could have been found buried in the sands of Egypt, yet is easily recognisable as the poet and spokesman of Vorticism. It is unmistakably modern. The interplay between ancient and new is immediately obvious in the way the artist has folded the hair into a raised centre on the forehead, a clear reminder of the symbols of Ancient Egypt found on the carved heads of pharaohs.
In comparison to these works, the rest of the exhibition struggles to complete. Lewis' paintings, while interesting in what they tell us about what Vorticism might represent, are clearly deliberate attempts to be both radical and daring, and really fail on both counts. The 1914-15 painting The Crowd is given prominence here. It is a fine painting which is prophetic in the way that the human figures are reduced to stick figures within an overpowering modern city landscape. Such alienation from the modern world would become a recurring theme within twentieth century art, and would reach its climax in the post-war work of artists like Otto Dix. Yet, despite these ideas, there is a sense in which Lewis seems to be self-consciously portraying himself as something which he is not. The painting is a decoration, an exercise in line and tone. Despite the rhetoric and the self-publicising, Lewis remained a painter who was unable to express personal emotion or intellectual commitment. He was the maverick who listened and absorbed the ideas of others without ever really revealing himself.
Through necessity, much is made here of Blast. Of all the products of Vorticism this is the one (or more accurately two) which both reveals the possibilities of what was attempted, but also lays bare the limitations. Blast 1 was published in July 1914, and like Bomberg's one-man show, naturally suffered from lack of attention due to the cataclysmic events unfolding at precisely the same time. Blast: War Issue appeared a year later, in 1915. Over time Blast has come to represent some kind of prophetic statement with respect to English, if not European art. Sadly, a close examination of the contents do not bear this out.
The physical appearance of Blast 1 is completely in tune with what Lewis intended. A bright pink cover with a diagonal title in black capitals announces the publication as new, different and exciting. Inside, however, confusion reigns. Modernist prints by Lewis, Wadsworth and Roberts sit alongside drawings by Epstein and lengthy texts by Lewis, including an almost incomprehensible play which would defy performance, the early poetry of Pound, and a genuinely interesting short story by Rebecca West. What grabs the attention—as was intended—are the BLAST and BLESS pages, situated near the front, garbled lists of likes and dislikes; people, events and merchandise which are (apparently) either Vorticist-friendly, or not. The lists now seen idiosyncratic, with little to suggest their rationale. Why, for example, BLESS castor oil and the hairdresser, and BLAST cod liver oil, sport and humour? Humour reappears in the BLESS list when qualified as English, and this is a common thread, the Englishness of Vorticism being emphasised throughout, a deliberate distancing from European art movements of the period.
The exhibition contains everything we need to make a thorough assessment of Vorticism, and the conclusion to be made is that the rhetoric which surrounded Lewis and his followers was not matched by the art they produced. This was another 'ism' of the the early 20th Century, one which set out to be modern, daring and different, but which ultimately failed because the foundations upon which it was based were essentially flawed. It was an art movement with a muddled theory, and almost no artists of any genuine power. As already demonstrated, the finest Vorticist art was produced by artists who refused to sign up with Lewis and his theorists.
Of course, what finally killed off Vorticism and other movements around this time which celebrated the modern world were the horrors of the Great War. Artists were not immune or impervious to the effects of the conflict. Artists were killed and wounded, their families destroyed, and the world in which they had previously proclaimed a golden mechanical future, lay in ruins. In 1920 Otto Dix painted the Skat Players, a disabled group of old officers playing cards with their prosthethic arms and legs. The next requirement for the mechanical engineers, after producing their weapons of destruction, was to replace the lost limbs of the combatants. This would have made a fitting end-piece to the exhibition, for it would have demonstrated not only how tame much of the art here was, but also how it became overwhelmed by the reality of the events of the time.--Paul Flux
Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum Nicholas Tromans
Tate Publishing 2011
For those who willingly subscribe to the view that all great artists are mad or bad (or a combination of both), this new biography and critical appraisal of Richard Dadd, the Victorian artist, murderer, and inhabitant of the most notorious English asylums of the period, raises many important questions about the relationship between art and the artist's mental health. Tromans closely examines the work that Dadd produced whilst in the care of the authorities and relates it to the mental therapy that he received. This makes for a fascinating study of a genuinely engaging artist who continues to interest, but also baffle, the modern viewer, and also brings into sharp focus the changing attitudes towards severe mental states.
Richard Dadd occupies a difficult position within the canon of English art, both for his work, which is out of character for the mid-Victorian period, and for his life, the last forty years of which were spent in the secure accommodation of Bethlem Hospital and Broadmoor. His life story is unusual reading, but as with all artists, it offers significant clues to understanding the art that he produced.
Dadd was born in 1817 at Chatham in Kent, the third son of Robert Dadd, a chemist. As a child he showed talent in drawing, and in 1837 he was admitted to the school of the Royal Academy. He won several prizes there over the next few years. Although famous for the fairy paintings that he completed later in life, as early as 1841 he exhibited works entitled 'Puck,' 'Titania Sleeping,' and 'Fairies Assembling at Sunset,' which suggests that this focus was not simply the product of his mental illness. Throughout his early career he showed great promise and was associated with many artists who became well known Victorian painters. Everything changed, however, with an extended tour abroad. In July 1842, on the recommendation of David Roberts (the renowned painter of Egyptian temples), he accompanied Sir Thomas Philips on a tour of Europe, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He returned nearly a year later, in May 1843, but was already showing signs of mental instability. On August 28th he cut his father's throat in Cobham Park, Kent, and fled to France. Two days later, on 30th August, he attempted to kill a fellow passenger in a carriage near Fontainebleau and was arrested. After some months in an asylum in Clermont he was extradited for murder, but back in England he was certified insane and deemed unfit to stand trial. He was admitted to the criminal asylum at Bethlem Hospital in Southwark and stayed there until 1864, when he was transferred to the newly constructed Broadmoor Hospital. He remained there until his death in 1886.
Tromans' book adopts a chronological approach, and the opening chapters detail Dadd's education and his formative 1832-33 travels in Italy, Greece and the Near East. The book becomes fascinating when the author takes the unusual step of relating the treatment of the unstable artist to the wider issue of mental illness in the mid-nineteenth century and its transformation. Dadd was first sent to Bethlem hospital. Even the name of this institution is significant. 'Bethlem' is an abbreviation of Bethlehem, but was more commonly and notoriously known as 'Bedlam,' a word now used to mean chaos and disorder. In the eighteenth century Bedlam was a place of entertainment, where the well-to-do would pay to see the mad at play. However, as the author explains in some detail, serious changes had begun by the 1840s, when Dadd entered the system. Rather than simply accepting the inmates as incurably insane, doctors were beginning both to question the often inhumane treatment of restraint and confinement, and search for possible causes. This was crucial for Dadd, since almost from the beginning of his incarceration he was allowed access to paint, canvas and drawing materials.
Tromans' narrative centres upon two interlinked themes: the changing nineteenth century attitudes to those classed as insane, especially the sub-group to which Dadd was assigned (namely the 'criminally insane'), and to what extent the art which Dadd produced reflects his mental instability. Modern medical practice's use of art as a kind of psychotherapy that may reveal the inner workings of a disturbed mind is, of course, never very far away in discussions of this kind. However, Tromans is very careful not to make assumptions or to claim too much. In this he is helped by deflecting attention from Dadd's most iconic work, The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke, to a more detailed examination of his lesser known paintings. With reference to several of these pieces, Tromans argues that not only are the subjects of the paintings themselves illuminative, but that the works' stylistic characteristics are the result of Dadd's physical, and mental, removal from a 'normal' artistic environment.
All artists must necessarily consider their audience, even if they seek to dismiss their views as irrelevant or misguided. This is a concern of those who wish to fully understand Dadd's art because in both a practical and artistic sense, Dadd had no audience. He had no studio or patron, no colleagues with whom to compare himself or argue, no critics to dismantle or celebrate his work. Although his work occasionally appeared on the art market, most of it remained either within the domain of the hospital or in the possession of those in charge of it. For example, Alexander Morison (Consulting Physician at Bethlem from 1835 until 1852) owned several of his works, and in the year of his retirement had Dadd paint his portrait. This painting is a strange concoction of a landscape that Dadd could never have seen (apparently based on a sketch by Morison's daughter Ann) and the elderly figure of Morison, whom Tromans suggests looks more like an undertaker.
In the preceding years Dadd had concentrated on works which looked back to his fateful tour of 1842-43. These paintings--Caravanserai at Mysala, View in the Island of Rhodes and the large canvas Flight Out of Egypt -present a graphic realisation of Dadd's alienation from the real world in which he existed. Painters of all kinds re-interpret the world through their own experience, but in these works Dadd has to rely on memory and his uncertain artistic vision. These paintings are amongst the most revealing of his predicament: alone within a secure institution, but capable of developing images that are both the product of his mental state and his reaction to it. Tromans succinctly describes this dilemma in these terms: "Patterns and meanings existed that could not be accommodated to the gaze of the artist, trained to believe that his or her eyes alone could capture the truth. Isolated at Bethlem, with nothing to look at now but brick walls, Dadd almost appears to mock the authority of vision."
In 1852 Bethlem hospital appointed William Hood as its first resident Physician-Superintendent. He was very much influenced by John Conolly, the advocate of non-restraint methods of care for the mentally ill, and within a few months conditions within the institution began to change, although for those like Dadd in the secure areas for the criminally insane the changes must have, of necessity, been slight. Hood viewed insanity as a complex combination of circumstances which involved the whole personality, not simply as a result of specific events or illness. He believed that persuading his patients to talk about their condition, and to challenge their view of themselves and the world, would lead to a healthier situation. By 1856 Dadd had been moved to more comfortable surroundings and his artistic output became more varied, moving away from faintly remembered Oriental landscapes to more expressive figurative works. One of these, The Child's Problem of 1857, is particularly notable in that it represents a move into a realm where we are required to unravel meaning from what seems, on the surface, a deceptively simple subject. A child, a ruff around his neck, peers over a table top upon which lies an abandoned chess game, showing 'White to play and mate in two.' Is this the child's problem, or is it a problem set by the child? Or is the problem the sleeping figure whom the child is trying to rouse? Confusion is added by background references to the slave trade, with the symbol of the Anti-Slavery Society on one side and a slave ship on the other. Obviously Dadd would have sympathised with those suffering in slavery, but it had been abolished in this country more than thirty years before. Or perhaps the problem is the child himself, with the wild stare indicative of some kind of mental confusion or even terror. Whatever the solution, if indeed there is one, Dadd demonstrates that he is capable of instilling into his work unsettling mystery which might be a reflection of his inner state, of turmoil which he could not express in any other way. Over the next few years Dadd went on to complete his best known works, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke between 1855 and 1864, and Contradiction: Oberon and Titania between 1854 and 1858.
These two works are by far the most ambitious of Dadd's career and are related both in subject matter and in the circumstances of their production. Contradiction was painted for Dr. Hood while The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is inscribed on the back as for George Haydon, the Steward of Bethlem from 1853 and Hood's primary assistant. Both pictures are firmly positioned within the 'fairy' genre, but are difficult to fully explain. Much has been written about these works and they are without doubt the high point of Dadd's art. Tromans examines them in great detail and skilfully draws out the Shakespearean themes that are the starting points of both pictures. He does his best to explain the many layers of significance which can be suggested, but ultimately, like all who attempt to disentangle these most difficult works, he is overwhelmed by their complexity, urging us to simply accept them as the product of an artist whose confusing iconography, source material and environment mean that they will probably never be fully understood. Both have clear meaning in relation to their central themes, but it is in the minutiae of the details that confusion reigns. Dadd seemingly created worlds within worlds, ever smaller and more complicated, connected together but also independent. In a later poem, or more accurately a rhyming monologue, which he called Elimination of a Picture & its Subject -called the Master-Feller's Master Stroke, there is an attempt to explain, but the rambling text does more to confuse than enlighten. That is, until the final lines where Dadd reminds us of King Lear's statement that "nothing can be made out of nothing" when he writes:
But whether it be or be not so You can afford to let this go For nought as nothing it explains And nothing from nothing nothing gains.
Tromans concludes this fine book with a brief account of Dadd's time in the newly built asylum, Broadmoor. It was there that he died in January 1886, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the hospital cemetery. It was not until the Tate acquired The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke in 1963 that his art became widely known, and as Tromans accurately states, this picture is now one of the most popular in the gallery. But, despite the well-researched detail contained within this volume, Dadd's art remains elusive.
Mental instability and great art are now almost irrevocably intertwined, although the connection, it can be argued, is less about the art and more about our perception of the artist as someone who is on the outside of 'normal' society. This book demonstrates on almost every page how dangerous it can be to make assumptions when searching particular works for revelations of the mind's workings. Dadd's art is fascinating in its own right, not just because of the unusual circumstances of its production. This book reveals many of its secrets but, thankfully, much mystery still remains.--Paul Flux