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