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Vorticism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

British artistic and literary movement, founded in 1914 by the editor of Blast magazine, Wyndham Lewis, and members of the Rebel art centre. It encompassed not only painting, drawing and printmaking but also the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein and the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn. Notable literary allies were Ezra Pound, who coined the term Vorticism early in 1914, and T. S. Eliot. T. E. Hulme’s articles in The New Age helped to create a climate favourable to the reception of Vorticist ideas.

The arrival of Vorticism was announced, with great gusto and militant defiance, in a manifesto published in the first issue of Blast magazine, which also included work by Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, William Roberts and Jacob Epstein. Dated June 1914 but issued a month later, this puce-covered journal set out to demonstrate the vigour of an audacious new movement in British art. Vorticism was seen by Lewis as an independent alternative to Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism. With the help of Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska and others, he used the opening manifesto pages of Blast to launch an uninhibited attack on a wide range of targets. Britain was blasted first ‘from politeness’, and its climate cursed ‘for its sins and infections, dismal symbol, set round our bodies, of effeminate lout within’. The Vorticists wanted to oust all lingering traces of the Victorian age, liberating their country from what they saw as the stultifying legacy of the past. In giant black letters, Blast’s inventive typography roared: ‘Blast years 1837 to 1900.’ Using humour ‘like a bomb’ to ridicule British inertia, which was preventing any realization that a new century demanded a bracing and innovative art, Blast cried, ‘We are Primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World …a movement towards art and imagination could burst up here, from this lump of compressed life, with more force than anywhere else.’

Ezra Pound declared in Blast that ‘the vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency. We use the words “greatest efficiency” in the precise sense—as they would be used in a text book of Mechanics.’ Wyndham Lewis put it another way when he recommended that a friend should think ‘at once of a whirlpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist’ (D. Goldring: South Lodge (London, 1943), p. 65). The ‘stillness’ of Lewis’s definition is significant. It sets Vorticism up in adamant opposition to Italian Futurism, although the British movement owed a considerable debt to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti for inspiring the exuberant typography of Blast and for realizing the importance of making art interpret the rapidly changing character of the modern world. The Vorticists wanted to place the machine age at the very centre of their work, and Blast proposed that they fill their art with ‘the forms of machinery, factories, new and vaster buildings, bridges and works’. They criticized the Futurists for making their paintings ‘too “picturesque”, melodramatic and spectacular, besides being undigested and naturalistic to a fault’. They also abhorred the rhapsodic romanticism of the Italian movement and rejected the Futurists’ emphasis on blurred movement in their attempts to depict the sensation of speed. Lewis and his allies sought clarity of definition, enclosing their forms with strong contours that often gave Vorticist pictures an almost sculptural solidity (e.g. Wyndham Lewis, Workshop, c. 1914–15; London, Tate; and William Roberts, Study for Two-step, 1915; London, BM). The containing line was a crucial element in Vorticism; even when the compositions took on an explosive force that threatened to burst the bounds of the picture-frame, the harsh lucidity of Vorticist design ensured that order prevailed. Exhilaration was an important part of their art, and Pound emphasized that the vortex itself was ‘a radiant node or cluster …from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing’.

Familiarity with the results of the Industrial Revolution made the Vorticists view the machine world with far less eager excitement than the Futurists. Their undoubted involvement with the age of mechanization was coupled with an awareness of its darker side. There is a curious innocence about Marinetti’s admiration for the racing automobile, whereas Lewis saw the machine-age metropolis as an ‘iron jungle’, a severe and ferocious place where city dwellers were dehumanized and diminished, as exemplified in The Crowd (c. 1915; London, Tate). Vorticist images possess a cool, clear-cut consciousness of the impersonal harshness of the 20th-century world, and in this respect they prophesy the destructive machine power that became so horrifyingly evident in World War I.

The onset of war meant that the Vorticists had very little time in which to implement the bold artistic programme they had outlined in Blast. But from 1914 to 1916 they did manage to produce an impressive range of images, which substantiated their claim to revitalize British art. Seven members of the movement contributed to the main section of the June 1915 Vorticist Exhibition at the Doré Gallery, London: Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Lewis, Gaudier-Brzeska, William Roberts, Helen Saunders (1885–1963) and Edward Wadsworth, who exhibited Enclosure startend. Several other artists were included in another section called ‘Those Invited To Show’, including Lawrence Atkinson, David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer (1892–1962) and the British Futurist Christopher Nevinson. Jacob Epstein was not represented but did have his drawings reproduced in Blast. Sculptures such as Rock Drill (1913–16) and Doves (1913; both London, Tate) show his affinity with the Vorticists’ preoccupations. In July 1915 the second issue of Blast appeared, a ‘War Number’ with an appropriately harsh monochrome cover bearing Lewis’s grim drawing Before Antwerp, and containing reproductions of works such as Helen Saunders’s Atlantic City (untraced, see Blast, 2 (1915), p. 57). However, with the death of Gaudier-Brzeska in the war and most of the other Vorticists away on active service, British Vorticism found itself overwhelmed by the conflict raging in Europe.

Pound tried to keep the spirit of the movement alive in London by writing supportive articles, publishing Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (London, 1916) and encouraging Alvin Langdon Coburn’s ingenious attempts to develop a form of abstract photography called Vortography. He also persuaded the New York collector John Quinn to purchase Vorticist works in considerable quantities and eventually to stage a Vorticist exhibition at the Penguin Club in New York in January 1917. When Lewis returned from the trenches, he hoped to revivify the Vorticist spirit, planning a third issue of Blast and regaining contact with old allies. But the whole context of pre-war experimentation had been dispersed by the destructive power of mechanized warfare, which persuaded most of the former Vorticists to pursue more representational directions thereafter. By 1920 even Lewis was obliged to admit that the movement was dead.

Richard Cork
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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