The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World

Tate Britain, 14 June – 4 September 2011

A question that must be put to all art of past epochs is this: Does it live? Can it still speak to us in some way? Is its presence a vital one? The best art has endured, even if it has suffered periods of neglect, and we do not need to make a list of names to prove it. Other works, other styles, lose their charge. They perish, like old rubber bands. You look at them, and they will not stretch to modern eyes, modern problems. They begin to look like part of a history which has little to tell us, a dead end of some sort, and the eternal task of the viewer – to breathe life into inert material, to make it mean something – seems very hard. Ossified into friable historical material, such work seems suitable only for stuffy, didactic display and button-down academic contextualisation, its earthly substance subject to ever-finer parsing by historians, who in these cases do their essential work like morticians diligently embalming a corpse.

The final journey a dead art must make – its passage across the Styx – is the historical show. Often an undignified affair, the deceased is forced to mime poses once struck in life. Exhibitions are reconstructed and heated disputes between protagonists are explained to earnest visitors in hushed tones, while letters, ephemera, sketchbooks and the like are all reverentially put on display like saints’ bones. The curatorial ferrymen ostentatiously take their obol amidst a flurry of hyperbolic praise for the unique charms and unrecognised importance of the departed. Hacks attend the wake in search of a free drink.

On the evidence of the current show at Tate Britain, not only has Vorticism ceased to be, but the question also arises of whether or not it was ever really alive in the first place. Certainly it cannot be said to be stylistically especially coherent, nor does it appear intellectually focussed, and there is no question that it is, in historical terms, but a backwater eddy of modernism. The contents of Blast have aged without anything much of major philosophical value having emerged from them. Dress it up how you will, but it contains none of the premonitory violence that electrifies the Futurist manifestos, little of their outrage and urgency, and none of the moral clarity or intellectual force that still energise Dada’s declamations. On this particular score Wyndham Lewis, for all his brilliance, was no Marinetti or Tzara. Though the sturdy typography of the journal still looks authoritative, the much-cited blastings and blessings are too bound by time and parochialism, and tend to look like a lot of rather inconsequential huffing and puffing.

Salt for the wound – this thin old stuff is supposed to be Britain’s only truly home-grown modernist movement, after all – is provided by the fact that most of the best things in the show are not by fully paid-up ‘Vorticists’ and share little with the ‘machine age’ aesthetic that is often said to be Vorticism’s defining feature. Epstein’s Rock Drill, present in both its shocking intact form via the well-known replica and in original as his later, mutilated version, is one of the great works of twentieth-century sculpture. It alone is probably worth the price of admission. But Rock Drill was completed in 1913, two years before the first Vorticist exhibition, and Epstein was at best a part-timer in Lewis’s conceit. He was not a signatory to Blast, and did not appear in either of the Vorticist shows that this exhibition weakly revolves around. Rock Drill is a major work, and speaks with terrible and complex eloquence about its time, and indeed about ours. Here as elsewhere, however, Epstein is a lot bigger than Vorticism, and the argument for the movement’s significance is actually undermined by its inclusion.

Gaudier-Brzeska, on the other hand, is someone who certainly was directly involved in shows and publications, and was a signatory to Blast, so for what it is worth we can certainly say he was a ‘Vorticist’ in the historical sense. But what does the work itself really have to do with the preoccupations of Lewis, or the brash and thrusting geometries of his painting and graphic work? The answer in most cases seems to be not much: these sculptures are in love with dense material and solid form, calling over their shoulder to the mysteries of Mesoamerican statuary and the primitivism of Gauguin, and looking toward the elegant formal concerns of Brancusi.

Ezra Pound loved the sculptor. The long memoir (Gaudier-Brezska, 1916) written by him after the sculptor’s death on the front at Neuville St. Vaast has been proved right in asserting that Gaudier-Brzeska was already a great artist when killed at the age of twenty-three. ‘It is part of the war waste,’ wrote Pound, and it is hard to disagree: tautly conceived, formally sophisticated, and leavened with a pinch of mischievous wit, the sculptures are a cut above. They certainly do not lack conviction, and perhaps as a result they do not look especially ‘Vorticist’, at least not in the way that seems to be indicated by the dozens of small and rather uncommitted geometric drawings and paintings that surround them. Like the Epstein, they look a lot stronger than their peers, and without much effort they join with faster-flowing channels of early twentieth-century modernism.

It seems that everything interesting here is interesting precisely because it transcends its surroundings. A handful of neatly robust prints by Edward Wadsworth are the final high point, and it is possible that they offer a clue as to why Britain’s only stab at a visual modernism of the energetic and abstract continental variety was such a damp squib.

The Wadsworth woodcuts, which appeared in the second and final Vorticist show at New York’s Penguin Club in 1917, are all, with the exception of one titled as an interior, images of industrial cityscapes. The only one with a specific title, Yorkshire Village (1914) – a rubble of ascending black and grey bricks, not without an echo of Braque’s proto-cubist L’Estaque paintings or Picasso’s Reservoir at Horta de Ebro of 1909 – tells us that these are cities of the industrial north. As images they are firmly within the British landscape tradition, and are successful primarily on those terms rather than within the vagaries of Vorticist aesthetic thinking. It is important that it is so because just as Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska (and Bomberg, come to that) succeed here despite and against the catacomb-dry historical context and the general intellectual poverty of the movement, so too does Wadsworth.

Wadsworth, in any case, also moved far from Vorticism. He would become one of the best of the British Surrealist painters (in which context he also often presented images which were essentially transformations of the landscape, when not oneiric still lifes). His adoption of an abstract and geometric visual language in these prints is turned to very different ends from those of his Vorticist fellow travellers. He uses them to play a stronger conceptual and aesthetic hand than they had, for he enters into conversation with a much more resonant British tradition: that of the landscape, and the landscape transformed by industrialisation.

Most of the great modernist movements on the continent, from the Impressionist eye on the new urban bourgeoisie at play to the Dadaist scream of outrage in the face of the Great War, were born in the crucible of the social changes wrought by industrialisation. This is especially true of those contemporaries and sometime friends of Lewis and his circle, the Futurists. Their special contribution was to have comprehended the centrality of the machine to modern life, and thereby to have understood the new importance of war to the modern world. (Beyond this, they also dimly registered the existence of connections between these things and the principles of an incubating fascism.) Italy, in particular, was late to industrialise (partly because it was also late to come into being), and we can see much of the violent assertiveness of Futurism as a direct result of those connected circumstances.

The Vorticists attempted to fall in with this new and radical pattern through geometric abstraction, blustery publications, and loose talk about war (thence the art historical insistence that what we see here is a ‘machine aesthetic’ when it seems to be nothing of the sort in any of these artists, bar early works by Lewis himself and Epstein’s Rock Drill). But the movement had a void at its heart, and this accounts for the intellectualist, dry and finally academic look of much of the work. There was no new confrontation with the furnaces of the modern world to be had in the England of 1914. The disaster of mechanised warfare was tumbling down upon them all, but the great initial conflict with modernisation and industrial capitalism – the conflict with which the continental movements and Futurism in particular were concerned to engage – had already happened. England had started down the path to massive industrialisation well over a century before, and artists, especially landscape artists, had already responded to it with great profundity. Vorticism, in following the Futurist model, was already anachronistic to its national context. No amount of magazines and pamphlets were going to bring it truly to life, just as no amount of displayed sketchbooks and letters can resurrect it now.

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