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The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World
Tate Britain, London
14 June 2011 to 4 September 2011
The Tate Britain’s current exhibition gathers the Vorticist old boys (and girls) to London, where it all began almost a century ago. The retrospective recalls the visitor to a moment when the twin trends of nationalism and avant-garde modernism briefly intersected. In the years just prior to and during the First World War, a group of artists organised by Wyndham Lewis led an assault on traditionalism by simultaneously adopting and denouncing continental innovations. “Vorticism”, a term borrowed from Ezra Pound, began as Lewis’s answer to F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist movement. Lewis had become especially resentful of associations with Marinetti, reasoning that artists representing Britain, the nation that birthed the industrial revolution, owed nothing to the presumptuous Italian’s influence. These kinds of disputes characterized Vorticism as a school for insults, fight-picking, and expressivity. The youths were full of arrogance and brilliant energy.
Throughout the exhibition, one hears the hum of their works in conversation. The painting that greets the visitor at the door, William Roberts’s retrospective The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915, is very much in the spirit of a staged group shot, a Vorticist “last supper”. We see Wyndham Lewis presiding at the centre of a table; Ezra Pound looks pedantic with cane, coif, and green trousers; and, opposite Pound, Edward Wadsworth clutches a magazine “half a yard square, in steam-calliope pink,” Blast.
Just inside the first gallery, the opening salvos of Blast’s manifesto are printed on the walls, framing a huge reproduction of Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill. Epstein’s perfect man-machine straddles a massive industrial phallus, yoking primal force with mechanised efficiency. Further on, one finds another famous sculpture, Gaudier-Brzeska’s Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, a work both masterful and juvenile. From the front, it is totemic like an Easter Island head–an icon for a modern age; from behind, it’s a cock.
The exhibition’s continuous juxtaposition of text with other media reinforces what is probably Vorticism’s most important legacy, the fusion of the literary and the visual. Alongside heavy geometric sculpture, for instance, pages of Blast are revealed to be explosive feats of typography. Vorticist phrases appear sharp as imagist poems, bold as newspaper headlines. What we would call “graphic design” today was essential to the Vorticist visual language.
It comes as no surprise, then, when we see Vorticist paintings and drawings that fill the frame with angles and lines that look like letters. Wadsworth, in particular, manages to build whole cities with such shapes. And though the shapes can, at times, seem repetitious among the Vorticists, the use of color varies greatly from one artist to the next. Some, like Dorothy Shakespear, describe subtlety and texture in blues and greys, while others, like Lewis, tend to eschew all primary colors, delighting in garish pinks and browns. Experiencing the latter’s contrast of tight angular organization with weird off-tones is something like hearing a melody made of only sharps and flats.
Finally, there are the “vortographs”, billed as the first-ever abstract photographs. The lens used to create a vortograph fractures and distorts an image, producing a kind of cubist verisimilitude. While these are interesting contributions to the exhibition, the momentary fascination with the mechanical apparatus of the camera seems to overwhelm any lasting commitment to formal technique. Vortographs were novelties that didn’t manage to stay new.
Indeed, as a movement, Vorticism was markedly ephemeral. The onset of war cut short many associations, replacing revelry with tragedy. Gaudier-Brzeska fell in the trenches; his death notice appears in Blast’s “War Number”. Epstein’s brutal Rock Drill figure was recast as a vulnerable amputee, suddenly more human than machine. The Tate Britain’s exhibition admirably connects what is most vibrant, naïve, and poignant in the work that survives, providing the visitor a sense of continuity–the spectacle of a movement containing history.
Aaron Rosenberg graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, with an M.St in English in 2007. He is now studying for a D.Phil at Cornell University.