Modernist Monday: Vorticism

Vorticists achived a strong visualization of the headlong flight of Europe onto mechanical barbarity, an awareness of the brutalization of man by his irresponsible control of his environment that is lacking in the idealized art of Cubism and the romanticized art of Futurism.

From Nikos Stangos ed. Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Vorticism” Paul Overy, 108

This post follows the last two Monday posts to Britian, where the influence of modernist movements would spawn a local English group called the Vorticists.  They were interested in machines and urban modernity, like the Futurists, but represented their urban spaces in even more spare, abstract ways.

Join me after the break from more Vorticism.

Certain tendancies in modernist art forms, as seen in the last two posts on Fauvism and Cubism and Italian Futurism, promoted rebellion against the values of the previous century; facination with machinery; the city, energy and violence; and searching for new and pure forms in art (1). The social issues and changes happening in Italy andFrance after the turn of the century, were also happening in England.

At the begining of the teens, England was facing labour unrest with major strikes in 1910-1911, and the posibility of civil war over the fate of Irish independance. (2)  There was a militant sufferagette movement, where activists slashed paintings, went on hunger strikes, burnt down abandoned buildings, set fire to churches, and generally attacked male symbols of control. (3)  The English felt unsettled,  in every direction the stable truths of the Victorian era were begining to shift and disintigrate. The “‘English Sickness'” was begining to take effect; a societal feeling of declining civilization, putting people in an apocalyptic mood. (4)

It is in this milieu that the Futurist orator and thinker F.T. Marinetti came in 1910 to speak about his Futurist manifesto and splash himself accross the news papers. Appearing at the  Lyceum club in 1910, Marinetti praised English patriotism, individualism, fighting, sport and war.  He was less impressed with the English paradox of world leading invention while still preserving the past. (5) The dramatic, over-the-top character and words of Marinetti matched the British press’ excitement for shocks and controvercies.  Marinetti was, himself, impressed with the city stating “‘why, London itself is a futurist city!'” With “‘ brilliant hued motar buses,’ ‘enormous glaring posters,’… ‘and the  Underground, where ‘I got what I wanted,’…’-not enjoyment, but a totally new idea of motion, of speed.'” (6)

David Bomberg’s Mud Bath shows people in East London, dipping into a pool, in a shocking, unrepresentational way.  Bomberg was not alligned with any movement although he did show with the Vorticists.

London was the capital of the largest empire on earth and as such, an important place for all endevours, including the arts.  Many writers, poets and artists lived and worked in the city, visiting cafes and holding gatherings. American poet and writer Ezra Pound who just came to London described how,”‘ These new masses of unexplored arts and facts are pouring into the vortex of London.'” (7)  This ‘vortex’ was not only that coming in but what the urban experience of living in one of the advanced world centres did to a person’s perceptions.  Wyndham Lewis, an artist and writer put it this way,  “‘ a man who passes his days among the rigid lines of house, a plague of cheap ornamentation, noisy street locomotion, the Bedlam of the press, will evidently possess a different habit of vision to a man living amongst the lines of landscape.'” (8)

Perhaps the most important source of inspiration for artists in London were the exhibitions and collections of art from all around the world that would be shown in galleries and museums. Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists featuring Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse.  These artists’ was manipulation of devine human forms gave the public the impression Post-Impressionism was contemptious of the traditional order and desency. (9)  Between 1910 and 1914 major exhibitions of Fauvist, Cubist, Futurist, and Russian and German modern art, were held in England.  Along with visits from promenent thinkers and painters like Kandinsky and Marinetti, London was able to see the most recent continental artistic endevours.

A major thinker among the young artists in London was T.E. Hulme a writer who was influenced by Wilhelm Worringer about art theory.  Hulme felt that aimportant shift in influence was taking place with the soft, empathetic Greek and Renaissance art being replaced by stiff, cubical Egyptian, Byzantine and Indian art. This ‘archaic’ art could create new abstractions of simple geometric forms, complicated by ideas of minds and machinery. (10)  The influence of these ideas continued with young London based artists even after Hulme fell out with Lewis and his art crowd.  Hulme would eventually die in 1917, serving in the First World War.

Workshop, Wyndham Lewis’ take on urban architecture (11)

By 1914 divisions had grown among young artists and Wyndham Lewis was leading a group of them away from Roger Fry and from Marinetti.  The Futurist C.R.W. Nevinson, along with Marinetti wrote a manifesto called Vital English Art where they attacked conservatism in school (the British arts academy), commercialism of “decorative-effeminate” art ( Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops) and the sceptical English public who “‘adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, sweet, and mediocre, the sickly revivals of mediaevalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements.'” (12)  The first challenge to Nevinson came from a group of English and foreign artists who, were associates of Nevinson and Marinetti but had come upon a break with Futurism.  These artists produced a Manifesto against Futurism, signed by Richard Aldington, David Bomberg, Frederick Etchells, Ezra Pound, Edward Wadsworth, Lawerence Atkinson, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Cuthbert Hamilton, William Roberts and Wyndham Lewis. (13)  Lewis needed a break with the label of Futurist, and as part of developing his own group, he made public criticisms of Futurists.

Futurism was too emotional, and romantic.  They put too much humanity into the representations of mechanical objects and represented them too realistically. Rejected Futurist impressionistic representation of movement not hard clear enough, too descriptive (14).  Lewis, also felt Marinetti’s excitement over machines and speed was due to his Southern European provincialism.  Futurism, then, should not be the domain of the Southerner but of the Northern European nations that produce the advances and are not so amazed by machines because, in the North, they are ubiquitous (15).

Wyndham Lewis was not just accenting the negative, he was busy with his own concerns.  The project Lewis was working on with Pound and the others was a magazine of modern art called BLAST.  In BLAST, Lewis wrote the Vorticist Manifesto, along with contributions from Pound, Wadsworth, and Gaudier-Brezska.  The art featured in the first issue works which aspired to “propagate taut, powerful mechanistic forms and a pervading vitality in modern society.” (16)

Rock Drill, by Jacob Epstein, was not strictly a Vorticist sculpture, but as the piece suggests, the artist shared similar interests to his peers.  This is one of the classic examples of the mechanical and solid coming together as Hulme suggests.

To get some idea of the connection between machine and society an example provided by William Wees in his book, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde is instructive. He says, “The perfect Vorticist machine [is] the dynamo, whose work goes on out of sight, beneath a hard, implacable exterior. The Vorticists sought out ‘machine forms’ that…combined internal energy and external calm.” (17) The stone like surfaces of Vorticist works reflect Hulme’s influences and subjects, with a visual influence from Cubism and Futurism. The solid, abstract lines and colours, surround great spaces, with Lewis’ work in Blast, in particular, giving the viewer a feeling of vertigo, plunging into abyss of space(see Workshop above) (18).

Blast was only out a month before the beginning of the First World War in autumn of 1914.  During the next year the Vorticist wrote, and worked on art before there only exhibition in 1915.  The drama and publicity were all but gone.  The vortex of London life was shrouded in war. The Vorticists held an exhibition at Dore galleries in 1915, where Lewis further explaned this developing movement with attacks against other movements: ” ‘ By vorticism we mean (a) Activity as opposed to the tasteful Passivity of Picasso; (b) Significance as opposed to the dull and anecdotal character to which the Naturalist is condemned; (c) Essential Movement and Activity (such an energy of mind) as opposed to the imitative cinematography, the fuss and hysterics of the Futurists.'” (19)

Blast No.2, the War edition, came out in a much more somber, muted piece than the first issue.  Promising and popular sculpture Henri Gaudier-Brezska had died at the front and his death notice was included in Blast No. 2. Lewis’ reaction to Gaudier-Brezska’s death was emotional he said “‘This little figure was so preternaturally alive… that I began my lesson then: a lesson of hatrid for this soul-less machine, of big-wig money-government, and these masses of half-dead people, for whom personal extinction is such a tiny step, out of half-living into non-living, so what does it matter?'” (20)

Soon those who hadn’t joined the war effort at the beginning of hostilities were drafted.  Some would do war art, initially as propaganda, but eventually as documentarians.  Wadsworth would go on to design camouflage with his Vorticist patterns used on “dazzle-ships” (21).

Upon the end of the First World War, Vorticists and those around them were in a different world, having witnessed the destruction wrought by the very mechanization they had championed.  Many went in new artistic directions, away from modernism or to less drastic forms.  Nevinson renounced Futurism after his experiences during the war.  Lewis continued to write.  The vortex was gone however, the art feuds in the press, grand speeches and revolutionary spirit had gone out of the country.  The images and ideas would remain to provide an important marker in English modern art.

** Mouse over image for source info – click image for link

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End Notes

(1) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 212.

(2) Paul Edwards ed. Blast:Vorticism, 1914-1918. “‘A Laugh Like a Bomb’,: The History and the Ideas of the Vorticists” Karin Orchard 14-22 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.) 14.

(3) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 17-18.

(4) Paul Edwards ed. Blast:Vorticism, 1914-1918. “‘A Laugh Like a Bomb,: The History and the Ideas of the Vorticists” Karin Orchard 14-22(Burlington Vt: Ashgate, 2000.) 14.

(5) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 92.

(6) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 96.

(7) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 11.

(8) Richard Cork Vorticism and its Allies: [Catalouge of an exhibition at Hayward Gallery]. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974) 12.

(9) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 20.

(10) Richard Cork Vorticism and its Allies: [Catalouge of an exhibition at Hayward Gallery]. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974)13-14.

(11) Tate Gallery The Tate Gallery: an illustrated companion. (London: Tate Gallery, 1981.) 92.

(12) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 109.

(13) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 112.

(14) Tate Gallery The Tate Gallery: an illustrated companion. (London: Tate Gallery, 1981.) 91.

(15) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 113.

(16) Tate Gallery The Tate Gallery: an illustrated companion. (London: Tate Gallery, 1981.) 91.

(17) Tate Gallery The Tate Gallery: an illustrated companion. (London: Tate Gallery, 1981.) 191.

(18) Nikos Stangos ed Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Vorticism” Paul Overy P 106-110 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.) 106.

(19) H.H. Arnason, Marla F. Prather and Daniel Wheeler eds. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography 4th ed. (NewYork: Prentice Hall Inc. and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers 1998) 396.

(20) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 121.

(21) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 208.


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Modernist Monday: Vorticism

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