Summary of Vorticism
Vorticism blasted onto the London art scene, becoming England's first radical avant-garde group. Embracing contradiction, humor, and ostentatious rhetoric, the Vorticists celebrated the energy and dynamism of the modern machine age and declared an assault on staid British traditions in order to inaugurate a new era where art belonged to all. Rebelling against the genteel semi-abstractions then fashionable among the London bourgeoisie and championed by critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the Vorticists developed an abstract style with bold colors, harsh lines, and sharp angles to depict the movement of industrial life. Vorticism encompassed many media, including painting, sculpture, literature, typography, and design in an effort to transform how people interacted with the world. The horrors of World War I, however, dampened their idealization of the machine and dissipated the momentous energy of the group.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- When poet Ezra Pound named the group, he employed the image of the vortex to describe the creative energy brewing around this group of artists. The artists then elaborated on this metaphor of the vortex to animate much of their aesthetic theory. As Wyndham Lewis explained, "You 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." The vortex was also the site of artistic creation. Vorticist compositions rely heavily on diagonals that seem to splinter apart and yet remain solidly contained on the picture plane.
- Embracing the possibilities of the machine's energy, Vorticism drew on the fragmentation of Cubist composition and the movement championed by the Italian Futurists to develop a style of pared down geometry that evoked both dynamism and a still center.
- The Vorticists embraced the machine with all of its productive and destructive possibilities. They abstracted machine-age imagery in their compositions and used clean lines and bright colors to further suggest the hard edges and shiny surfaces of the machine. The horror and destruction of World War I caused many of the Vorticists to reformulate the understanding of the place of the machine in modern life, thus largely ending the movement.
Overview of Vorticism
Formed and named in 1914, the Vorticist group desired to unsettle England's Victorian attitudes toward art. Painter and author Wyndham Lewis founded the movement of artists and writers in an attempt to represent the energy and vitality of the modern era with what he described as "a new living abstraction." While Vorticism has been called the British version of the Italian Futurist movement, which shared similar influences, Lewis and poet Ezra Pound, who coined the name Vorticism, rejected this correlation.
Important Art and Artists of Vorticism
This tiny poem by Ezra Pound contains only one "image." While the poem is usually associated with Pound's Imagist era, in which he strove to a precise clarity without extraneous verbiage, Pound discussed the poem extensively in his 1914 essay on Vorticism. Here he elaborated on the relationship between Vorticist poetry and visual art:
"In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. [...]I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might [have] found a new school of painting, of "non-representative" painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in color."
This "new school of painting" is a reference to the Vorticist movement, which tended to abstraction and emphasized the use of form and color. Pound's short poem similarly emphasizes the careful arrangement of words to create a pared-back but highly vivid effect. It gives an impression of a moment of stillness in a whirl of motion in the busy Metro, recalling the Vorticist search for the static center of the moving vortex of life.
Epstein's Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' was born of the destruction wreaked by the First World War. In 1913, Epstein created a plaster cast of an abstracted human body - angular and hard - with an embryonic form in its abdomen and placed it astride an industrial mining drill. The result was a towering, menacing figure with great phallic power. It presented an image of the future of humanity as cyborgs, a celebration of the merging of man and machine, a vision of the frightening yet exciting possibilities made possible by the machine age.
As the devastating results of machine warfare in WWI became clear, however, Epstein's outlook on the future of humans and machines changed (in a way that was typical of many members of the Vorticist movement). As Epstein himself later put it in his autobiography: "I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein's monster we have made ourselves into...."
In response to his experience in the war, Epstein removed the figure from the drill and pared it in half, removing most of its limbs. He then cast it in bronze, and presented it on a plinth. Curator Chris Stephens suggests that Epstein "took an expression of masculine aggression and then emasculated it." Although war and the advent of the machine age promoted an aggressive masculine agenda, the result was mutilation and emasculation (through the loss and injury of a generation of young men). Epstein transformed the sculptural figure from an active perpetrator of penetrative violence to a victim of the violence it previously promoted.
Red Stone Dancer, one of Gaudier-Brzeska's most important works, encapsulates his ideas of pure form and Vorticist dynamism. Gaudier-Brzeska abstracts the body of a dancer into broad planes and organizes them in such a way that they seem to twist around each other. The figure appears to be in mid-movement, suggesting continual motion despite the solid feel of the stone. In a 1912 letter, the artist explained, "Movement is the translation of life, and if art depicts life, movement should come into art, since we are only aware of life because it moves."
The sculpture shows evidence of the artist's interest in the sculpture of African and South American cultures that he saw in the British Museum as well as his interest in Constantine Brancusi's abstract sculptures. Inspired by these examples, Gaudier-Brzeska developed a technique of Direct Carving that he felt was expressive of the contemporary age.
Ezra Pound, with whom Gaudier-Brzeska worked on a theory of Vorticist sculpture, claimed that the Red Stone Dancer was "almost a thesis of his ideas upon the use of pure form." In July 1913, Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska joined a circle of anarcho-individualists, and as art historian Mark Antliff notes brings a radical political orientation to Vorticism. Anliff argues that "central to Gaudier and Pound's vision of Vorticist sculpture was the metaphoric association of Direct Carving with the anarchist politics of direct action."
Useful Resources on Vorticism
- Vorticism: New PerspectivesOur Pickby Mark Antliff
- The Vorticistsby Mark Antliff and Vivian Green
- Blast: Vorticism 1914-1918by Jane Beckett
- Blast from the Past: The Vorticist MovementOur PickBy Richard Shone / The Guardian / June 5, 2015
- Long Live the VortexOur PickBy Wyndham Lewis / BLAST / 1914
- Women that a Movement ForgotBy Brigid Peppin / Tate Etc. / May 1, 2011
- BLAST! The Radical Vorticist ManifestoBy Chris Stephens / Tate Blog / June 1, 2011
- BLAST - The 2nd EditionBy Chris Stephens / Tate Blog / June 29, 2011
- Drawing the VortexBy Mark Antliff / Tate Etc. / May 1, 2011
- The Women Vorticists - Helen SaundersBy Chris Stephens / Tate Blog / July 6, 2011
- Epstein's Rock Drill Reveals the Emptiness of VorticismOur PickBy Jonathon Jones / The Guardian / June 14, 2011
- The Story of Jacob Epstein's Rock DrillBy Chris Stephens / Tate Blog / July 27, 2011
- A Most Modern Misanthrope: Wyndham Lewis and the Pursuit of Anti-PathosThe Guardian / January 23, 2001
- VorticismOur PickBy Ezra Pound / Fortnightly Review / September 1, 1914
- London, Literature and BLAST: The Vorticist as Crowd MasterBy Rod Rosenquist / Flashpoint Magazine