Vorticism - History and Concepts
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.
Beginnings 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.
Lewis himself was, by most accounts, an iconoclast and a visionary, but also a deeply unpleasant person. The modernist author Ernest Hemingway described Lewis as having the eyes "of an unsuccessful rapist." While he later recanted his earlier views, Lewis' reputation suffered due to his antisemitism, Fascist leanings, and his favorable biography of Adolph Hitler, which he wrote in 1931. Despite Lewis' personality and politics, it was partly due to his forceful personality and his aggressive language and opinions that the Vorticist movement came to be Britain's first avant-garde group.
The Rebel Centre
For a few months in 1913, Wyndham Lewis worked at Omega Workshops, a collective design firm backed by Bloomsbury painter and critic Roger Fry. Fry attempted to erase the line between fine and decorative arts by hiring innovative artists to design furniture, textiles, and other objects for the modern home. The collective nature of the enterprise meant that artists did not individually sign their work, but instead the objects were stamped with the Greek letter omega. While Lewis welcomed the opportunity to sell objects directly to the public without a middle man, he felt Fry had misled him about a particular commission for an interior design, and in a very public move, Lewis dramatically left the company along with artists Edward Wadsworth, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Frederick Etchells. After leaving, the four artists signed an open letter accusing Fry of deception and dishonesty.
Soon afterwards, Lewis set up a workshop of his own as a pointed alternative to Fry's company. He called it the "Rebel Art Centre." Intended to host exhibitions, lectures, and classes, the Rebel Art Centre soon attracted a group of artists who would be the creative minds behind Vorticism.
Significantly, and unlike many early-20th-century avant-garde groups, several women made up the early roster of the movement despite Futurist artist C.R.W. Nevinson's desire to exclude them. Nevinson reportedly told Lewis, "Let's not have any of those damned women." Certainly, until recently art history has generally ignored the role of women in the formation of the Vorticist movement, but it is notable that the Rebel Art Centre was made possible by Lewis' girlfriend Kate Lechmere, who paid the rent, provided the soft furnishings and lent Lewis money for the first publication of the Vorticist magazine BLAST. Nevinson's attitudes towards women didn't seem to bother Wyndham Lewis, but Nevinson quickly lost favor when he and the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti co-authored a manifesto of English Futurism and signed the address of the Rebel Art Centre at the bottom without asking Lewis first.
BLAST! Issue 1 - A Manifesto
Arguably Vorticism's most significant contribution to art history came in the form of its magazine BLAST. Only two issues were published, but they are vital for understanding the Vorticists' aims and positioning and contain some of the most significant works of Vorticist art and poetry.
Wyndham Lewis edited the magazine and intended it to be a radical assault, visually and conceptually, on the British cultural establishment. The front cover proclaims this bold aim with the word "BLAST" written across a bright pink page. Ezra Pound described it as a "great MAGENTA cover'd opusculus".
The first issue, released only weeks before the outbreak of World War I, contained the Vorticists' manifesto, largely composed by Lewis with the help of Pound, written in various sized fonts underlined and bolded across some twenty pages. Largely a list that condemns, or "blasts," and praises, or "blesses," things, ideas, and people, the manifesto combines seriousness, humor, and satire to skewer traditional British art, mores, and politics. Rejecting British penchants for class snobbery, politeness, standardization, and romanticism, Vorticism embraces innovation, radical art, individualism, machinery, and urbanization in an effort to unleash the vitality of the modern world.
In the opening salvo, "Long Live the Vortex!", Lewis explains, "Blast sets out to be an avenue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the Public in no other way." He claims it "will be popular, essentially. It will not appeal to any particular class, but to the fundamental and popular instincts in every class and description of people, TO THE INDIVIDUAL...Blast is created for this timeless, fundamental Artist that exists in everybody." By producing a magazine, a cheaply-printed periodical easily carried home on public transportation, the creators of BLAST offered an iconoclastic alternative to the art exhibited on the walls of museums and literature printed by established publishers.
BLAST! Issue 2 - The Grip of War
Published in 1915 amidst the First World War, a year after the inaugural issue, the second issue of BLAST signaled the effects of the war on the Vorticist attitudes toward the machine age. Rather than the bold typography of the first issue, the second issue's cover design is monochromatic, featuring a woodcut by Wyndham Lewis. Subtitled the "War Number," the pages inside also lack the drama of the first one.
Less bombastic than the first, this issue offered more poetry and prose by Ezra Pound, Helen Saunders, and Jessie Dismorr and included many references to war. Famously, it also features "Preludes" and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," two well-known poems by T.S. Eliot, who became associated with the movement through his friendship with Ezra Pound. Eliot's literary contributions to BLAST constitute his first offerings to a British audience. While the poems are not particularly "Vorticist" in their style, literary critic Rod Rosenquist argues that they play "'the straight man' next to the Vorticist pranksters, showing that lasting literary arts might also take their place in such a timely periodical."
Perhaps most significantly, this issue of BLAST featured Vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's "Vortex: Written from the Trenches" in which he described his experience of the war. Gaudier-Brzeska reaffirmed his belief that the vortex of creative energy is the initial catalyst for making art, asserting, "My views on sculpture remain exactly the same. It is the vortex of will, of decision, that begins." At the end of the piece, there is a notice announcing that the artist was killed on June 5, only a short time before the magazine's publication, underscoring the direct and tragic consequences of war in the machine age. Later, Lewis and other members of the Vorticist group would also go into active service.
Vorticism According to Wyndham Lewis, and Beyond
As the movement's founder and leader, Wyndham Lewis is the usual starting point for understanding the movement. In one of the first articles written on the movement, Ezra Pound proclaimed him the leader of the group, hailing him as "a very great master of design." In 1956, Lewis stated that "Vorticism was, in fact, what I, personally, did and said at a certain period." While Lewis' actions sparked the Vorticist movement, many of the artists involved were active in taking the movement in new directions. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska worked closely with Ezra Pound to develop a theory of Vorticist sculpture. Their formulation was highly political, comparing the act of Direct Carving in sculpture to the political "direct action" desired by the anarchists.
Vorticist artist William Roberts also questioned Lewis' claim in a series of pamphlets with his own understanding of the movement. Shortly thereafter in 1961-62 Roberts painted The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915, depicting himself along with Lewis, Ezra Pound, Cuthbert Hamilton, Fredrick Etchells and Edward Wadsworth, positing the six men as the core members of the movement, while marginalizing two of the women artists of the group, Helen Saunders and Jessica Dismorr, who were fundamental to the movement and its development.
Off the Page: Exhibitions of Vorticism
In 1915, after the publication of the second issue of BLAST, the Vorticist group held their first exhibition at the Dore Galleries in London. The exhibition was not widely publicized and mostly ignored by the general press. It included works by key members of the Vorticist group, including Lewis, Dismorr, Etchells, Gaudier-Brzeska and Saunders, as well as a number of non-Vorticist artists "invited to show" their work. Sadly, the news of Gaudier-Brzeska's death just a few days before overshadowed the exhibition.
In 1917, the poet Ezra Pound and American collector John Quinn organized the only contemporaneous Vorticist exhibition outside of England at the Penguin Club in New York City. Wartime conditions made it difficult to get the works to the U.S., and the exhibition went largely unnoticed.
Vorticism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Poetry and Prose
Vorticism was notable for embracing a number of different art forms. The group laid emphasis on literary content as well as the visual aspects of the movement, thus increasing its far-reaching influence. The overheated rhetoric used by the artists in their writings ensured it a place next to equally vociferous groups like the Futurists and Dadaists. Wyndham Lewis himself was, first and foremost, a writer, and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (two of the most famous poets of the modernist period) were closely associated with the group. Additionally, other members of the movement who were primarily visual artists, such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jessica Dismorr, were encouraged to publish their literary writings in BLAST alongside their artistic work. Although Ezra Pound produced a number of poems, which he labeled "Vorticist," very little purely Vorticist poetry was produced. Most of what was published in BLAST can also be assigned to other literary movements.
Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska are the most notable sculptors associated with the Vorticist movement. Epstein did not sign the Vorticist manifesto in the first issue of BLAST, but his works dating from this period are closely related. Epstein's Rock Drill (1913) encapsulates the rise and fall of Vorticism: initially, Epstein created a vision of a human-machine hybrid that was to be nine-feet tall, but after seeing the machine-caused horrors of WWI he mutilated and truncated the work, leaving a maimed torso damaged by the machine it was once joined to. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska translated the Vorticist interest in movement into three-dimensional form. Interested in creating a "pure form," he used Direct Carving to find a distilled essence of his subject.
Vorticism saw its most important idea - the "vortex" - most fully developed in two dimensions on paper and canvas. The Vorticists, like the Futurists, were deeply interested in movement, in the whirling and turning of modern life, but they differed from their Italian counterparts in their interest in the static center of the vortex, in the stillness in the midst of motion. A central static element about which the rest of the painting turns is evident in Helen Saunders' Dance (c. 1915) and Wyndham Lewis' The Workshop (c.1914-5).
The Vorticists' decision to disseminate their art and ideas in the form of a magazine (entitled BLAST) is highly significant. The format allowed them to combine visual art, design, and literature, uniting the creative endeavors of a movement that was fairly disparate in terms of its members and media. The magazine cost 2/6 (or half a crown in pre-decimalization British money), meaning it could be purchased by people who could not afford to collect art or even expensive poetry books, but very few people bought it at the time. Despite this initial failure to reach a large audience, BLAST, more than any painting, endures as one of the group's most important legacies, having influenced British sculptor Henry Moore and, later, musician David Bowie.
Later Developments - After Vorticism
In some senses, the Vorticist movement was over before it had barely started. The first issue of BLAST was published only weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, which changed the socio-cultural environment in Britain and caused the death of at least one important member - Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The experiences of the war caused many people to reject the celebration of the machine, which had originally driven the Vorticist, and their bombastic dogmatism fell out of favor. Consequently, the Vorticists' few exhibitions did not stir much reaction, and individual artists moved on to other styles.
In 1920, Wyndham Lewis tried to revive the movement with Group X, a London exhibition that drew together some of the Vorticist artists again, but the group never cohered. These artists were now all taking their art in new directions and the movement's impetus had been lost. After this, Vorticism was generally little discussed by art historians, and during this time a number of significant works by Vorticist artists were lost.
Lewis continued to write and paint, although by the late 1920s he was painting less and writing more belligerently, attacking culture and those ideologies that he saw as prohibiting true revolution. During the early 1930s, he praised Adolph Hitler, writing one of the first biographies of the leader of the Nazi party, and while he distanced himself from these views by the end of the decade, his reputation was tarnished.
Sculptor Jacob Epstein continued to promote the expressive possibilities of Direct Carving, moving away from abstraction and concentrating on portraiture to reveal all aspects of humanity. The centennial of the founding of Vorticism ushered in a renewed interest in the group, with exhibitions in London and the United States excavating and repositioning the group within the history of English art as well as more internationally.