Friday 30 September 2011


...I would almost certainly be heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see 'Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine'. As it is, I'll just have to settle for a video clip...


Tuesday 27 September 2011


Believe it or not, but Lucid Frenzy the blogsite clocks up four years as of today. However, Ye Olde Paper Days date back to Feb '03, so really we're seven and a half! And what better way to celebrate the world of inks and folds and paper-cuts than this video from Salford Zine Library? It even utters those immortal words "here's one I made earlier!"

Sunday 25 September 2011


At Brighton Museum until 9th Oct

“Everything was going to be new. Everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.” - Virginia Wolff

Those of an age to know the classic kids’ show ’Tiswas’ will recall the line “we don’t just throw this show together, you know.” The thing is, here at Lucid Frenzy HQ, that’s exactly what we do. Bloomsbury-ites Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were, as this show helpfully tells us, “among the first British artists to embrace strikingly new developments in painting from continental Europe.” Plus one subject here is a woman. (You may even be able to guess which one from the information already given.)

In short this raises the same two questions raised by the Tate’s recent Vorticist retrospective. Namely, was the British response to Modernism mere copyism, or did it develop their own styles? And were women artists able to get a seat at the table? Except the Vorticists not only succeeded the Bloomsbury set, they were a definite and quite vociferous reaction against it – like punk after hippy. In short, these pieces are getting posted the wrong way round! Still, the questions remain good ones.

Encountering Modernism (Into The Water)

The works in the first room, ’Bloomsbury Before Bloomsbury’, are notably in thrall to Post-Impressionism. Duncan Grant’s series of self-portraits, and the still lives by both artists, are redolent of Gauguin. They’re works which quite deliberately look painted, in broad flecks of colour, drawing attention to themselves as art objects. The vivid and intense hues vie strangely, but appealingly, with the stillness of the still lives and portraits.

But at times even these bohemian types seem to be suffering from English restraint. Unlike Gauguin, classical references still proliferate. There is something almost proto-Ernst about the eerie figures in Grant’s ’The Dancers’ (1910/11, above). Yet, for all their nakedness, there is something sedate about their so-called dancing which rather belies the title. You can’t help but mentally compare it to the wild abandon of Matisse’s ’La Danse’ (1909, below) and find it a pale imitation. In fact the show supplies a likely date when Grant would have seen this Matisse; it was first shown in London in 1912, in an exhibition staged by his cohort Roger Fry.

So, in a section titled ’Encountering Modernism’, when did it first cross Grant’s path? The first of these ‘Post-Impressionist’ shows, was two years earlier, and it may have been what galvanised him. I had previously seen his ‘Bathing’ (1911, up top), but most likely a copy as I’ve no memory of it being so large. (I have walls at home which are smaller!) We are now well away from the world of portraits, the figures are in dynamic action poses with the emphasis on their musculature, all faces obscured or turned away from us.

The show suggests the figures can be seen as the steps in one person’s motion, diving off the shore and heading towards the boat. But the composition isn’t quite linear enough to insist on this reading, in fact Grant is probably smartly having it both ways. He’s simultaenously enchanted by the idea of the naked group, throwing off their clothes en masse and hurling themselves into the same body of water, a proud defiance of social convention. (You would need to be an inattentive viewer indeed to skip the gay subtext.)

The show speculates on two other possible sources for this bold leap. In April 1911 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes first performed in London, leading to “a new emphasis on the sensuous presentation of the body.” But it also considers the influence of Byzantine mosaics, picked up during Grant’s youth in Burma. Though both are foreign influences, they notably do not work in the same way. In the second, Grant is plugging straight into ethnic art brought his way by colonial links, just like his continental brethren. This is an instance not of Modernism copied, a continental import, but streams running in parallel. (French artists tended to be influenced by the loot of their own empire, Africa and the South Seas.)

The next year Grant painted ’The Ass’ (above) ; in a bold repudiation of the earlier Classicist references, this is an unabashed portrait of a simple beast. The composition gives the figure solidity, but the diagonal hatching of the linework also convey a sense of movement. The narrow palette, more variations of shade than colour, place the beast in it’s environment rather than bringing it forwards from a background, as if it is part of its world. Nature is not a source of symbols or narratives but itself a fit subject for art. The show mentions “neo-pagan” as a buzzword of this scene, and this is quite a neo-pagan work.

From the same year, ’Still Life – The Dinner Table’ (above), though not actually Cubist, shows the school’s influence in it’s insistent break-up of objects into colour and form. However, many actual Cubist works seem all but uninterested in their ostensible subjects; their focus is on reworking painting itself, with the objects depicted a mere means to this end. Grant’s choice, conversely, could not be more pointed. What could be more redolent of old English rituals and graces than the domestic dinner table, map and church of table manners? Grant is assaulting the solidity of its objects, as assuredly as if he’d yanked the tablecloth away.

1914’s ’Abstract-Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound’ breaks with still lives as Grant’s most formally innovative work in this show. It’s a long abstract work, of scroll dimensions, too long for your eyes to take in at once. But this was deliberate, for Grant envisaged it being rolled past your eyes in a kind of prototypical animation. We are shown both the still painting and a video of it spooling. The two classic conceptions of paintings, that they are of something and are chiefly measured by the strength of their composition, are thereby upended.

However, the idea is probably better than the execution. And Grant’s choice of accompanying music (Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, with it’s palatial pace) is more retro than Modernist. You couldn’t help but want to see it play against different scores, to check how they change and modify the visual experience.

Vanessa Bell – Abstract Freedom

Alert readers may note that we have focused on Grant so far. Vanessa Bell’s mother, Julia Jackson, had been a Pre-Raphaelite model, giving us a neat narrative – from muse to artist in a single generation. However, with Bell’s works we face a similar problem as we did with the women Vorticists – however much we might want to herald them, many just aren’t particularly good! Her compositions in particular are often strangely unfocused and empty, like awkward snapshots.

Ironically, however, this means the further she moves from conventional representation - the more radical she gets... the better she gets. Experiments with textile design are described as giving “the artists a freedom to experiment with abstraction”, something which works particularly well in ‘Maud (Furnishing Fabric)’ (1913, above). But perhaps her best work here is the Matisse-influenced screen mural ’Bathers in a Landscape’ (1913, below), combining figures with abstract forms yet making the two feel seamless. (Could it be significant that each artist’s best work is a mural or is heavily influenced by them?)

To Conservative Charleston

Once named after a then-bohemian quarter of London, Grant and Bell then moved to the rural Charleston House. Though their original aim was to get out of the war effort, it was somewhere they never left. As if these neo-pagans were rooted in geography, their post-war style is so different they might as well have all taken on a different name. “I want to paint unrealistic realistic works,” Grant wrote in a letter. “Anyhow, I’m never going to live in the town again. I can’t think why anyone does.”

Charleston often became their subject. It’s painted as idyllic, seemingly in perpetual summertime. But idyllic seems the opposite of dynamic. The pictures aren’t all bad, it should be conceded some of them are good, but they’re no longer thrilling. Everything no longer needed to be new. The buzzword became neo-classicism. Their new name should have been the Conservative Charlstonians. Conventional still lives and portraits return, for example Grant’s orthodox ’Portrait of Lydia Lopokova’ (1923). As with all bohemians, they simply reverted to their bourgeois roots.

You could almost tell the story of the exhibition by three of Grant’s works ’The Dance’, ‘Bathing’ and ’Bathers by the Pond’. (1920/1, above). The title’s shift from verb to noun is telling. The bathers now loll idly on the bank or in boats, a dog curled at their feet. If one was suggestively sexual, the other is positively post-coital. The party had got going, everyone had dived in. Now the moment of action was passed.

To take a more recent bohemian commune familiar to us punk-generation types, imagine if a collection of Crass records had continued with their times in Dial House after the band ceased – 12”s of the sounds of the kettle on the hob, the garden fork digging the organic potatoes. And of course this is the Twenties - the era when society was at it’s most revolutionary and when Modernism was most on fire – not just the brief burst of Vorticism in Britain, but Dada, Constructivism and the Bauhaus.

Continuing the notion that Charleston was their muse, the best works seem not of but done to the house. Painted cupboard doors have been rent from their hinges and added to the walls. (Most works in the show have not been taken from Charleston itself, but photos and film show us these.) Grant’s cartoony ’Painted Corner Cupboard’ (1924) is perhaps the finest thing in this room. Meanwhile a video pans around the house. “It was a well of inspiration,” it enthuses, “where every surface called to be painted.” Though Charleston is very near Brighton, I have never previously felt inclined to visit it. This is the nearest I’ve come to feeling I should.

With It And Without It

The problem with being so terribly now is that it’s not long before you’re so terribly then. This was when Modernism was developing at such a frenetic pace that a few short years separated avant garde from obsolete. And it often insisted on portraying itself in this way - as a linear advance, a series of formal innovations, each of which made their predecessor redundant.

Bloomsbury blazed for longer than Vorticism, but never so brightly. It never stamped its own style on Modernism as firmly as its successor. It’s rather reminiscent of the R&B boom of Sixties London. Though a foreign music was enthusiastically reproduced, it took the later contribution of the Beatles and Stones to transform it into something new.

Then again, it’s a little like the old Tommy Cooper sketch. He tells his doctor “it hurts when I go like that”, so his doctor replies “then don’t go like that.” If there is one place where we should use our powers of hindsight to not see Modernism as it styled itself, surely this is it. Of course we could and should see a show such as this as a kind of historical barometer. But... guys... when it’s an art exhibition, maybe you can also consider the aesthetics.

Of course aesthetics can’t be uncoupled from politics or history, like they somehow float transcendent. But to suggest it’s merely determined by those things is a reductive and clod-hopping apology for materialism, the sort of thing you expect from Stalinists. The crucial issue is the interplay. We can look at how styles and works fitted into an ongoing narrative, but also how they interacted with their own times. Grant in particular turned up some great works, which capture much of the heady excitement of those years. To look away would be a blindness.

Postscript: Please do not assume that just because we've finally covered a still-running exhibition that this timely posting is set to last...

Sunday 18 September 2011


The formula, at least, was simple enough – Orwell’s Room 101 from ‘1984’, the place which contains your most dread fear, given the setting of ’The Shining.’ Perhaps the cast of strangers, thrown and then trapped together, also owed something to Sartre’s existential classic ’No Way Out’. Though if so it might have been cooler to use Sartre’s labyrinthine concept of an endless hotel than the more perfunctory concreted doorway. (For that matter it might also have been cooler to show the morphing of the hotel corridors rather than just talk about it.)

But the setting’s a fitting one. It’s not just that such places are creepy. The hotel room is actually quite a good metaphor for the cellular self, at once like all the other rooms and private, the soullessness of the setting throwing your soul into relief. You could feel alone in a hotel room in a way you never would in a house. (It’s also set in the Eighties, which were pretty creepy in themselves.)

With this sort of thing, you probably need a certain amount of indulgence for images that don’t really fit into the overall picture – such as the dining hall of chattering dummies. The dialogue suggests these are Joe’s phobia, yet that wouldn’t explain what they’re doing out of ‘his’ room. But they’re enjoyably sinister, and perhaps that’s enough. Indeed the hotel setting may well have been chosen for that very reason; as a repository, a kind of advent calendar of horror, a bunch of doors which could be opened onto a series of creepy scenes.

That said, there needs to be an overall picture. We’re told that it’s visiting your room that precipitates the Minotaur’s arrival and your doom. Yet the alien Gibbis sees his fear (the Weeping Angels) and survives. We’re told it’s specifically Amy who’s been drawn to the hotel, and that Rory doesn’t have a room there – just an exit sign. Yet for some reason the Doctor does have a room, helpfully numbered ‘eleven.’ For that matter, why do they and the Tardis go with her at all, when everyone else just wakes up in the hotel alone?

But of course all this only leads us up to the big twist, where it’s revealed that it’s not fear that’s the trap, so much as faith. And the Doctor has to shock Amy out of her belief in him. It’s certainly a blind-side, something you don’t see coming but when you do (to quote the show) “you realise it couldn’t have been anything else.”

There’s the Doctor first spying the Minotaur through the room peephole, an echo of the scenes of its own eye opening when it senses dinner time. There’s the first confrontation, taking place in a virtual hall of mirrors, with the Doctor translating the Minotaur’s roaring out loud, echoing its words. We remember that the original Minotaur, the one of Greek legend, turned out to be an outcast relation.

If not overly indebted to ’No Way Out’, it is in it’s own way an existential tale. What you need to survive is self-reliance. Gibbis, the perpetual surrenderer who at first seems mere comic relief, personifies the lack of this – his life is spent just waiting for the next invader to tell him what to do.

But Amy does not become self-reliant, it’s a position she’s forced into by the Doctor abdicating from his God-protector role. I am not at all sure how I feel about this. When writing about ‘The Girl Who Waited’, I egotistically fancied I had gleaned the essence of it, and could get it down neatly on paper. I suspect I am writing this in the hope that, somewhere in the process, it might all become clear.

Traditionally disbelief in the Doctor was confined to closed-minded bureaucrats, it was a signifier of failure of imagination. At least since ’Midnight’, the show has been more critical of the messiah-like nature of its hero – in fact this has become an increasingly recurrent theme. Yet, as said over ‘A Good Man Goes To War’, there are innumerable signs that this is a corner the script-writers  have painted themselves into, which they’re now trying to claim was a clever plan.

There are, for example, very many thematic similarities with the episode just gone. (And the hotel is, what, our third anti-Tardis?) But it’s not the repetition itself that’s the problem. It’s like they’re continually coming back to the same concept from different angles, not quite sure how to attack it, hoping to stumble upon a clear shot. When you big up your central character to a cosmic degree, where is there to go?

This was like the ’Beast Below’ episode, only upside-down. There comparison to the Doctor humanises the monster, here it monsterises him. But most crucially, there it was Amy who solved the problem. (Something we’ve seen her do in other episodes.) This time the Doctor has to tell her not to have a child-like faith in him. It’s like she’s been hypnotised all along, and he’s finally clicked his fingers.

This was also like Amy’s Choice upside-down, this time the choice is made for her and turns out to be Earth not the Tardis. If the show is serious about continuing to question it’s own underpinning assumptions, then eventually something will have to break. And with the Doctor and Amy separated something does break. It’s a well-played scene, the two laughing together like old friends. Yet will this stay undone, or will it be more in the manner of a superhero death? And even if it does stay, will anything happen other than a fresh Amy get recruited? I fear with this theme the show has started something it can’t finish.

For all the similarities to other episodes, perhaps the nearest match is ’The Rebel Flesh’. Both were by previously weak writers (Toby Whithouse and Matthew Graham respectively), suddenly punching above their weight. But both serve up a cake that’s not quite baked. There’s a wealth of excellent individual scenes and moments (including a compelling opening), but the whole never quite matches the sum of its parts.

In a weird sense the way it doesn’t quite work makes it more memorable. You find your mind continuing to tinker with it, like a jigsaw puzzle that was never solved. (And I certainly didn’t find myself musing over earlier effort ’Vampires of Venice’ all that much.) My brain keeps trying to resolve this by promising me all will be taken up again in the finale, in order to be tied up. Whether I should have faith in that is another question...

Sunday 11 September 2011


NB: If you were looking for the second part of the Vorticists try here

The planet Apalapucia might be a new destination, but it comes with a strange sense of deja vu. If not quite to the degree of last week’s ‘Doctor Who on Remix’, Tom MacRae’s script takes us places we’ve been before. You could see it as the parallel timestreams of ’Girl In the Fireplace’ switched to the empty institution setting of ’Silence in the Library’. (Us oldsters may have also been partially reminded of ’Warrior’s Deep’.)

But plot and setting serve only as the backdrop here, for the emphasis is on the inter-relationship between the characters. Something about the trailers and the episode name suggested it would be this season’s ‘Amy’s Choice’, and this was bourn out. (It even occupied a similar place in the sequence, about two-thirds through, if we ignore the way this season has been cut in two.)

The title, and much of the dialogue, of course reference Amy waiting for the Doctor in ’The Eleventh Hour’. But a (rather blatant) plot contrivance sticks the Doctor in the Tardis, away from the adventuring, and the focus falls on Amy and Rory. At one point Rory complains to the Doctor “you’re turning me into you.” And of course Rory is forced to see Amy the way the Doctor sees everyone - as if their lives are stuck on fast-forward to yours, creating an inevitable gulf.

Actually, the focus is probably more on Amy and Amy, seeing as we get two of her at different ages. Old Amy has become the ‘last girl’ so beloved of movies and video games such as ’Resident Evil’. Notably, much of the look and feel of the episode was like a survival video game – an endless succession of faceless adversaries inhabiting a landscape of featureless corridors, symbol-tagged decisions, an on-access computer for info-dumps.

We are used to TV shows, especially in the SF genre, copying the format of video games and do not normally welcome it. It usually leads to the worst of both worlds; a plotless meander devoid of character development, yet with none of the interactivity that make gaming absorbing.

But it then populates that over-familiar furniture not with an avatar but something more like a real person. The chief requirement of the video avatar is that she’s sexy. Alice in ’Resident  Evil’ is played by model Mila Jovovich, and wears a costume more suited to a photo-shoot than post-apocalyptic survival. Amy, normally the show’s sex symbol, is shown as having visibly aged and instead of her trademark miniskirts is clad in defensive body armour. (She’s surprisingly sprightly in the fight scenes for someone who must be at least approaching their sixties, but never mind...)

But of course it’s not merely an anti-video game and this is a means to an end. It’s not a story about growing old, it’s a story about growing old alone. As a child, Amy spent many years waiting for the Doctor to come back, during which she had to bite many a child psychologist. All that waiting, wouldn’t it damage you? What if you decided the only way to ensure no-one ever let you down again was to rely just on yourself? Old Amy is like Dickens’ Miss Haversham, brooding over a life ruined by a rendezvous which never happened, and young Amy the Estelle she works to turn into her twisted image.

Hence the irony of the white handbots believing they’re doing Amy good, endlessly insisting “this is a kindness” as they advance on her. Decades of fighting alone have made her allergic to any contact, seeing it as an inherent threat. Killer robots would have killed any of that. (At one point the episode was to be called ’Kindness’.)

There’s also an odd parallel with the scene in ’The Doctor’s Wife’ where the Tardis is taken over, merely with Amy and Rory’s roles swapped round. Is that merely a case of great minds thinking alike? (In which case you wonder why it wasn’t spotted at script-ed stage.) Or is this setting up something else? I’m genuinely not sure! People had all sorts of theories over how ’Amy’s Choice’ would feed into the finale, then it didn’t at all.

This focus on the characters did reduce the science to techno-gobbledygook, even more than usual. (I don’t think the Doctor actually offered to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow at any point, but so much of his exposition sped by so fast I can’t be sure.) This isn’t important when it’s just acting as a plot driver, such as when the Doctor is suddenly able to reconcile the two timestreams. But when it impinges on the foreground, such as why there can’t be two Amys, this matters more. (Why could the two exist at the same time on the planet but not in the Tardis? Or was it okay if only temporary?)

And one very minor whinge but Amy’s “so many boys” line over Rory sounds like an undoing of her character. Yes, she was the only schoolgirl who could tolerate Rory’s doofusness, but also he was the only boy who could cope with her bizarre obsessions over the raggedy Doctor. The two are loners apart from each other, aren’t they? Yet this was already part undone through the retro-fitting of Mels... okay, I said it was a minor whinge!

Postscript: Previous embitterment has led me to not expect much from Toby Whithouse or Gareth Roberts episodes. So unless I am pleasantly surprised by the next two weeks, we shall adjourn over the big finale.

Saturday 10 September 2011


...the second installment in a review of another show now done and gone, this time at Tate Britain. First part here

”Those Invited to Show”

As if these endless isms weren’t confusing enough of themselves, Lewis’s power fixations then insisted on distinguishing between official and ancillary Vorticists – the latter labelled in exhibitions as “those invited to show.” Using this to puncture Lewis’ pretensions, Mark Hudson of the Telegraph points out “many of the defining Vorticist works are by artists who didn’t sign its manifesto.” Even star turn Epstein wasn’t officially in the club. (Though that’s a bit like saying Miro wasn’t actually a Surrealist, it’s merely technical information.)

It seems ambiguous how much this came from the push of Lewis’ paranoiac megalomania, and how much the pull of artists keeping the fulminating fanatic at a berth. He seems particularly conflicted over David Bomberg, needing the draw of his talent yet simultaneously fearing it becoming dominant.

Perhaps a more interesting question is how much those invited to show held to the aesthetic, and how much they diluted it. Inevitably, the picture is mixed. Let’s take two examples, both high quality works. Christopher Nevinson probably was more of a Cubo-Futurist. Take ‘The Arrival’ (1913, above); it’s powerful yet calm, with it’s elegant curves of a sleek ocean liner, a mass of objects tamed by a strong and clean composition. Most of its elements are illustrative, just juxtaposed anti-naturalistically, reality rearranged rather than undone. (Ironically, though ’Blast’ is always thundering on about “the vast planetary abstraction of the ocean”, this seems to be the only time its used visually.)

David Bomberg, conversely, called himself Cubist but was actually more a Vorticist in style. Take his justly renowned ‘The Mud Bath’, (1914, top of section), blocky playpeople broken into a tumult of discombobulated limbs, circling a central totem pole. It’s depersonalisation is simultaneously seducing and alarming. (The earlier ‘Vision of Ezekiel’, 1912, is so similar as to be almost a preparatory sketch.) You’re never quite sure whether it’s representational or abstract. In fact Vorticism’s habitat seems to be that cusp, where still-recognisable figures are morphing into geometry, or possibly vice versa. Overall, it is probably Nevinson who’s the exception. Enough ‘ancillaries’ are in the Bomberg camp to defang Hudson’s barb.

The crowd scenes

Writing about the recent Downtown Scene exhibition, I commented the worst way to see it would be as “an accumulation of art-works”, to count it up like an accountant and have it’s quality quantified. That’s probably not too far off how Lewis would have us see this - his troops lined up for us to inspect, counting their medals as they paraded against Marinetti’s.

Ironically then, that the battle he so wanted was one he would inevitably lose. There’s some great works here, certainly enough to dispel the notion that British modernism was somehow a sideshow. But, when taken as a body of work, nothing really challenges the consistent invention and furious energy of Italian Futurism.

What might be missing? Perusing the show, I was convinced it was more eclectic in it’s embracing of different media than was Futurism. Yet when I try the maths for this I’m not entirely sure it works. Vorticism certainly went places Futurism didn’t, such as photography, prints or cartoons. (Though I may be a biased witness, I would contend that Lewis was a better cartoonist than painter, see his ’Architect With Green Tie’ above.) Yet it didn’t attempt things which Futurism demonstrably did, such as music or performance.

I suspect this impression comes from Vorticism having a looser aesthetic. As I said of the earlier Futurist show, it “doesn’t leave you distinguishing between its artists too much. You emerge with an image of them as one flailing, multi-armed mechanism with Marinetti as its mighty-mouthed head.” But if in a Futurist show you strain to spot the differences between the artists, here you look for the thread of what they have in common.

Consequently, it looks like Vorticism’s trying more things when it isn’t, that it’s trying more trades and mastering fewer. Some of these were dead ends if not dead losses, such as the “Vortographs” or “Cubist photography” of Langdon Cobursts.  (Kaleidoscopic photo portraits derided as a gimmick at the time, and not enhanced by the passage of time.)

Yet even a gimmick has some connection to originality. Alas, however short-lived it was, Vorticism still found time to throw up examples of the generic. There are far too many doodly geometric abstractions, like a drunken set square has been sketching on the phone. The result is the bizarrest of spectrums, from the super-talented Blomberg and Epstein to some of the most appallingly clueless art I’ve seen in a major exhibition.

The crowd scene of Robert’s introductory painting (shown in the first part), designed to show a scene awash with volunteers, perhaps has a more negative spin. You can’t help feeling that this exhibition needs those figures for the same reason Roberts did, to hire in some extras, to swell the numbers when there’s not enough good stuff to go round.

Admittedly, history beset Vorticism with a triple whammy. As already said, war cut down some of its best talents while Lewis’ control freakery did little to maintain membership. But also many works were lost, in particular a great deal not finding their way home after the 1917 New York exhibition. (Much of Lewis’ own works are now missing; in yet another bitter irony he’s mostly represented here by stuff from just before or just after the Vorticist years.)

The girls of the back row

In that previous Futurism piece, I was perhaps the thousandth person alive to contrast it’s “scorn for women” to Cubo-Futurism and Constructivism’s wealth of women artists. Intriguingly, for all it’s leaning to Futurism, Vorticism was also a game for girls. A World To Win notes that “three leading Vorticist painters were women: Helen Saunders from Chicago, the English painter Jessica Dismorr and Ezra Pound’s talented wife, Dorothy Shakespear.”

Yet if we look again at Roberts’ group painting, Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders are right at the back, barely through the doorway. It is blackly comic to see the waiter and restaurant manager more central to the composition. (The programme reproduces a less composed snapshot from the Daily Mirror in which at least one woman has made it to the table. The paper’s write-up, however, has time for her dress but not her name.)

As the indicia comments on Jessica Dismorr’s ‘Abstract Composition’ (1915, above) “her interest in the architectonic forms of the city... sets her style apart from her Vorticist colleagues.” Yet the show has little else of her work, for the simple reason that so little survives. And sadly this promising painting is the exception to the rule. It would be great if this British modernist exhibition could go on to trumpet the second underdog of pre-war art, the woman artist. But from the other works on show, Dismorr is the only one who warrants rescue from such sidelining.

Saunders’ abstracts seem unsure whether they are intended to be dynamic or merely decorative. And to call Shakespear “talented” for her clueless collages and drab daubs is surely political correctness gone blind. Her ’Composition in Blue and Black’ (1914, above) is one of the most awful artifacts I have seen in a major art exhibition. It looks like a prop for a modernist’s studio from some satirical show, as he thunders about its transcendent qualities from beneath a beret. (Though art historian Biddy Peppin takes a different tack to me here.)

Of course this presumes all artists worked from a level playing field - an unlikely presumption. Peppin recounts how Saunders worked as Lewis’ unpaid secretary and assistant – activities expected of her, which of course took time and energy away from he own work. To insist women artists must equal their brethren in talent ignores this fundamental imbalance. Yet what other options are there? To give male artists a ‘handicap’, like in golf? To start saying works are “good for a girl?” I would love someone to post a smart answer to this in the comments section, but I’m not at all sure there is one.

The Unmentioned F Word

One unfortunate weakness of this show’s narrative is the way it glides over the movement’s flirtation with rather dodgy politics. Lewis was virtually a caricature of the far-right toff; praising Hitler (“a man of peace”), weighing in against Jews and gays, and seeing communist conspiracies everywhere – he even sported the moustache! (See his self-portrait above.) However, he may well have partly been the David Starkey of his day, his fulminating tactlessness acting as a decoy for those more discreet. Nazi sympathies were then widespread among Britain’s upper echelons.

The Futurism show openly acknowledged their fascist connections, suggesting ‘domestic extremism’ to be a touchier subject than its foreign brother. And it leaves many interesting questions unasked, let alone answered. (For example, was Lewis’ arms-length treatment of the Jewish Bomberg related to his anti-semitism?)

Some commentators seem to go for outright denial. Ostensibly a political website, A World to Win claims to find “some serious theory behind what some derided as childish venting of anger, including Max Stirner’s anarchism.”  Yet, even if we were to accept this, is there anything to Stirner’s ‘anarchism’ besides the childish venting of anger? His right-wing individualism is a world away from the anarchists of the time, and closer to Nietzsche. (Another writer Lewis admired.)

I have sometimes railed against a Tate agenda on Modernism, which makes the work more packageable for tourists but distorts its content. This time it’s the other way around, the Tate should be commended for challenging the Vorticists’ obscurity. The non-nature of British modernism, alas, would seem to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ticket trade was not roaring on the day I went. (A general tendency of the Tate Britain compared to its more Modern brother.) And the stats from the first part of this article would seem to be lower than normal. (And ‘normal’ does not equate to ‘high’ in this context.) You can only lead a horse to water...

Yet for all the wrenching unevenness of the works on show, and for the frequent lurches into self-parody, there are many and varied highlights. (More than there’s been time for here, Gaudier-Brzeska has been glided over and Wadsworth not mentioned at all!) But more importantly, Vorticism had it’s own aesthetic that synthesised continental influences with the British experience, and had it’s own unique development. When we read of a ‘Radical Arts Centre’ located in London, our first reaction is to scoff. But perhaps that’s our loss...

PostScript: I had noble plans to write up a couple more art exhibitions before they closed. Alas, these have worked out about as well as my plans to bigamistically marry supermodels. They’re now doomed to appear after the shows have closed. Life has too often been getting between myself and the keyboard of late. Please bear with me...

Tuesday 6 September 2011


The rest on those Vorticists coming soon!

Watching this episode brought an idle fancy to my mind. Had Mark Gatiss made some drunken bet with ‘show runner’ Steven Moffat, that he could write a whole storyline which used absolutely no new elements whatsoever? It could be a totem of the ‘made do and mend’ spirit of our austerity times, a wholly recycled TV episode. It could be the opposite of one of those Moffat episodes where more new stuff is chucked in than you can keep up with.

You soon gave up spotting bits from ’Empty Child’, ‘Girl in the Fireplace’, ‘Eleventh Hour’ and ’Beast Below’. It was probably more challenging to hunt down anything you hadn’t seen before. And it’s tour through the expected culminated in a completely unsurprising conclusion.

But it made of this something better than it had any real right to be. It was like a seasoned musician running through a standard. He was playing something you could play, but for some inexplicable reason still able to play it better.

Perhaps it was all in those little touches, like the light that had to be switched five times, a reminder of how obsessively ritualistic childhood could be. You guessed about the dolls’ house as soon as you saw it in the wardrobe. But it was still an effective enough metaphor for everyone being trapped inside a child’s mind, and the magnifying effects of fear. And it made for a nice visual counterpoint to the tower block. As well as being a kind of anti-Tardis, not bigger on the inside but diminishing its occupants. (Okay, I already said the House was an anti-Tardis.)

On an indulgent day I could almost see the peg dolls as Svankmayerish. Certainly, they were the right sort of scary. We see dolls as images of childhood. But children use them to work out concerns about the adult world.

However, to focus on a bum note, can Gatiss please give up on these ‘bad men’ figures? The cartoon landlord wasn’t quite as risible as the domineering father in ’Idiot’s Lantern’. But he come close, and seemed strangely grafted onto the story. Everyone and everything else the child doesn’t need to be frightened of. Someone with a pit bull threatening to evict you, just a childhood phobia?

Even if we overlook the ending’s recycling of ’Empty Child’, facing down your fears is scarcely an original theme. (A fair enough lesson for kids, perhaps.) However, the cuckoo-child thing was perhaps more interesting. It’s a cliché too, of course, but one that usually presents children as malevolently otherly, the ’Village of the Damned’ image. Here, I think, it meant that parents must come to a point where ‘their’ children are their own person, that you set them up not make them, that there’ll be things in their minds you never put there.

Some time ago, a poll was obviously conducted which I somehow missed. It decreed that every episode had to be through-line, guest writer or makeweight. This wore its makeweight status like a badge of pride.

(Still not sure whether the sound of the lift went into the doll’s house, in which case I don't follow why Amy and Rory went with it. Or whether the lift itself went, in which case I’m not sure why they didn’t wake up with it. It is of course possible that I worry too much about these things...)

Sunday 4 September 2011


At Tate Britain until... well today actually! Better late than never, as they say...

For anyone befuddled by the ceaseless array of ‘isms’ that pack themselves inside Modernism like worms in a can, let’s start with some handholds. Vorticism was the British answer to Italian Futurism (covered here). Chiefly working before the First World War, both were the most self-avowedly modernist of all Modernist movements. In this bold new world, they asked, can we depict a racing car the way we would a hay wain?

All of which leads to the question of how deep Modernism actually ran in Britain, one of my many bugbears. (I have been known before now to rant about the two Tates being ‘Modern’ and ‘Britain’, as if we should see the two things as separate realms.) I commented after the earlier Futurist show: “While it was still-more shortlived that Italian Futurism ... [Vorticism] was largely buried under the self-fulfilling prophecy that Britain was never a centre of modernism.” So let’s find out just what got buried.

The Storm at the Centre of the Heart

That confusing-sounding separate name actually has a simple explanation. In general, when in doubt over Modernism don’t bother with aesthetics – just look to factionalism. In 1914, artist and author Wyndham Lewis was hanging around with his chums in the Rebel Arts Centre he’d just established. (A Rebel Arts Centre would surely make a great subject for a cartoon, perhaps even a sitcom!) Marinetti, chief of the Italian Futurists and hence a revered figure, was invited to speak. However that June he published ’Vital English Art’, naming the lot of them as Futurists. (Much as he’d annexed the Russian Futurists, despite their strong aesthetic differences and avowed Bolshevism. “All the Futurists of the world are children of Italian Futurism, created by us in Milan”, he helpfully explained.)

Furious at this “impertinence”, Lewis immediately unfurled his own umbrella and renamed his boys in his own terms. (The name came from sometime member Ezra Pound, but Lewis did the christening.) Though devised purely reactively, it was probably the better tag. ‘Futurism, a flat description of the “avant-garde” mentality, could have been applied to many Modernist movements. ‘Vortex’ suggests at congruence, a “confluence of energy”, but at the same time wildness – in short, a concentration of power. This was not a future which would download neatly in the background like a software upgrade. It was to come convulsively – bursting into being with a mighty flash, like Frankenstein’s creature, and vie with everything which had been before it.

Lewis’s differences with Marinetti doubtless stemmed from their similarities, no Rebel Arts Centre would have been big enough for the both of them. All of which just catalysed the feud. He was soon advertising Vorticism as “the English parallel movement to Cubism and Expressionism, deathblow to Impressionism and Futurism.” Similar spats, squabbles and ructions would pepper their short-lived history. (Its all a somewhat hilarious antithesis to the recently seen the Downtown Scene, where like-minded artists naturally coalesced together.)

First the Blasting...

In fact, these ructions start even before the show does. William Roberts latter-day reminiscence ’The Vorticists at the Restaurant de Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915’ (1961/2, above) is hung just outside the exhibition proper. This smart move means we take it in twice, first before entering, then on leaving - and see if the show has changed it in our eyes.

In 1956 the Tate had staged a ’Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism’ show, in which the braggart boldly claimed Vorticism to be “what I personally did and said at a certain period.” Roberts’ painting is a rejoinder, a crowd scene of eight artists he is attempting to brush back into history. Though Lewis is the central figure, it is Frederick Etchells who holds the manifesto. (See key to figures here.)

But that’s not all. The painting commemorates the launch of their manifesto, and more than any figure this becomes the subject of the picture - a centrepiece of shocking pink like the ’Never Mind the Bollocks’ of the pre-First World War era. When they put the word ‘manifesto’ in that exhibition title, they are not kidding! We enter the first room to find the first artwork, a sculpture of Epstein’s, sharing space almost equally with blown-up pages from that manifesto (see below).

All of which is probably appropriate. Modernism often feels like a series of polemical manifestos, to which the artworks were mere ancillary footnotes. Of course this can get self-parodic pretty quickly. But at the same time, shouldn’t we take art movements the way they ask to be taken? You could even argue that, formally speaking, the manifesto-fixated side of Modernism won out by culminating in the conceptual art movement – where the peripheral artworks are done away with altogether.

With their bizarrely irregular layouts and leaping changes in font size, as though the cadences of a tubthumping speech have been laid out phonetically, the pages could easily be seen as artworks in their own right. And of course similar could be said of the Italian Futurists.

Peer past this screaming eyestrain to their content, however, and differences emerge twixt the two. Claims to “set up violent structures of adolescent clearness between two extremes” could have come from Marinetti, indeed pages are divided between semi-poetic lists of ‘Blast’ and ‘Bless.’ However, in an off-repeated pattern, the first two pages both blast and bless England. (The introductory header “Blast First” named the Eighties alternative record label.)

Overall, it is very hard to tell what is intended seriously and what is intentionally self-parodic. (Castor oil is to be blessed. One of the blasted has “not his brother” under his name.) One page blesses English humour (“the great barbarous weapon of the genius among races”), yet another claims “we set humour at humour’s throat.” This bizarre tone pervades the whole exhibition. More than once, and not just over the texts, I wondered if the whole show could all be some elaborate hoax and fiction.

This different tone was born of a different land. As mentioned over Italian Futurism, it was the country’s rooting in peasant life and classical culture that had acted as its spur. Yet by this point Britain was already highly industrialised. When Lewis ranted “so much vast machinery to produce”, so much had already been produced! Most likely for this reason, Marinetti had praised London from overseas as “the futurist city par excellence.” But homegrown artists inevitably saw things differently. Anglo-German art movements had traditionally sided with the underdog - the traditional, the rural. (Normally grouped under the heading ‘Romanticism’, Modernism’s predecessor and antithesis.)

Vorticist imagery is not as insistently contemporary as was Italian Futurism, and its constant and restrictive visual diet of trams, trains and riots. There’s works based on the ‘Blessed’ Shakespeare and even the Bible! If Vorticism’s crusade was less strident, perhaps even partly tongue-in cheek, it was after all embarking on a battle mostly won.

The Geometry of Fear

But does that suggest Futurism could never really be as rooted in British soil? That the stiff-upper-lipped Brits could never hope to match the deranged invention of those hot-blooded Italians, were fated to remain mere Tommy Steele to their hip-strutting Elvis?

Actually, no. Lewis may have claimed his boys weren’t Futurists purely out of power games, but he arrived at the right answer regardless. Firstly, Vorticist artists were generally as influenced by Cubism as by Futurism. But neither were they similar to the Russian artists who called themselves Cubo-Futurists. (Also covered here.)

As the name might suggest Cubo-Futurism was a blend, balancing Cubism’s analytic cool against Futurism’s head of steam. Vorticism borrowed much of the form of Cubism, particularly its geometric aesthetic. (The painter Blomberg famously said “I reject anything that is not pure form.”) But in spirit and feel it stayed closer to the convulsive dynamism of Futurism. In short, it looked like Cubism but felt like Futurism.

As Lewis’ Wikipedia entry puts it: “Lewis found the strong structure of Cubist painting appealing, but said it did not seem ‘alive’ compared to Futurist art, which, conversely, lacked structure. Vorticism combined the two movements in a strikingly dramatic critique of modernity.” See his own painting ’Workshop’ (1914,15) below.

More Phallocentric Imagery, We’re British

But that’s not all. Italian Futurism had most commonly depicted clashing forces in a depersonalised way. Where human figures are included they are normally reduced to symbols, pawns in the game of progress. The Vorticists are much more wont to celebrate the virility of the human body. (In a bizarre reversal of national stereotype, the Brits would seem much more sexually obsessed than the Italians!)

Jacob Epstein was without doubt the centre-forward of Vorticism, and the ‘Rock Drill’ sculpture (1913/ 15, above) his goal kick . Unsurprisingly, it starts the show. A pure white sculpted figure mounted on an actual industrial drill. The figure mimics the machine, with rivulets on its knees matching the drill’s joints, a visor blanking the face. Yet no schoolboy would fail to notice the phallocentric connotations. (Though a schoolboy might describe them in plainer terms!)

Yet counter-intuitively for a post-Futurist movement many of Epstein’s other statues borrow from primitive art and focus on the female form. Pregnancy was a recurring theme. ‘Birth’ (undated drawing) suggests male emerging from folds of female flesh like Prometheus from under his rock, the new struggling to supplant the past. Yet the rest of figures give us more of a dichotomy...

Regular readers might wonder at this point if we are about to compare Epsitein to Henry Moore. In fact we’re better off contrasting him. Moore’s penchant is for conjoined, united figures, simultaneously pre and post birth. However abstract, they seek to remind us of our humanity. Epstein presents the bloated bellies of pregnancy as an alien condition.

Like ’Rock Drill’ faces tend to be flat, featureless and impassive, but unlike Moore they are foregrounded. (If there is any comparison to Moore it’s not to his sculpture but his shelter drawings.) They’re more humanised yet less warm than Moore, simultaneously maternal and sinister. Some seemed so prescient of the film 'Alien' I wondered if they might be an influence on Giger.

Similarly, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska sculpted a ’Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound’ (1914) so that it simultaneously resembled a penis. (Seemingly as a tribute, perhaps the term “dickhead” was not in use then.) Other works of his, such as ‘Red Stone Dancer’ (1913) or ‘Crouching Form’ (1913) are similar in their faceless primitivism.

The Walking Wounded

Then, just when we think we have the measure of Vorticism, 1915 saw ’Blast 2’ - the “War Number”. The self-proclaiming vibrant pink of the first cover has been replaced by a horrific drawing of Lewis’, ’Before Antwerp’ (above).  A regimented line of figures has signified mechanised slaughter since Goya’s time, if not before. Yet Lewis’ simultaneously assault, bayonets stretched, and recede into the twists of their own background - nightmare without end. Similar images filled the magazine.

One of the more salutory images may even be accidental. Nevinson’s etching ‘Returning to the Trenches’ (1916) is displayed in two prints, once reversed. The mirror image brings home the concept of men fighting men just like themselves.

But it’s Epstein again who provides the poster boy for this – and with a cunning twist. His ’Torso in Metal From the Rock Drill’ (1916, above) is a de-masculinated riposte to the first Rock Drill - drill now removed, limbs reduced to stumps, like a once-proud marcher returned from war an impotent amputee. This in fact is the actual, original Rock Drill, which Epstein modified to the point of vandalism for his new work. (The first figure on show is a reconstruction.) This, we’re told, “conveyed Epstein’s horror at the mounting carnage resulting from mechanised warfare.”

We’re also told there’s “more focus on the foetal progeny lying in the abdomen of the figure”. Yet that was a curious presence from the start, and is only more emphasised by there being less of everything else. As well as a foetal symbol it could be a symbolic heart, fluttering beneath all that body armour. (In my continued bid to bring lowbrow references to art exhibitions, it reminded me of the weak green globby things that live inside Daleks.)

Could this be the biggest divergence from Futurism, that the Vorticists faced the bloody results of their gung-ho triumphalism? Marinetti seems to have responded to the horrors of the First World War like the Tankies would later do over Stalin’s imperialism, he refused to let tawdry reality obscure a good ideology. If war had cut a swathe through his ranks of artists, he merely set about recruiting a fresh generation. (If any Italian Futurist did become more questioning of their role, I would love to hear of it!)

A paradox ensues. In the short term, war galvanised Vorticism, gave it a narrative and a new direction. Without any of this, ’Blast 2’ would surely have been just second helpings to its predecessor. And yet simultaneously, war reduced that movement to a stump as surely as Epstein to his new rock drill.

Like an electric shock, war animated Vorticism and killed it in quick succession. Like Futurism, war snuffed out many of its talents young (principally Gaudier-Brzeska, whose last ever works were in ’Blast 2’). Even an associated artist like Blomberg retreated to figuration after the war. (Though its unclear whether he conceded himself that war was the cause of this.)
The conclusion here