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

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