Saturday, 10 September 2011

THE VORTICISTS: MANIFESTO FOR A MODERN WORLD (2)

...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...

1 comment:

  1. Only after posting this, and putting the two in near-proximity, did I notice the similarities between the Dismorr and Bomberg's 'Mud Bath'. Both are geometrical forms orbiting a central pole. However, Bomberg's are suggestive of human form while Dismorr are more architectural. Compared with many Vorticist works it's actually quite calm! It also strikes me as a more abstract version of of De Chirico's Metaphysical Town Squares.

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