“Vorticism”: a word coined by Ezra Pound in 1913, is the name of a brief but dynamic pre-war British art movement led by Wyndham Lewis. In this exhibition of the movement, Tate Britain displays Lewis’s paintings and original editions of his magazine, BLAST alongside pieces by Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, David Bomberg, Helen Saunders and others. With plenty of accompanying information, the gallery takes a good stab at trying to unite all this work under the Vorticist banner, but in doing so it highlights something far more interesting about the movement.
A common aesthetic is shared by the work on display – throughout the exhibition, human form slips playfully in and out of modernity. In Epstein’s Rock Drill a sinister armoured figure straddling a piece of industrial equipment is guarding something soft and vulnerable in its chest. The geometric figures in David Bomberg’s Vision of Ezekiel, become disturbingly more mechanical and abstract as they gain flesh and clothing. In Helen Saunders’s striking triptych, Balance, Canon and Dance, organic and inorganic movement have become almost indistinguishable.
Taxing Textual Politics
Despite a shared preoccupation with mechanical form, is it possible to describe all these artists as Vorticists? The short answer is “no”, or at least, certainly not by self-definition. Of the three artists mentioned here only Saunders agreed to sign the Vorticist manifesto, written by Lewis and published in BLAST in 1914. Epstein felt uneasy about committing himself to the movement and Bomberg refused to have anything to do with the magazine.
It is BLAST, or more specifically the manifesto within its first edition, that emerges as the central and most controversial exhibit in this collection. The manifesto is referenced in the title of the exhibition, the provocative acid pink of the magazine’s cover has been used on the walls and reissues are available to read (or to buy in the gift shop). The curators have attempted to use the BLAST manifesto to define Vorticism and to unite the artists under the banner of the movement. However, Lewis’s textual politics make this extremely difficult. In the manifesto, Futurism is attacked and Cubism is questioned; Vorticism defines itself against these movements. Despite this fact, almost everything in the exhibition is clearly influenced by either or both of these movements.
Blessed be the Blasted
So what lies at the heart of Vorticism? “Our Cause is NO-MAN’S”, barks Lewis. He then proceeds to devote pages of thick black typography to alternately “blessing” and “blasting” things and people (many are both blessed and blasted). The textual politics of the manifesto are combative and paradoxical. At the time of publication, rather than being an inclusive and inspiring force, it alienated artists, the general public and the rest of the modern art world. Through all its fierce posturing, Vorticism can only be defined by what it says it is not and this is the exciting irony, unwittingly highlighted by curators at Tate; determined as they are to define and explain. Ultimately, this is a satirical anti-anti-movement unwilling to take anything seriously; even the threat of mechanised war:
“We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.”
If this is a manifesto for the modern world, then it promises an unsure and fragmented modernity. And its response to being on the brink of an unimaginable horror is a great explosive laugh.
The exhibition continues until 4 September.
Admission: £14 /12
Images courtesy of the Tate Britain