Vorticism (3118 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Andrzej Gasiorek (University of Birmingham)
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Vorticism has proved difficult to define, has been misunderstood, and has provoked much controversy. Seen by most critics as the first British artistic avant-garde movement, it flared briefly in the years 1914-15 before effectively being snuffed out by the First World War, although several painters associated with it continued to work along Vorticist lines. The years immediately preceding the First World War saw the emergence in continental Europe of a number of advanced movements and styles that transformed the world of art. London exhibitions such as Manet and the Post-Impressionists (1910), An Exhibition of Pictures by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin (1911), Paintings by the Italian Futurist Artists (1912), the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition (1912), and Post-Impressionists and Futurists (1913) helped to put experimental art at the forefront of British discussion and paved the way for the emergence of Vorticism, the first British art movement devoted to exploring the possibilities of aesthetic abstraction.

Vorticism was heavily influenced by Cubism, German Expressionism, and Italian Futurism. Cubism was important for its gradual movement away from representation to abstraction and its distortion of naturalist perspective. Its disintegration of objects and human forms through the juxtaposition of angular blocks and planes signposted a kind of geometrisation of art which would become a marked feature of Vorticist work. German Expressionism, which had affinities with French Fauvism, offered Vorticism primal intensity and emotional power, as well as providing it with Kandinsky’s emphasis on the “inner necessity” of the art-work. Italian Futurism probably did more to galvanise the English avant-garde into action than any other movement. Organised by the energetic poet and impresario Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Italian Futurism had a huge impact on the London cultural scene in the years 1910-14, owing in large part to Marinetti’s skills as a publicist. Futurism insisted on the validity for modern art of a resolutely urban and industrial subject matter, the vitality and chaos of which it represented through kaleidoscopic images of movement that sought to display the inner dynamism of the picture. Vorticism was to take on board both Futurism’s concern with an urban, technological modernity and its desire to exploit its latent energy within the pictorial space of the painting.

Vorticism could not have come into being without these antecedents, and although it emerged as a fully fledged movement in 1914 (armed with its own publicity in the form of the magazine Blast), it was being shaped from 1912 onwards, led and organised by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis who was determined to create an English avant-garde that could compete both with the Italian Futurists and with the circle of painters surrounding the increasingly influential Roger Fry. Lewis had worked for Fry’s Omega Workshops, but in October 1913, after a quarrel over commissions for the Ideal Home Exhibition, he broke away from Omega, taking Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Edward Wadsworth with him, and going on to establish the rival Rebel Art Centre. A further internecine avant-garde squabble occurred in June 1914: having initially been broadly positive about Marinetti, Lewis’s group objected to the publication of a manifesto in which they were described as Futurists and wrote a terse rebuttal. A month later the first issue of Blast (“Review of the Great English Vortex”) appeared and Vorticism – the name having been coined by the American poet Ezra Pound, who was closely associated with Lewis at this time – made its formal public bow. Blast consisted of several manifestos and notes (written by Lewis but signed by a number of writers and painters), poems by Pound, Lewis’s expressionist drama Enemy of the Stars, the opening of Ford Madox Hueffer’s The Saddest Story (later published as The Good Soldier), Rebecca West’s story Indissoluble Matrimony, a review of Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst insbesondere in der Malerei (Munich, 1912 [Concerning the Spritual in Art, trans. As The Art of Spiritual Harmony, 1914] by Edward Wadsworth, and various reproductions of Vorticist paintings and designs. A month later the First World War broke out and Vorticism’s momentum was lost. A second issue of Blast (the “War Number”) appeared in 1915, an exhibition was held in London in the same year (exhibiting work by Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth, Wyndham Lewis, Jessica Dismorr, and Helen Saunders), and another was organised in New York in 1917, but the movement was never able to recover. Lewis and a number of other painters continued working in the spirit of Vorticism in the years just after the war, but the disappointing response to the 1920 Group X exhibition, which seemed to lack coherence, indicated that the movement had come to an end.

To what extent Vorticism was a coherent movement with a clear program rather than the virtually solitary enterprise of Lewis himself (as he was later to claim) is a vexed question. Lewis was certainly the brains behind Vorticism, the driving force behind the propaganda effort made on its behalf, and the personality that briefly held together the individuals associated with it. He was Vorticism’s major theorist and its most eloquent spokesman. But those who allied themselves publicly with Vorticism (Dismorr, Etchells, Gaudier-Brzeska, Roberts, Saunders, Wadsworth) had their own artistic agendas and were perhaps willing to come within Lewis’s orbit for practical purposes as much as for strictly aesthetic reasons. The Vorticist paintings created by these artists (along with the work of David Bomberg, who refused to join the group but was willing to exhibit with it) discloses shared stylistic and structural preoccupations, but Vorticism was less an integrated, unified movement than a loose collective of individuals working within a fairly flexible set of parameters.

One measure of the difficulties involved in addressing the question of Vorticism’s overall coherence (not least the issue of the extent to which it was a movement for painters or for writers) can be gained by considering the contrasting views of Lewis and Pound. Pound’s interest in Vorticism lay above all in its poetic possibilities. He saw it as the logical next step in an evolution from Imagism, identifying its aesthetic commitment to intensity of expression as a key feature of his own desired renovation of poetic language, which was characterised by an assault on cliché, ornament, symbolism, impressionism, and public verse. Pound’s holy grail was verbal immediacy and unclouded vision. Pound’s inventive translations resuscitated poetic modes that had fallen into desuetude, becoming the means by which history, reinterpreted and then juxtaposed with present-day concerns, could be made to speak to the present. By means of translation Pound had tried to break free from debilitatingly narrow, parochial literary canons. Vorticism provided him with a programme and a rhetoric that connected with his earlier proselytising on behalf of literary values such as directness, hardness, simplicity, and precision. The image was to apprehend reality directly by conjuring a form of words that could go beyond existing linguistic conventions, and in doing so it was to be actively creative, not passively reflective. Thus Pound:

The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing. In decency one can only call it a VORTEX. And from this necessity came the name“vorticism”. Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, and never was that statement of Aquinas more true than in the case of the vorticist movement. (Gaudier-Brzeska 92)

This view of the image, linked now to the symbol of the Vortex, also informed his insistence on Vorticism’s commitment to the “primary pigment”, a claim that recast a key Imagist imperative: direct treatment of the object.

In contrast to Pound, Lewis saw Vorticism as a movement the significance of which lay in its impact on the visual arts. In a sardonic (but unsent) letter to the editor of the Partisan Review, disputing its account of Vorticism, he insisted not only that the movement had been his brain-child but also that it “was purely a painters [sic] affair” whereas Imagism “was a purely literary movement, having no relation whatever to vorticism, nor anything in common with it” (Letters 492). Blast not only reproduced pictures of Vorticist art but also reviewed other movements in order to clarify the nature of its own aesthetic vis-à-vis other advanced artistic movements. A key aspect of the Vorticist aesthetic lay in its commitment to representing the industrial present, not in a spirit of adulation (the charge levelled at Italian Futurism) but in recognition of its transformation of everyday reality. For Lewis, Vorticism set out to transform twentieth-century painting by destroying academic art and elaborating a new, largely abstract, visual language. The Vorticist imperative to produce a mechanised geometric art went hand in hand with an inorganic aesthetic that criticised Cubism’s often conventional, studio-based subject matter, Futurism’s depictions of life in motion, and Kandinsky’s soft, fluid abstract paintings. For Lewis, Vorticism sought to escape the constraints of naturalism and was hostile to artistic canons that failed to confront the urban, mechanised reality of modern England. Whereas Pound principally sought to reform poetic language, Lewis, although he produced Vorticist literary works such as the play Enemy of the Stars and the novel Tarr, wanted to reform painting by discovering a new pictorial lexicon which was to signal its distance from the natural world. He regarded Pound’s poetic efforts in Blast as insufficiently experimental, claiming that they diluted “the radical purism of the visual contents, or the propaganda of same” (Letters 491).

Vorticism drew on movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, and Italian Futurism, but it elaborated a clear aesthetic of its own and produced a wide range of distinctive paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures that transformed these various influences. Lewis wrote of it as follows in the catalogue for the 1915 Vorticist Exhibition: “By Vorticism we mean (a) ACTIVITY as opposed to the tasteful PASSIVITY of Picasso; (b) SIGNIFICANCE as opposed to the dull or anecdotal character to which the Naturalist is condemned; (c) ESSENTIAL MOVEMENT and ACTIVITY (such as the energy of a mind) as opposed to the imitative cinematography, the fuss and hysterics of the Futurists” (Wyndham Lewis on Art ). A rallying cry for Vorticism, Blast differentiated itself from competitor groups, insisted on the metropolitan and technological reality of modernity, and urged the view that England could be the site from which the regeneration of European culture might be launched. Its pink cover, aggressive title, typographical and spatial disruptions of the page, pugnacious manifestoes, seemingly contradictory but in fact profoundly dialogic assertions, and its scorn for bourgeois philistinism, Victorian sobriety, and academic gentility proclaimed that an aesthetic and cultural resurgence was at hand. But Vorticism insisted that any such resurgence required the destruction of the numerous ossified traditions that balked at change and stifled innovation; its explosive rhetoric and purposeful energy were directed equally at its avant-garde competitors and the forces of artistic and cultural conservatism. Rejecting passive acceptance of the past and naïve projections of the future, Vorticism looked to penetrate “to the heart of the Present” in order to create “a New Living Abstraction” (Blast 1 147).

In practice, Vorticism’s advocacy of abstraction was not as clear-cut as this might suggest. Vorticist art could be entirely non-figurative but more often it combined representation with abstraction, Lewis holding the view that the “finest art is not pure Abstraction, nor is it unorganised life” (Blast 1 134). Vorticism defended an ideal of aesthetic detachment, seeking to establish and maintain the boundary between the artist and the reality being depicted. Equally importantly, it was committed to the interpretative power of the creative artist whose task was to produce new valuations of the modern world and to express them through the order that art could impose on the flux of life. So, inasmuch as Vorticism was critical of Cubism’s reluctance to engage with technology, it derided Futurism’s exaltation of it as an unqualified good. In contrast to Futurism’s obsession with movement, which destabilised the picture and disorientated the viewer, Vorticist art sought the clarity of vision that could be attained through structure and form. Thus although Vorticism was influenced by the Futurist emphasis on dynamism, it looked at all times to tame and control it, to subordinate it to the shaping vision of the artist and to the inner necessity of the art object itself. Hence Lewis’s insistence that the “Vorticist is at his maximum point of energy when stillest. The Vorticist is not the Slave of Commotion but it’s (sic) Master” (Blast 1 148), and his observation that Vorticism could be thought of as “in a sense, a substitute of architecture for painting” (Wyndham Lewis on Art 278, original emphases). In T. E. Hulme’s influential terms, which had themselves been taken from the German aesthetician Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1908), the hard, rigid angularity favoured by Vorticist art was “geometrical”, whereas the fluid dynamism of Futurist painting was “vital”. Like Hulme, Lewis saw Futurism as a form of accelerated Impressionism, which he criticised for its implied passivity in the face of reality. Vorticism was conceived as a metamorphic aesthetic which aimed to transform the raw material of the formless real into the order and significance of art. Pound saw it “as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting” (Blast 1 153). The geometrisation of art to which Vorticism was committed signalled its rejection of naturalism and its advocacy of a critical poiesis that depended on the power of the value-conferring intelligence. Vorticism distanced itself from realist depictions of nature, endeavouring to capture its essence and to distil its inner meaning by attending to its hidden architectonic principles: “To synthesize [the] quality of LIFE with the significance or spiritual weight that is the mark of all the greatest art, should be . . . the work of the Vorticists” (Blast 2 77). Immersion in experience was rejected in favour of the detached observation vouchsafed to the lucid eye. The energy in Vorticist art was controlled by sharp contours, clean lines, and the sense of an underlying structure, which locks its dynamism into the boundaries of the frame. As Lewis once informed Marinetti, in the course of a turbulent aesthetic debate in a public toilet, “Je haïs le mouvement qui déplace les lignes!” (Blasting and Bombardiering 9, original emphases).

As mentioned above, Vorticism, like Futurism, identified modernity with the machine age, but unlike Futurism it neither extolled machinery tout court nor exalted its dynamic potential. For Lewis, the artist’s primary task was to engage with and make sense of the contemporary world; since technology had transformed this world, it was a legitimate, perhaps essential, subject for art. Vorticism, then, actively “sought out machine-forms”, setting out to create pictures that were in turn “a sort of machines” (Wyndham Lewis on Art 340); the artist was in this sense a kind of modern architect or engineer whose productions partook of the technological reality they depicted in that they were “MACHINES OF LIFE, a sort of LIVING plastic geometry” (Blast 1 140). This interest in machinery was not bound up with a naive valorisation of its utopian potential (as in Futurism) but revealed a concern simply to acknowledge its contemporary significance. If anything, despite blessing England for its position as an “Industrial Island machine, pyramidal workshop, its apex at Scotland, discharging itself on the sea” (Blast 1 24), Vorticism sought to score points off Futurism by suggesting that in England the machine was so long established that it was almost passé. Moreover, the machines in which Vorticism showed any interest were either static or slow-moving (hence easily observable and amenable to geometric representation): buildings, factories, bridges, dredgers, cranes.

Blast identified a utopian moment in 1914 when a national transformation of art and culture seemed briefly to be a real possibility but by the end of the First World War Vorticism was effectively finished as a coherent movement, although its influence continued to be felt. The first English avant-garde, Vorticism had urged a full-scale revisioning of the principles on which twentieth-century art should be based, drawing in this process in diverse ways on the example already provided by a number of continental art movements. It was seen by Lewis, its key exponent and most active propagandist, as “a first step towards a reform in the European vision . . . a discipline preliminary to a complete abandonment of the naturalism we inherit from the Greeks” (Wyndham Lewis on Art 333). This reform, to be enacted in the aesthetic sphere, was to have wider cultural repercussions, since it was hoped that it would help to inaugurate a new sensibility; but unlike those avant-gardes that were actively political, Vorticism defended an ideology of aesthetic autonomy, aiming to set patterns for a future life that might follow in the wake of avant-garde creativity. The artist, Lewis insisted, “is NOT a useful figure . . . the moment he becomes USEFUL and active he ceases to be an artist”, and he urged that “our painting at least should be saved the odour of the communistic platform or the medicine chest” (Blast 2 40). Looking back on this period, Lewis emphasised its radical aesthetic implications by reference to his chiliasm: “Mr Wyndham Lewis, the vorticist of 1914-15, was a “sea-green incorruptible” . . . He thought the time had come to shatter the visible world to bits, and build it nearer to the heart’s desire: and he really was persuaded that this absolute transformation was imminent. He was, in fact, a little like the christians of the first century who believed firmly that the end of the world was at hand” (Wyndham Lewis on Art 340). During the Great War it might well have seemed that an entirely different “end” was being scripted; in the 1920s Lewis embarked on his full-scale socio-cultural analysis of the post-war world and gradually, from the mid-twenties, moved away from his earlier advocacy of Vorticism, concluding that its avant-garde utopianism, for all its achievements, had not culminated in the desired transformation of the modern world and acknowledging that he had over-estimated the power of advanced art to produce change outside the aesthetic realm. Of his own youthful (and public) performance of the avant-garde “drama” he wrote: “‘Kill John Bull with Art!’ I shouted. And John and Mrs. Bull leapt for joy, in a cynical convulsion. For they felt as safe as houses. So did I” (Blasting and Bombardiering 36).

References

Wyndham Lewis, Blast 1 (June 1914) rpt. (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1981)
Wyndham Lewis, Blast 2 (July 1915) rpt. (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1981)
Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1937)
Wyndham Lewis, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis ed. W. K. Rose (London: Methuen, 1963)
Wyndham Lewis, Wyndham Lewis on Art: Collected Writings, 1913-1956 eds., Walter Michel and C. J. Fox (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969)
Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York: New Directions, 1974)

Citation: Gasiorek, Andrzej. "Vorticism". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 June 2003 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=1175, accessed 24 May 2022.]

1175 Vorticism 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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