In retrospect, Vorticism seemed dominated by the personality of Wyndham Lewis, not because he was the best painter, but because as a skillful polemicist he was his own best publicist.
In 1956 the Tate Gallery in London held an exhibition entitled Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism in which ‘other Vorticists’ were relegated to an inferior position.
Another survivor, William Roberts, rightly protested in some virulent pamphlets.
Wyndham Lewis was not the most important of the abstract artists working in England around 1914, but the publication of the magazine B LA ST that Lewis edited, was one of the most important events in English art of the time.
There were only two issues. One in the summer of 1914, ‘this enormous puce colored periodical’, as Lewis described it, which the protagonists can be seen holding, like children clutching their storybooks, in Roberts’s comic re-creation of the scene fifty years later, The Vorticists at the Café de Ia Tour Eiffel, now in the Tate Gallery, London.
The second and last issue, leaner and in a black and white cover, appeared in 1915.
Many of the works by Lewis, Roberts, Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, and others, that were reproduced in BLAST, have disappeared and this is now the only record of them.
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BLA ST was printed on spongy paper in very black ink and coarse type. In an essay on ‘The Future of the Book ‘ in 1926 the Russian artist and designer EI Lissitzky wrote of BLAST as one of the precursors Of the New Typography which revolutionized the graphic design in the twenties and thirties and is still with us (often now debased and meaningless).
This and Edward Johnston’s lettering for the Underground in 1917 were England’s last important contribution to the modern movement in design and anticipated the typographical innovations of De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Russian designers like Rodchenko and Lissitzky himself.
Many of the works of these early English abstract artists, particularly those of Wadsworth and Lewis, look as if they were inspired by the then recently developed technique of aerial photography.
Here they anticipated the works of Malevich, whose suprematist paintings and drawings are now thought to date from 1915.
It is not certain that Malevich knew of their work — although if Lissitzky could see BLAST, so could Malevich, but this might possibly have been at a later date.
The resemblances of vorticist and suprematist works are probably due to the fact they were both influenced by Cubism and Futurism, by photography, and by recent developments in engineering technology and architecture.
Ezra Pound, who was then a close associate of Lewis and who gave the movement its name, described in an article at the time how Vorticism differed from Futurism: ‘Futurism is descended from Impressionism.
Futurism is essentially an acceleration of successive images, seen simultaneously, across a very shallow plain, as also was the ‘Cubo- futurism ‘ of Marcel Duchamp‘s Nude Descending a Staircase. What Vorticism did was to extend this acceleration into depth, creating an intense, inrushing perspective — a vortex. Pound wrote: ‘The image is not an idea.
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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. Indecency one can only call it a VORTEX. And from this necessity came the name ‘ vorticism.’
In order that BLAST should not go unnoticed, the publication of the first issue was celebrated by a Blast Dinner — the occasion recalled in Roberts’s Tate painting and a Blast Party at the ‘Cave Of the Golden Calf’ a night-club run by Madame Strindberg, the play- wright’s second wife, at which, according to Edgar Jepson, ‘the Turkey Trot and the Bunny Hug were performed ‘.
This unditenjx in BLAST like the lists of ‘Blasts ‘and ‘Blesses — ‘ where individ ua18 and institutions were damned or praised — was obviously designed to attract maximum publicity, but underneath the bombast and the self-propaganda, the blasting and bombarding, Che movement, wag a serious attempt to establish a viable modern style in England which would probably have succeeded but for the war.
BLAST contained (in Lewis’s manifestos) some of the most intelligent criticism of Cubism and Futurism ever written.
Wadsworth contributed a review, with extensive translated extracts, of Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
Wadsworth’s own paintings of the period are more rational, cooler than those of Lewis. They anticipate in some ways the style Kandinsky was to adopt after the war, at the Bauhaus, but which at this stage he had only formulated theoretically in his writings.
Lewis’s work is more dynamic, less tightly organized than Wadsworth’s, very powerful and cerebral with the same kind of brutal, slightly inhuman energy that is found in his first novel, Tarr.
Coming across reproductions of Lewis’s paintings or drawings as one thumbs one’s way through the thick, spongy pages of BLAST gives one a sudden feeling of vertigo, of plunging into an abyss of space.
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Pound, in coining the name Vorticism, had exactly caught the feeling of Lewis’s work — in this sense alone was Lewis right in asserting, many years later, that he was the only Vorticist.
(In his introduction to the Tate Gallery catalog in 1956 Lewis wrote ‘Vorticism, in fact, was what l, personally, did, and said, at a certain period.’)
Some of the drawings and paintings of Frederick Etchells arc very close to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s designs (of about the same time or slightly later) for the interior of the Bassett-Lowke house in Northampton (1915—16).
Etchells himself turned to architecture after the war. He made the first English translation of Le Cor- busier’s Towards a New Architecture and designed the first modern office block in London for Crawfords, in High Holborn (still stand- ing).
The same vigorous decorative mannerism (exploited much later,
This idea was taken from Apollinaire — and somewhat bowdlerized. Where the Vorticists had ‘Blast’, Apollinaire had ‘Merde.
in the twenties, by Art Deco designers) can be seen in some of Roberts’s work of the period.
One of these, a pencil drawing entitled St George and the Dragon was reproduced in the Evening News in April 1915 and caused something of a stir. Roberts was only nineteen at the time.
David Bomberg was in his early twenties. He was never formally a Vorticist, although associated with them.
His early works like Mud Bath and In the Hold and the series of lithographs for the Russian Ballet (not published until 1919 but done before the war) are amongst the most accomplished of the abstract or near-abstract work produced in England at this time, and more of his best work seems to have survived than that of the other painters.
He was only on the fringe of Vorticism and his work was freer, more lyrical (yet very strong) in color.
Although there is a strong diagonality characteristic of Vorticism in Bomberg’s early work, he was more concerned with preserving the flatness of the plane surface of the picture.
There is no vertiginous, inrushing of forms into space as in Lewis’s work, and to a lesser extent that of Wadsworth, Roberts, and Etchells.
Epstein’s Rockdrill in which the machine-like figure was originally mounted on a real mechanical drill and the last works of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the young French sculptor who worked in London and who was killed at the front in 1915, shows the strong influence of vorticist ideas, resulting in brutal, dynamic energy.
Brutality is not usually an admirable quality in art, any more than in life, and with it usually goes a corresponding sentimentality. (This is true of both Gaudier and Epstein’s work, although not of Lewis’s.)
This brutal energy was characteristic of Vorticism. At their best, the Vorticists achieved a strong visualization of the headlong flight of Europe into mechanical barbarity, an awareness of the brutalization of man by his irresponsible control of his environment that is lacking in the idealized art of Cubism and the romanticized art of Futurism.
This, and the acceleration of forms into depth, was the significant contribution of Vorticism to the art of the twentieth century.
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