I first came across Vorticism when I was about 12 and our class art project was to produce a portrait of ourselves in the Vorticist style. I realised at the time that it wasn’t a masterpiece (it’s somewhere in the attic and, even if I found it, I wouldn’t let you see it) and that I hadn’t quite captured the Vorticist aesthetic but then I had no idea how wrong I’d gone. My own attempt played with the faceted angularity of Vorticism figuration, which originated from Cubism, but I had not grasped the subtle abstractions that develop this movement far beyond the previous Cubist works. It’s lucky I decided to become an art historian, not an artist.
There is no doubt that I am a fan of this period – indeed of most 20th century British artwork – but that never normally stops me from criticising. This exhibition, however, is spectacular, bringing together an amazing collection of artists, charting a movement that followed in the wake of Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism.
The Tate Britain exhibition opens with the now-familiar Jacob Epstein sculpture, Rock Drill – a modern phallic power, a machine-like figure, astride a drill, an emblem of industry further representative of his hard phallus. Although later emasculated in the reduced version, this work expresses the confidence and power of Britain on the brink of war.
Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from the ‘Rock Drill’, 1913-16. Own photograph.
Tate have set the sculpture against a pink wall, evoking the colour of the first issue of Blast in 1914, an announcement of Vorticist ideals as well as a presentation of literary values. Although this is one of the most iconic pieces in the exhibition, and Epstein was credited by the Vorticists, he never officially joined the group. Instead, this sculpture shows the importance of machine aesthetics to these artists.
Jacob Epstein, Rock Drill, 1913-15. Own photograph.
Aiming to place Vorticism in an international context, this exhibition looks at a tiny period of about two to four years, studying the impact of World War I on the Vorticists through close historical analysis. The specificity of this exhibition looks at Vorticism in its own time, showing how quickly these artists were undermined by the reality and atrocities of war. Many of the paintings from this time are now lost. Imagine what may only be out there. Indeed, the curators optimistically hope that this exhibition, the first of its kind in our internet age, may tempt some hidden gems out of our attics.
The exhibition, which works chronologically, starts with a broad introduction addressing the explosion of the avant garde and, in turn, Vorticism, in London. Wyndham Lewis when describing the concept to a friend in 1914 said ‘Think of a whirlpool… At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’ Tate makes this statement clear and thus help to define this isolated movement.
Ezra Pound commissioned his close friend, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, to carve the similarly iconic Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914, which sits proudly in the centre of the second room. Pound’s only instruction was that the work was to be virile and Gaudier-Brzeska didn’t let him down. Influenced by the Moai of Easter Island, Pound’s ‘back’ is depicted as a giant phallus. Known for his direct methods of carving, Gaudier-Brzeska worked directly from the stone, without using models – you can feel his passion and energy as you look at the piece.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914 – rear view. Own photograph.
There really are too many masterpieces to name – the striking Bomberg paintings in room 2, the Epstein drawings that sit proudly on statement burgundy walls in the third room. Tate have done this well. The exhibition seems to get a sense of artists’ individual characters, with rooms focusing on singular figures, such as Epstein, in this dimly lit exploration of a number of his sculptures.
David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914. Own photograph.
The summer of 1915 heralded the first Vorticist exhibition at the Doré Galleries in London where six artists were invited to show alongside seven of the eleven original Vorticists; Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth. The exhibition was a culmination a series of modern art exhibitions in London and was one of the most pronounced demonstrations of Vorticism. For me, Gaudier-Brzeska is the star of this section of the exhibition. His large dynamic works are shown alongside miniscule sculptures next to sensitive studies from his sketchbooks. The display of one of his sketchbooks is brilliantly done – shown in a cabinet, a (badly lit) screen to the right shows a man flicking through the pages so we can appreciate every sheet rather than experience the usual yearning we are left with when such books are displayed. I do hope this is something we begin to see more of.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Doorknocker, 1914. Own photograph.
Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in the trenches aged only 23 and was already dead by the time of this 1915 exhibition, a powerful reminder of the times in which the Vorticists were working. His death was announced in the second (and last) issue of Blast which also included an article he had written earlier.
The same room also has a work by Wyndham Lewis, the self-proclaimed leader of the movement – The Crowd from 1914-15. This ingenious abstract composition suggests a modern city. Individual figures lose their sense of individuality as they too become rigid structures.
Wyndham Lewis, The Crowd, 1914-15. Own photograph.
The final room, in two sections, brings us to 1917 looking at the Penguin Club exhibition of that year, the last in the Vorticists’ ‘lifetime’, and the ‘vortographs’ of Alvin Langdon Coburn, an innovator and creative photographer. The strong wall colours split the room with the photographic pieces hung on a powerful blue. Here, my favourite works have to be the Wadsworth woodcuts – tiny images dealing initially with industrial towns from the North of England where Wadsworth explores and exploits the potential of the texture and contrast of his medium.
Alvin Langdon Coburn works. Own photograph.
The War was a source of inspiration for many of these artists, most of whom also fought for their country. The sombre feeling of the exhibition perfectly captures the environment in which they were working. Big names successfully mix with those who are lesser known, including the female artists Dorothy Shakespear and Helen Saunders whose powerful compositions and use of colour is most striking.
Dorothy Shakespear, Composition in Blue and Black, 1914-15. Image via www.artmonthly.co.uk.
Vorticism has a distinctive look and an inherent aesthetic; the works are abstract expressions of a grey and gloomy time. They show the subtle traffic of ideas from Europe and the continent through which the Vorticists forged their own distinctive style and ideas – ideas brilliantly explored in the catalogue that traces the movement’s connections with both New York and Europe. Although, the Vorticists were a resolutely English group, they were influenced by worldwide trends and had a diverse heritage – Epstein was an American Jew, Gaudier-Brzeska originated from France, Lewis was Canadian-born and Ezra Pound, their spokesperson, was American. A cosmopolitan England – today’s England.
Yes, I had a few of my usual moans – some of the grey paint I disliked so intensely in the Miró show seems to have come out of the cupboard again and some of the labels are peculiarly placed at the back of the sculptures but, overall, Tate haven’t tried to jazz this up – it is a beautifully curated selection of stunning and important art works. It is clearly and concisely laid out – you can walk around the sculptures, walk through the rooms without obstruction and understand the development of the movement.
The War ended and with it Vorticism – one of its many casualties. The main problem with Vorticism is that too few people know about this short-lived movement and this exhibition and catalogue should help to change that. Too few works survive but the energy, talent and sheer vivacity of these artists, despite the horrific times in which they worked, shines through. It is a brilliant exhibition, bringing these genii to the forefront. Bravo Tate.
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World opens tomorrow until 4th September 2011 at Tate Britain, http://www.tate.org.uk.