The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World – review

“The moon is frequently associated in the poem with creativity, while the sun is more often found in relation to the sphere of political and social activity, although there is frequent overlap between the two. From the Rock Drill sequence on, the poem’s effort is to merge these two aspects of light into a unified whole.–Wikipedia.

This article from the Guardian gives us some context for Pound’s impact, and gives us some insight into the creative explosion in the arts just before the first world war turned that creativity on its head. Some accents added and some removed–steve fly.

The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World – review

The Observer
, Sunday 19 June 2011.

Tate Britain

    ‘A pile-driving vision of the future’: The Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein, 1913-1915. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/ Rex Features
    Rock Drill ought to be his name, not just the title of this long-lost work (this is a reconstruction of the dismantled original). He has terrible force of personality. And he is the most devastating creation in this show by some way, a sculpture from 1913 that seems to summarise all that vorticism stood for with its driving ambition for machine-age dynamism and shattering new forms. The Rock Drill ought to be the ideal host, the perfect symbol for both the movement and the show. Except that Epstein was never a paid-up vorticist.
    In the long march through modernism, vorticism is the quickest of steps. It flares up in 1914, peaks briefly in 1915 and sputters out towards the end of the first world war. There are only two shows. There are only two issues of its in-house journal, Blast. There may be only one full-time vorticist. “Vorticism,” declared Wyndham Lewis in the 1950s, “was what I, personally, did, and said, at a certain period.” The assertion may have infuriated the surviving members of the group, but it is not without its merit when you consider the diversity of their gifts, from the painter David Bomberg to the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, compared to Lewis’s single-mindedness as ringleader, recruiting sergeant, megaphone, exemplar and theorist of England’s only homegrown avant-garde movement. Lewis belongs to the first generation of Europe’s non-representational artists. His drawings are incisive, satirical, on the edge of abstraction. His paintings from this phase – angular, syncopated, explosive – are even better, which is some claim, given that scarcely any survive. In the 1912 illustrations for Timon of Athens, he begins to abandon depth for a flat pageant of forms that jostle like the elements of some unsolved puzzle. By 1915, in his enormous painting The Crowd, he shows quasi-cubist figures haplessly scattered in a system of grids that seems to prefigure the pinball machine. Workshop (1914-15) is a marvellous concatenation of geometric planes, in coruscating pinks and hot mustards, that almost resolve into windows, ladders, stacks and shelves, by day and yet also, as it seems, by night. It turns architecture inside out. And seeing it in Tate Britain‘s survey, surrounded by fading issues of Blast, old catalogues and invitations, typed manifestos and handwritten declarations of solidarity or hatred – period pieces of English art history from 100 years ago – it suddenly looks more modern than ever. With its graphic zip and register, Workshop conjures pop art half a century in advance. There are other masterpieces in this show, but not many. Tate Britain has David Bomberg’s terrific painting The Mud Bath, with its interplay of bent, reclining and zigzagging forms packed into a scarlet tank. It has Gaudier-Brzeska’s Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, biting its mucklestone lip. From the front, it is Pound to a stylised T (was ever a poet more portrayed?) from his goatee to his bouffant quiff. From the rear, it resembles a circumcised phallus. “Make it virile,” was Pound’s bombastic command; contemporary critics found it merely pornographic. Nobody visiting this show could fail to spot the influence of abroad in almost every work. The Dancers, Les Demoiselles: Wyndham Lewis’s chorus line wends its way directly out of Picasso. Roger Fry had mounted his celebrated exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, back in 1910, the same year Marinetti delivered his futurist lectures in London. The trick with this show is to try and remain indifferent to the obvious strains of cubism and futurism that appear wherever you look. It is not hard, for instance, to deduce local figurative forms in all this accordion-pleated abstraction – piano keys and nightclubs, people and performers, London alleys and even the back-to-back terraces of northern mining towns. Lewis saw that cubism, for instance, could be more than a highly advanced visual language. It could be made to speak of life itself, with all thronging motion, humanity, incident. One of the strongest works here is his wonderfully acute Architect With Green Tie (1909), which skewers the self-importance of a particular man while sending up the profession’s characteristic fondness for that calculated spot of colour. The work isn’t abstract at all, in fact; it’s one of Lewis’s best caricatures. But it also predates vorticism, exposing an unusual dilemma for the curators of this show, which originated in North Carolina. Vorticism is such a brief movement and so little of the art survives (a huge tranche of it, belonging to the US collector John Quinn, vanished long ago) that it is quite a feat to assemble anything representative. The exhibition attempts to counter the problem by including a good many fellow-travellers, recreating both of the original vorticist shows and displaying the issues of Blast, with its upper-case insults, wonderful woodcuts and wild demagoguery, along with testaments of war, imaginary and real. Here is the row between Lewis and Fry over the Daily Mail‘s Ideal Home Exhibition, of all things, played out in aggressive letters. Here are the missives from the Western Front, including Gaudier-Brzeska’s final postcard before he died in the trenches. He was 23. By the time you get to the end of this vigorous yet melancholy exhibition, vorticism has dwindled into a graphic style. Anyone can imitate it by now and they do. There are still some startling works to come: Edward Wadsworth‘s fantastically concise woodcuts are among the best things here. Look at his Newcastle, as neatly condensed a sonnet to industry, ironwork, bridge span and community as you could find, all stitched together with saw-tooth zips: English printmaking at its sharpest. But even if its members had not lost their lives, the first world war had to kill off this machine-loving movement. Alas, because this show is so strictly vorticist, you do not see how the best of the artists responded, what Lewis made of the trenches in his war paintings, how he mocked his own brutal machismo, his own vicious energy, in the savage self-portrait Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro. But what you do see is what became of Epstein’s The Rock Drill, once again an accidental symbol of the group. Legs gone, drill removed, hands lopped off, Epstein turned the torso into an amputee, vulnerable, disarmed, a victim of wartime violence.

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