A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at
Vorticism and the absence of an English Avant-Garde
Edward Wadsworth, Liverpool Shipping (1918), adapted for London Underground in the 20s‘SOME BLEAK CIRCUS, UNCOVERED, CAREFULLY CHOSEN, VIVID NIGHT. IT IS PACKED WITH POSTERITY, SILENT AND UNEXPECTED POSTERITY IS SILENT, LIKE THE DEAD, AND MORE PATHETIC’
Wyndham Lewis, Enemy of the Stars
Wyndham Lewis in 1914
Something in the notion of an artistic avant-garde seems inherently un-English. Hence perhaps the employment of a French term to cover experimental or advanced cultural practices: its connotations, of war, Leninism, conflict and upheaval, seem not to accord with how the English like to see themselves. Hence also the popularity of an Arcadian, pastoral aesthetic in this most urban, industrial and warlike of nations. In the early 20th century, aesthetic innovators usually had to follow the model of the lone eccentric (think Stanley Spencer, or Ronald Firbank). The collectivity that marked the avant-garde of the first half of the century was essentially anathema to this sensibility, give or take a few emigres in St Ives.
Wyndham Lewis, Timon, 1914
In the ferment that preceded the First World War however there were two groupings that deserved the title of vanguard. Most famously, that upper-middle class clique of geniuses and talentless toffs, the Bloomsbury Group, and more significantly the Vorticists, an extremely short-lived group of painters, propagandists, sculptors and writers, active for (at a stretch) about 7 years, from 1913 to 1920: with Wyndham Lewis as its intellectual Cromwell, with a retinue including the brilliant Edward Wadsworth, Helen Saunders, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and as chief cheerleader, Ezra Pound.‘Let us now deride the smugness of The Times. GUFFAW!’
Ezra Pound, ‘Salutation the Third’
The sheer hostility of the Edwardian arbiters of taste towards any such movement can be seen in some of the press reports of the (rather mild: Gaugin, Van Gough, Monet, with one or two more daring Kandinskys here and there) Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910. With all the jittery force of a moral panic, the press evoked political conflict, sexual licentiousness and moral breakdown: 'anarchy and degradation' and 'morbid excresences' in the Morning Post
, 'disease and pestilence' in The Nation
, and 'of no interest except to the student of pathology and the specialist in abnormality' according to the Connoisseur
. Naturally, the ante was upped somewhat for the Vorticists themselves; and equally unsurprisingly, their Un-Englishness was commented upon, their infection with a continental cultural disease: a 'corrupt intellectuality' to the Daily Express
, 'Junkerism in Art' for The Times
Wyndham Lewis, Red Duet, 1914
These reactions were in fact symptomatic of the terror generated by a supposedly uncharacteristic extremism creeping into English cultural and political life: the Suffragettes' move into direct action, the suppression of revolt in Ireland, and a wave of Trade Union militancy: all of which would find echoes in BLAST, the journal of the movement. The 'Blessed' here include the Suffragettes Lillie Lenton and Freda Graham, Unionist advocate of political violence and prosecutor of Oscar Wilde Edward Carson, and Trade Unionist Robert Applegarth. Note also the blessing of Cromwell, a reminder of how England precedes the continent in its penchant for revolutionary violence. Much of BLAST is taken up with a re-imagining of England as the centre of a technological primitivism that would supersede the Italian Futurism and French Cubism that preceded them.
Edward Wadsworth, Liverpool Shipping‘You wops insist too much on the machine. You are always on about these driving belts, you are always exploding about internal combustion. We’ve had machines in England for a donkey’s years, they’re nothing new to us’
Wyndham Lewis in conversation with F.T MarinettiThe Great English Vortex
Gino Severini, Dancer and Sea, 1913
The birth of Vorticism as an independent movement involved the symbolic killing of two fathers. First, the Bloomsbury set centred around Roger Fry's Omega Workshop, and second, Marinetti and the Futurists. The former was seen to represent all that was weak, arts-and-crafts and 'amateur' in English art: the bourgeois dilettantism of Clive and Vanessa Bell, or Duncan Grant, those who would be the London fauves: 'prettiness, with the mid-Victorian languish of the neck' to the Vorticists. The early incarnation of the Vorticists was a split off from the Omega Workshop itself, the 'Rebel Art Centre', made up of Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, CRW Nevinson et al. Their ex-compatriots would soon be scorned in print as the 'BRITTANIC AESTHETE', 'AMATEUR' and 'ART PIMP'. The break with Marinetti followed soon after, although as late as 1913 Lewis' group were describing themselves as Futurists, and their early work shows the influence of Balla and Severini in particular. The latter's 1913 'Dancer and Sea', in its collection of cylinders and polygons delineating motion, bears similarity to Lewis' 'Timon of Athens' portfolio, though here the lines are sharp and angular, the sense of drama and mechanisation carried without the implication of movement. The dabs of pointillist colour and curve in Severini would soon be purged from the British offshoot. Meanwhile CRW Nevinson would be himself purged from the nascent group for co-authoring a manifesto with Marinetti, which has much in common with BLAST, in its attack on English provincials and sentimentalists 'who stupidly adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, sweet and mediocre, the sickly revivals of medievalism, the garden cities...' Nonetheless, Nevinson’s work, which features in BLAST, evolves contemporaneously with the Vorticists, from the dance of girders in ‘Southampton Dock’ to the bleak, foggy Gotham of his ‘New York’.
William Roberts, Combat, 1915
The justifications of the schism can be found in BLAST, in particular in Lewis' many screeds and Pound's 'Vortex Pound'. This hinges on the more advanced state of mechanisation in Britain, and on a faintly racist depiction of the Italians as excited children: 'Elephants are VERY BIG. Motor cars go quickly'. Pound's defining Vortex sees Futurism as a spending of energy, as an overenthusiastic 'DISPERSAL- the disgorging spray of a Vortex with no drive behind it' as opposed to the cool efficiency of the Vorticist. Futurist speed leads to transience, a 'state of flaccidity'. The Bergsonian temporal obsessions of the European avant-garde are linked to death, putrefaction, the organic: 'Futurists, who are only an accelerated sort of Impressionists, DENY the Vortex. They are the CORPSES of VORTICES. POPULAR BELIEFS, movements, etc, are the corpses of vortices. Marinetti is a corpse.'
Helen Saunders, Abstract Multicoloured Composition, 1915
If, then, Vorticism is to be considered as a movement apart from Futurism, then its independence lies in a few scattered artefacts. The two issues of BLAST, a selection of paintings, shown at exhibitions up until 1920's 'Group X'; related works by sympathisers like Jacob Epstein and David Bomberg; more arguably, poems by Pound and sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska: and occasional prose works, such as Helen Saunders' 'A Vision of Mud' and the 1910s output of Lewis himself. The reproductions in BLAST show the style at a peak of metallic propulsion, but a distinctive adaptation of Cubism and Futurism can be seen in something like Lewis' 1912 'The Vorticist', a furious figure, in the act of blasting an adversary. The colour rejects European chromaticism for rust grey, while its comic-book sweeping lines of motion reveal the pulpiness of the Vortex's Modernism; a crass, Boys Own
figure of Man-Machine fervour, its arm morphing into a machine gun. Compared with the accelerated impressionism of say, Boccioni's 1911 'Modern Idol', the advanced status of Vorticism is clear.
From BLAST 1The actual human body becomes of less and less importance every day
Edward Wadsworth's work of the period is even more intense in its starkness and industrialism, explicitly influenced by the industrial landscape of urban England: the 'industrial island machine' of BLAST. His 'Newcastle' is pointedly included therein after the blessing of ports . The 1915 ‘Abstract Composition’ meanwhile veers all the way into Non-Objectivity, its rectilinear contortions and glaring colours suggesting nothing other than the experiments being made by Kasimir Malevich at the same time in Moscow. At this point these two movements – the Vorticists and the Suprematists – though it is very unlikely they were aware of each other, had gone furthest into the machine aesthetic of the international style that would dominate the avant-garde for the next half century. Put Wadsworth’s ‘Mytholmroyd’ woodcut, with its interlocking girders alongside much work created 10 years later and it would seem advanced: the early Wadsworth, and works in BLAST 2, such as the propulsive rectilinear geometry of Jessica Dismoor’s ‘The Engine’, Frederick Etchells’ ‘Progression’ and Helen Saunders’ ‘Atlantic City’ have more in common with El Lissitzky’s Prouns, the Elementarism of Theo van Doesburg, the architectural fantasies of Iakov Chernikhov, than they do with the next 50 years of British art.
David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914
This was not necessarily just a formal question either. Vorticist art excelled at reproduction: it can often be slightly disappointing to see the rather painterly original of one of the xeroxed ferocities in BLAST. Wadsworth’s woodcuts like ‘Liverpool Shipping’ and ‘Drydocked for Scaling and Painting’ achieve this effacing of the orginal and the organic most impressively, like episodes from a history of what Lewis Mumford called the ‘paleotechnical’: the dirty, noisy, lumbering industry of pre-electronic industrial powers like Britain. The 1918 ‘Drydocked’ reflects the experience of mechanised war in its looming, intimidating machinery. Set in an entirely man-made landscape, the easily penetrated and bruised curves of the human are entirely absent, reduced to angular figures applying ‘dazzle paint’. The black-lined geometries present an obstructive web.
Edward Wadsworth, woodcut 1918
This slots in with the Vorticist’s eulogising ofa kind of technologised primitivism: ‘the art instinct is permanently primitive…the artist of the modern movement is a savage (in no sense an ‘advanced’, perfected, democratic, Futurist individual of Marinetti’s limited imagination); this enormous, jangling, fairy desert of modern life serves him as Nature did the more technologically primitive man’. That these woodcuts depicted ‘dazzled ships’, essentially warships with abstract painting designed to evade the enemy’s radar – given a lick of warpaint – is quite apt. Even before the outbreak of war, Vorticism was preoccupied by warfare and the potential for modern man to be reduced to a ‘savage’ or updated to a robot, and in both cases capable mainly of destruction.
Cover for BLAST 2, 1915
Many Vorticist canvases suggest a human body becoming insectoid, eschewing softness for a metallic exoskeleton. Helen Saunders’ 1915 ‘Vorticist Composition (Study for Cannon)’ depicts such a figure, adopting the posture of a praying mantis. Atypically, we have here a figure with a recognisable head and limbs, though each is straightened into lines and points. Its ‘face’ has a single eye, obstructed by stark black. The pink tone of the body suggests flesh in mockery, with the rest of the body attached to a battery of machinery. It resembles Jacob Epstein’s contemporaneous ‘Rock Drill’ or Lewis’ ‘Before Antwerp’ (used for the cover of BLAST 2) in its proto-Science Fiction qualities of a Pulp Modernist machine gothic.
B will see what is hidden to D
Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919
The war, according to the received critical wisdom, is what killed off the movement, with the deaths at the Front of Gaudier-Brzeska and the sympathetic critic T.E Hulme, though its semi-official war art shares the pre-1914 preoccupations of abstracted, dehumanised combat. William Roberts’ work in BLAST 2 takes the geometric figures of David Bomberg’s ‘Mud Bath’ and sets them against each other. His state-commissioned war paintings are less extreme, in that they show rather distressed figures involved in the tedious duties and tasks that made up most of the time not being directly threatned with death. Lewis’ commissioned works like ‘A Battery Shelled’ (1919) similarly return to the figure, only to distort it with Vorticist jaggedness, treating the chaos of No Man’s Land with the same threatening geometry as his 1914 ‘Plan of War’. The shelled battery is what Tom Normand called ‘a fragmented Vorticist architecture’, stylistically consistent with his pre-war work, if now setting it in a recognisable historical time and place.
Edward Wadsworth, Rotterdam, 1914
The Vorticist attitude to war sometimes resembles Dada in its veering from a glorying in destruction to an oblique irony to deliberate nonsense. In the ‘War Number’ BLAST 2, ‘The Crowd Master’ claims that the war caused the popular press to resemble the splenetic sloganeering of BLAST itself, while ‘Super-Krupp, or War’s End’ in BLAST 2 breezily predicts perpetual war: ‘we might eventually arrive at such a point of excellence that two-thirds of the world might be exterminated with mechanical precision in a fortnight. War might be treated on the same basis as agriculture.’ Then we have the point ‘nobody but Marinetti, the Kaiser and professional soldiers actually WANT war’ followed by the more disturbing contention (which points the way to Lewis’ later Fascism, here with a more bohemian tinge): ‘all men cannot, and never will be, ‘philosophic men’. So what are they going to be: soldiers and politicians, a good many, I expect – and much happier and more amusing that way…do not let us, like Christian Missionaries, spoil the savages all around us’.‘Contradict yourself. In order to live, you must remain broken up.’
Wyndham Lewis, The Code of a Herdsman
Vorticism shares with Futurism and the avant-gardes that would follow it (Constructivism, De Stijl, Neues Bauen) a desire to change much more than just art practice, to alter the city and everyday life – born of Lewis’ permanently conflicting duality of ‘art’ and ‘life’, with one or the other becoming supreme at various points – though never quite managing to fuse, unlike his inadvertent continental successors. These contradictions are worked out in the Nietzschean Code of a Herdsman
and the urbanist treatise The Caliph’s Design
. The former is a restatement of the artist’s primacy, with its misanthropy and misogyny unleavened by the familiar droll contrarianism. Most remarkable here is the advocation of a divided subjectivity: not the Bergsonism he derides in BLAST (and would devote much of the 1920s to demolishing) but the self as a series of contraries: a line similar to Blake’s in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
: ‘without contraries there is no progression’.
‘Never fall into the vulgarity of assuming yourself to be one ego. Each trench must have another one behind it. Each single self – that you manage to be at any given time – must have five at least in front of it. B will see what is hidden to D.’
The motif of the self divided, a mutant version of the Cartesian dualism, recurs in the stories collected as The Wild Body
. These stories mostly precede Vorticism, but the statements of intent are recognisably akin to the aphoristic, telgraphed sloganeering spluttering of Vorticist prose: outlining a vision of humanity inspired by ridicule, ‘essays in a new human mathematic’ or depictions of ‘intricately moving bobbins…not creations but puppets’. The Wild Bodies are ‘not human beings. Their mechanism is a logical structure.’ The role of the satirist then, is to ‘thump us like a racing engine in the body of a car’.
From the Life of the Marionettes
CRW Nevinson, A Dawn, 1914
The 1918 version of Tarr
represents an attempt to transfer this prose into an (almost) conventional novelistic form, laying the foundations for the ‘cinematic’ style that would mark his 20s-30s novels. ‘It was my object to eliminate anything less essential than a noun or a verb. Propositions, pronouns, articles – the small fry – I would abolish. Of course I was unable to do this, but for the purposes of the novel I produced a somewhat jagged prose.’ This is at work most obviously in Tarr
’s descriptive passages, such as this from a dancehall scene, where the figures in conflict across the room appear as a more figurative version of a Vorticist abstract:
‘==Their hostess also was dancing. Kreisler noted her with a wink of recognition. ==Dancing very slowly, almost mournfully, he and his partner bumped into her each time they passed. The widow felt the impact, but it was only at the third round that she perceived the method and intention inducing these bumps. She realised that they were going to collide with the other lady. This collision could not be avoided. But she shrank away, made herself as small as possible, bumped gently and apologised over her shoulder with a smile and a screwing up of the eyes, full of meaning. ==At the fourth turn of the room, however, Kreisler having increased her speed sensibly, she was on her guard, in fact already suggesting that she should be taken back to her seat. He pretended to be giving the hostess a wide berth, this time, but suddenly and gently swerved, and bore down upon her. The widow veered frantically, took a false step, tripped on her dress, tearing it and fell to the ground.’
This partially successful linguistic purging results in a fitful, cicular style, fitting the geometries of the dancers. The regular use of the ‘==’ has a montage effect, rupturing the text and jolting it forwards. Used here, it suggests moments of particular intensity in the movements, stuttering the queasy flow.
The most extreme point of Vorticism in prose however is Enemy of the Stars
, a play, of a sort, included in BLAST 1. To disassemble this chaotic mess of pronouncements, atrocities, apocalyptic imagery and disjointed description into a sequence of events is all but impossible. It traces the Agonistic battles of two protagonists, one of whom eventually is killed by the other. The title aligns it with the ‘Storming Heaven’ attempted by the avantgarde, with Malevich/Matyushin/Kruchenykh’s Victory over the Sun
or Marinetti’s La Conquete des Etoiles
, though with this utopianism dragged down into Vorticism’s industrial wasteland. The figures themselves are part of the landscape – a broken tangle of flesh, nature, machinery and industrial waste: the Yard in which part of it takes place is
‘Rouge mask in aluminium mirror, sunset’s grimace through the night.
A leaden gob, slipped at zenith, first drop of violent night, spreads cataclysmically in harsh water of coming. Caustic Reckett’s stain.
Three trees, above canal, sentimental, black and conventional in number, drive leaf flocks, with jeering cry.
Or they slightly bend their joints, impossible acrobats; step rapidly forward, faintly incline their heads.
Across the mud is pod of the canal their shadows are gawky toy crocodiles, sawed up and down by infant giant?’
The Marinetti-inspired ‘destruction of syntax’ aspired to in Tarr
is here complete. The succession of incongrous yet evocative images mark it out as a rare English follower of Lautreamont’s ‘Chance Meetings’. Aside from the intriguing, horrifying maze of the style, this incarnates Lewis’ vision of a society and self in endless conflict. In his work there runs a kind of negative, irresolveable dialectic, with destruction as the only possible outcome. In a 1932 essay on the play, Lewis writes of ‘the human mind’ as ‘an enemy of life, an oddity outside the machine’. This total metaphysical pessimism would seem to come from elsewhere than a faddish, self-dramatising art movement, though this is essentially what Vorticism was, and from where it drew its strength.
Wyndham Lewis, The Crowd, 1916
‘Kill John Bull with Art! I shouted. And John and Mrs Bull leapt with joy, in a cynical convulsion, for they felt safe as houses. And so did I.’
Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering
The PLACID, NON-ENERGISED Future
Frederick Etchells, Hyde Park, 1915
Post-war, there were hints of what Vorticism could have become, an analogue of the constructive avant-gardes of Russia and Germany, with their aims to transform everyday life: though this is held back essentially by ego, by Lewis’ refusal to take his own advice in his constant insistence on his status as Artist, possessor of a superior perception. Perhaps the last Vorticist tract is the 1919 The Caliph’s Design – Architects, Where is Your Vortex?
Here Lewis advocates the effective reconstruction of London along Vorticist principles. This reconstructive vision pervades the works of the 1920 ‘Group X’ exhibition, such as Wadsworth’s proto-brutalist studies for a Vorticist architecture, or a canvas like Cuthbert Hamilton’s ‘Reconstruction’, where the debris of Vorticism is given striking colour, seething with life, implying the illusory victory. This cleaning away of the wreckage of history parallels the pamphlet’s tone: ‘we are all perfectly agreed, are we not, that practically any house, railing, monument, wall, structure, thoroughfare, or lamp post in this city should be instantly pulled down..?’ Such statements are tempered by an ironic paternalism, that such a permanent revolution is necessary if only for the artist to gain acceptance: ‘when I say that I should like to see a completely transfigured world, it is not because I want to look
at it. It is you
who would look at it. It would be your spirit that would gain by this exhilarating spectacle. I
should merely benefit, I and other painters like me, by no longer finding ourselves in the position of freaks.’
Edward Wadsworth, Abstract Composition, 1915
There is a refusal here of collectivity, which would be the real end of the movement: Lewis’ insistence on its efficacy only as a vehicle for his own aggrandisement. Undoubtedly he was the prime theorist and ideologist of the movement, but no more than, say, Van Doesburg dominated De Stijl, which certainly didn’t lead to the dissolution of the Dutch avant-garde. Lewis would claim in the 50s that ‘Vorticism was what I said and did for a certain period’, to the justified outrage of the surviving members such as William Roberts. What happens next to Lewis is fascinating, in that he morphs himself into his own collectivity, ‘shaking the Bolshevist with one hand and the Fascist with the other’, what McLuhan called a ‘one-man avant-garde’, transferring what elsewhere in Europe was the collective’s role onto his own persona as The Enemy, an inevitably quixotic campaign. However the real failure of the English avant-garde was a consequence of the outcome of the First World War: Britain smugly Victorious, yet so shaken by the experience of total war that it would shelter in its arcadian fantasy until rudely awakened again only 20 years later. It would be assisted in its slumber by the United States, gradually assuming its worldwide role and responsibility as guardian of laissez-faire and imperialism, effacing the residues of ‘the dubious continent of Europe’: the only acceptable continental influence being occasional outgrowths of Parisian art deco, which had cut itself off from the Berlin-Moscow currents of the new avant-garde, enjoying its own luxuriant slumber in a slightly more aesthetically pleasing manner than the English.
CRW Nevinson, Poster for Wembley Exhibition, 1925
This decline is swift and tragi-comic: see for instance CRW Nevinson’s deco poster for the 1925 Wembley exposition for the transition from BLAST to Betjeman. Or to see what happened instead of the Vorticist reconstruction of London, go to Aldwych, laid out in the 1920s, to Bush House’s Beaux-Arts, neoclassical tribute to British-American Friendship. Walking up from Bush House along Kingsway then turning into High Holborn is a (now rather unremarkable) office block – designed by Frederick Etchells, signatory of the Vorticist manifesto, this was the first Modernist building in London, as late as 1930. Etchells was the translator of Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture
, and it's notable how for the next decade the avant-garde would be an importation along with the wave of emigres post-1933, the British adaptation of it into something as distinctive as its forbears more or less forgotten. If Vorticism returns, it is in the 1950s-60s transformation of the Corbusian beton brut
into the totally English 'New Brutalism', which Reyner Banham nearly correctly called the first significant British contribution to Modernism – which in its techno-primitivism, its rictus rectilinearity, is Wadsworth’s Vorticist architecture made ferroconcrete flesh, barely imaginable anywhere else but in Britain.
Cuthbert Hamilton, Reconstruction, 1920
The other legacy of the Vortex is that of crazes and fads. The Vorticists were adepts at creating a moral panic, leading the press to make the connection between revolutionary art and revolutionary politics that they themselves refused. This reached its highpoint soon after the first BLAST, when Lewis was asked by the Prime Minister, Asquith, to assure him that he had no subversive intent. Michael Bracewell caught this as the Vorticist ‘blueprint for self-advertisement that would do credit to the most accomplished of contemporary PR companies’: but also as ‘a blueprint for punk rock’, so its no surprise that their descendants are more the likes of Mark E Smith than the proudly vacuous Britartists. It's an interesting irony though that a group so concerned with timelessness, stillness, an impregnable centre orchestrating energy, would be most influential in its use of sudden shock and the transient moment of outrage. Nonetheless, the Vorticist claim was that ‘a movement towards art and imagination could burst up in this unmusical, anti-artistic, unphilosophic country with more force than anywhere else’: and that still sounds like a precise description.