Friday, 22 July 2011

The Vorticists at Tate Britain

This exhibition of Vorticist work at Tate Britain is the first major survey retrospective of this movement in thirty five years. As a student at St. Andrews, I became somewhat obsessed with them, their brief moment of art-political notoriety, and their subsequent sad dissolution in the trenches of the First World War. Vorticism, a sarcastic English cackle echoing in the uncertain hinterland between Cubism and Futurism, was the one truly radical homegrown contribution to European modernism before the Great War, which makes its subsequent neglect somewhat puzzling.

The first piece encountered by the visitor, in a dazzling opening to the show, is Jacob Epstein's re-constructed Rock Drill from 1913-15. Set against an appropriate backdrop of a livid pink-vermillion wall, this piece encapsulates many of Vorticism's more aggressive and discomfiting attributes; unashamed virility, chauvinism, the head-first enthusiasm for the machine aesthetic and, of course, sex.

Jacob Epstein, The Rock-Drill, 1913-15, reconstructed 1970s. Tate Britain
Epstein however was at one remove from the core of the Vorticist movement, shying away from being a signatory to the manifesto BLAST, although he did contribute a written piece. Having been badly stung by the constant fevered criticism of his work and its sexualised agenda by conservative British art critics, Epstein was developing a robust, independent position in aesthetic debate, one which viewed programmatic declarations of the type favoured by the Vorticists with suspicion.

This exhibition has three real strengths. Firstly, it shies away from focusing on the relationships between the core Vorticists- Percy Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska- relationships which have been the subject of much speculation in art history. Instead, it allows the visitor to re-construct the development of Vorticism for themselves, through re-building the exhibition timeline between 1913-17. For the first time, this allows some familiar works to be seen in their proper context- a strategy probably borrowed from Anna Greutzner Robbins' 1997 Barbican show, Modern Art in Britain 1910-14. The remarkable rare drawings by Lewis associated with Timon of Athens from 1912 (particularly a tiny ink sketch entitled Soldiers, as mesmerising as Gaudier's late Japanese Mask not shown here) are a good example of this, displaying a malevolent control of taut, whiplash line, that was still evident twenty years later in his Thirty Personalities and a Self-Portrait.

Secondly, the exhibition gives due weight to those adherents of Vorticism who have been largely forgotten since the end of the first world war, or who are remembered for work done later in their careers- not only the Edward Wadsworths and William Roberts, but also individuals such as Lawrence Atkinson. Atkinson, alone, persisted in pursuing an abstract style after the end of World War One and, in the changed cultural circumstances following the end of the conflict, it proved to be a lonely road to obscurity. A similar fate befell the women artists who enthusiastically followed the emerging movement- Helen Saunders, Jessica Dismorr, Kate Lechmere. All are sensitively re-incorporated into their proper place in the developing historical narrative.

Thirdly- and perhaps most importantly- the exhibition gives due weight to the written, without which an understanding of the movement would be likely to escape the visitor. For it was in the tumbling-over-itself bombast, penned by Lewis and Pound, in the first issue of BLAST that marks out their hardened, radical-right take on contemporary art. The writings also hold the key to understanding Lewis' challenging The Crowd of 1913, a modernist painting unique in that it does not celebrate the revolutionary potential of the urban crowd, but fears it, and seeks its control in a dense lattice of dun coloured lines and blocks.

Lewis' bizarre jackdaw's nest of phobia of the contemporary, narcissism, and general paranoia had, by the early 1920s, seen a failed attempt to re-start Vorticism (the Tyros and Other Portraits series) and a retreat into a series of satirical slashings of Bloomsbury, the Sitwells and the hegemonic Francophilia which governed the English "avant-garde" of the 1920s. Lewis' call for an unashambedly intellectual, hard edged, mechanised modernism had become a barely noticed casualty of the 1914-18 war.

Edward Wadsworth Mytholmroyd 1914. Private Collection

To be picky, perhaps the exhibition could have said more about the fate of all the Vorticists after the lingering dissolution of the movement during 1915-17. Gauder's death, sombrely announced in the second number of BLAST, and Pound's subsequent disillusioned flit to Paris, and advocacy of a new sculptural totem in Constantin Brancusi, would have been interesting to have seen a little more developed. But that is probably being overly-demanding. In the final room, the bizarre Vortographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Edward Wadsworth's compelling wood and lino cuts of northern, industrial England, provides more than enough for the viewer to contend with.

This is an extremely well curated and thought through take on a complicated and challenging movement. Try and see it before it closes, because there won't be another show like this for at least the next thirty five years. This is so well done, there won't need to be.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review of a fascinating exhibition