What Is the Difference between Vorticism and Cubism?

Cubism and Vorticism emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century. Though both were marked by formal geometricization and fragmentation, there are some key differences between the two movements.

Feb 11, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature
differences between vorticism and cubism
Portrait of Pablo Picasso by Juan Gris, 1912, Art Institute, Chicago; with Workshop by Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15, Tate, London


Cubism was one of the most influential artistic movements of the twentieth century. One of the many movements it went on to inspire was Vorticism. While Vorticism was beyond a doubt indebted to Cubism’s pioneering of formal fragmentation and geometricization, however, this newer movement was as keen to build on Cubism as it was to define itself against it.


What Is Cubism?

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Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar, and Newspaper by Pablo Picasso, 1913, via Tate, London


The artistic movement we now know as Cubism began in Paris between 1907 and 1908. Its name derives from a review written by Louis Vauxcelles on viewing a selection of Georges Braque’s landscape paintings at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1908. Vauxcelles was unimpressed by Braque’s artworks, which he believed reduced forms to mere “geometric outlines, to cubes.” Despite Vauxcelles’ skepticism, however, Cubism was one of the most influential artistic movements of the twentieth century.


Inspired by the late works of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (who, significantly, died in 1907) and his simplification of objects to geometric forms, as well as by African art, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed a fragmented style of painting in an attempt to convey the impression of the image being looked at from – and refracted through – multiple points of view simultaneously. This technique has much in common with such related techniques as multiplicity and Simultanism.


By bringing different perspectival planes into the one painting, the effect amounts to a flattening and faceting of form. Thus, Cubism broke with the use of linear perspective and classical chiaroscuro by refusing to create the illusion of depth when working on the flat surface of the canvas. With the rise of photography, artistic movements such as Cubism sought to go beyond realistic representation in their artworks.


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Brick Factory at Tortosa by Pablo Picasso, 1909, State Museum of New Western Art, Moscow, via Endless Paintings

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Though technically progressive and stylistically modern, early Cubist works by Picasso and Braque were broadly representational, resisting total abstraction. This can be seen in Picasso’s Brick Factory at Tortosa of 1909, where the landscape is clearly discernible despite the geometricization of form. Other Cubist painters, however, such as František Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp, pursued greater abstraction in their works, which often have no clear subject. As such, Cubism was not a homogenous or unified movement, as is perhaps to be expected. Generally speaking, it can be divided into two major periods: analytical Cubism (1908-1912) and synthetic Cubism (1912-14).


Analytical Cubism refers to early Cubist painters’ “analytical” approach to depicting static forms. The fragmentation of forms and intersecting planes of perspective point to this attempt to analyze an image from a variety of perspectives and then combine these conflicting perspectives within the painting. Analytical Cubist works were typically still-life paintings or, occasionally, landscapes, and the color schemes were fairly muted.


Synthetic Cubism is arguably a more radical and abstract subset of Cubism. In contrast with earlier Cubist works, synthetic Cubism often featured bright, bold color schemes. Perhaps the defining feature of synthetic Cubism, however, was its incorporation of found materials such as newspaper and cardboard to create a collage effect. More artists were involved in this subset of Cubism as the movement began to gain traction within the art world.


What Is Vorticism?

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Front cover of BLAST No. 1: Review of the Great English Vortex’, 1914, via Modernist Journals


Cubism inspired many offshoot movements, including Orphism and Purism. Vorticism, on the other hand, was an artistic movement formed as a response to Cubism in much the same way as Dada, Futurism, and Suprematism.


Vorticism was a modernist avant-garde artistic movement formed in London in 1914. Its manifesto and founding statement was published in July of that year in the first issue of the movement’s own magazine, BLAST, subtitled “The Review of the Great English Vortex.” Both the magazine and the manifesto were largely the work of Wyndham Lewis, though the manifesto bore ten other signatories, and BLAST featured reproductions of Vorticist artworks by Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Cuthbert Hamilton, as well as Lewis. Among its members, Vorticism also featured some significant female artists, including Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders.


The ideological underpinnings of Vorticism were indebted to Ezra Pound’s conceptualization of the vortex, which he defined as “that point in the cyclone where energy cuts into space and imparts form to it,” creating “the pattern of angles and geometric lines which is informed by our vortex in the existing chaos.” With its use of bold lines and preference for the geometric abstraction of form, Vorticism sought to capture the rush and confusion of contemporary experience within the vortex. In focusing on “that point in the cyclone where energy cuts into space and imparts form to it,” Vorticist paintings tend to be colorful, energetic, and seemingly chaotic compositions that work cyclonically to draw the eye to a focal point on the canvas. This point of stillness centers the compositional vortex that surrounds it, as can be seen in Wyndham Lewis’ Composition of 1913.


Cubism vs. Vorticism: Similarities

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Composition by Wyndham Lewis, 1913, via Tate, London


In the British art press, there was a tendency (which Lewis deeply resented) to label any progressive artistic movement as either Cubist or Futurist. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in 1913, Spencer Gore organized an exhibition of works by Lewis, Epstein, David Bomberg, Etchells, Wadsworth, and Christopher R. W. Nevinson, which marketed their work as Cubist. After all, this was a year before BLAST’s publication and the Vorticist movement’s manifesto.


And, certainly, Vorticism was indebted to the pioneering work of Cubism, for all Lewis’ eagerness to define his new movement against Cubism. Much prototypical Vorticist work is only semi-abstract, such as Wyndham Lewis’ 1912 painting The Dancers. Not only does this painting betray a marked Cubist influence, but it may also suggest that Vorticism itself developed in a similar way to Cubism, that is, moving from a broadly representational style towards increasing abstraction.


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The Dancers (Study for ‘Kermesse’) by Wyndham Lewis, 1912, Manchester Art Gallery, via Art UK; with Torso in Metal from Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein, Tate, London, via Atlas Obscura


In Lewis’ view, however, Cubism was too empirical and lacked vitality, whereas Futurism was too exalting in its attitude towards modern machinery, though it did capture the dynamism of life in the modern industrial metropolis. As was Lewis’ way, then, he assimilated the aspects of Cubism that he liked and cast out those he did not in his conceptualization of Vorticism.


However, as mentioned previously, Cubism was not a homogenous or unified movement, nor was it prescriptive in the same way that Vorticism was. There were, therefore, Cubist artists, such as Fernand Léger, whose later works were informed by modern mechanical and metropolitan experience.


Moreover, though Cubism lasted far longer than Vorticism, the “return to order” in British art after the end of the First World War was mirrored by a similar shift in France (and Europe more generally) towards more conservative and straightforward representational artworks around this time. Both movements struggled somewhat after 1914, though Vorticism – having only been officially founded and defined a month before Britain declared war on Germany – was not well enough established to have a comparable cultural influence to that of Cubism. It was also after the war that member of the Vorticist movement William Roberts began to pioneer his own uniquely Cubist style of painting, indicating the slippage between the two movements.


Cubism vs. Vorticism: Differences


Despite this shift, however, Cubism enjoyed a much more pervasive cultural influence, thanks in no small part to its international reach, drawing in and influencing artists from across Europe, the United States, and Russia. Vorticism, on the other hand, was a squarely Anglophone movement. Formed in Britain, Vorticism had one unsuccessful stateside fling when Ezra Pound and wealthy art collector and lawyer John Quinn organized an exhibition of Vorticist artworks at the Penguin Club in New York in 1915.


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Abstract Composition by Jessica Dismorr, c. 1915, via Tate, London


Although Vorticism has not enjoyed the same cultural legacy as Cubism, the art historian Carolyn Tilghman has argued that it was necessary for British artists inspired by Cubism to form a separate movement in order to express a particular kind of modernity endemic to Britain. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the capital of the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, at the time, London was a far more industrially developed city than Paris. And as such, it needed its own artistic style.


Therefore, where Cubism had originally sought to capture ways of looking at an artwork from a multiplicity of viewpoints, Vorticism was more concerned with capturing the feeling of modernity, balancing exhilaration with anxiety. While Cubism had espoused formal fragmentation as a means of conveying perspectival plurality, Vorticism took up this fragmented aesthetic in order to represent the urban environment and the feelings of alienation and dislocation it evoked.


That Vorticism was heavily indebted to Cubism is beyond dispute. While building on the formal fragmentation and geometricization pioneered by Cubism, however, Vorticism aimed to achieve something entirely new in art that was inspired by the machine and urban environment unique (in Europe, at least) to London at that time. While Cubism was originally concerned with exploring and dissecting different ways of looking at images, Vorticism aimed to capture the feeling of living in a modern metropolis, in all its ambivalence and anxiety. Though it did not have the same cultural impact as Cubism, Vorticism was part of the flourishing of radical art in the twentieth century, which Cubism had helped to spark.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.