Vorticism is a modernist avant-garde artistic movement formed in London in 1914. Building on the contemporary movements of Cubism and Futurism, Vorticism aimed to capture the dynamism and fragmentation of modern metropolitan life without exalting modern mechanization for its own sake alone. With the imminent outbreak of the First World War, however, Vorticism ultimately floundered as a movement. Nonetheless, the skills of the Vorticists were harnessed as an important part of the war effort.
The Origins of Vorticism
The founding members of the Vorticist movement were first brought together under a very different artistic project. In 1913, Roger Fry set up the Omega Workshops with the intention of rescuing the continental Post-Impressionist aesthetic from the margins of the Anglophone art scene by bringing it into domestic spaces. At the same time, the Omega would support young and progressive artists by providing them with communal, salaried work.
Among these young artists were Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Edward Wadsworth. Following a dispute now known as the “ideal homes rumpus,” this group of artists (largely under Lewis’ leadership) had broken away from the Omega by 1914. Together, they set about envisaging a new future for British art in stark contrast with the continental Post-Impressionist aesthetic favored by Roger Fry.
The Rebel Art Centre
Under the financial backing of Lewis’ friend and fellow artist Kate Lechmere, this dissenting group of artists from the Omega Workshops set up the Rebel Art Centre in 1914. Taking up residence at 38 Great Ormond Street, London, the Rebel Art Centre was intended from the start to rival the nearby Omega Workshops at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury.
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Here, the rebel artists showcased their works. In addition, just as the Omega Workshops had held lecture series on their premises in order to raise money for Belgian refugees, the Rebel Art Centre hosted lectures from Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford (or Ford Madox Hueffer, as he was known at the time), and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
While Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford were friends of Lewis, his relationship with Marinetti was rather more complicated. Lewis resented the ways in which all progressive artistic movements – including Cubism – were aligned with Futurism by the British art press. In order to set the work of the rebel artists apart from Marinetti’s Futurism, Lewis set about creating a founding statement for Vorticism.
BLAST: The Vortex behind Vorticism
This founding statement would be published in July 1914 as part of the first issue of the magazine BLAST, subtitled “The Review of the Great English Vortex.” The magazine was largely Lewis’ project and was exclusively devoted to promoting the Vorticist movement.
The theoretical underpinnings of Vorticism, however, 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.”
While it is easy to see how such a “pattern of angles and geometric lines” could lend itself to an artistic movement favoring geometric abstraction, Pound’s description of “our vortex in the existing chaos” suggests that these angles and lines had some recognizable bearing on the lived reality of the early twentieth century. From the start, then, Vorticism intended to capture the rush and confusion of contemporary experience.
In focusing on “that point in the cyclone where energy cuts into space and imparts form to it,” Vorticist paintings tend to be energetic, even chaotic, compositions that work cyclonically to draw the eye to the center of the canvas. A prototype of this effect can be seen in Lewis’s Composition of 1913.
In the Vorticist manifesto, Lewis stated that it was a “parallel movement to Cubism and Expressionism,” which, he envisaged, would deliver the “Death Blow” not only to Impressionism (which, in Lewis’ mind at least, was associated with the aesthetic proffered at the Omega Workshops) but also to Futurism. While both movements sought to capture the mobility of this new machine age, Futurism exalted the progress promised by the machine and industrialization, whereas Vorticism typically aimed to reflect the impact these phenomena had on the human experience. With a preponderance of bold lines and sharp angles, Vorticist works often point to an underlying anxiety and thus are not universally positive in their outlook on society’s increasing mechanization.
BLAST was largely the brainchild of Wyndham Lewis. There were ten other signatories to the manifesto, however, and the magazine showcased articles by Ford Madox Ford and Rebecca West, poetry by Pound, and reproductions of Vorticist paintings by Lewis, Wadsworth, Etchells, Hamilton, and Gaudier-Brzeska over 158 pages. BLAST, then, was in effect an exhibition space meant to showcase the ideas and artworks of the Vorticist movement.
The Vorticist Exhibition of 1915
Despite the work Lewis and his fellow Vorticists had put into the first issue of BLAST, the magazine could not have made its debut at a worse time. In August 1914, a month after its initial release, Britain declared war on Germany.
Determined to continue promoting Vorticism nonetheless, the “Vorticist Exhibition” was held at the Doré Gallery in New Bond Street, London. Lewis wrote a foreword to the exhibition’s collection catalogue, further outlining what Vorticism meant. The exhibition failed to attract much attention from the British art press at the time and the few reviews they did receive were not exactly laudatory.
Furthermore, prior to the opening of the exhibition, the London-based members of the Vorticist movement learned of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s death on the frontline in France. Gaudier-Brzeska had been an important member of the Vorticist movement: not only did he pioneer a new method of direct carving in his sculptural works, but he was also vital to the intellectual force of the movement and had taken an active role in theorising Vorticism. His death in 1915, then, was a major blow to the Vorticist project.
BLAST: The War Edition
In light of the outbreak of war and the death of Gaudier-Brzeska, the second and final issue of BLAST, therefore, reflected a more patriotic, pro-war sentiment. Compared to the first edition, it was a more subdued and somber publication, coming in at 102 pages to the first issue’s 158. Its black and white color scheme, however, did lend the second issue greater aesthetic cohesion than the first. Included among the artworks and articles was a tribute to Gaudier-Brzeska.
Gaudier-Brzeska, however, was not the only member of the Vorticist movement to enlist to fight in the First World War. Lewis, for example, signed up in 1915 and served as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery on the Western Front before being made an official war artist by the British and Canadian governments following the Battle of Passchendaele. William Roberts, too, served on the Western Front as a gunner in the Royal Regiment of Artillery before being made an official war artist.
Meanwhile, Wadsworth enlisted in the navy shortly after the exhibition at the Doré Gallery and applied his artistic training to the war effort by applying dazzle camouflage designs to allied ships. Building on the optical illusions and geometric designs favored by Vorticism, dazzle camouflage made it harder for the enemy to determine the speed and direction of traveling ships.
Moreover, both Lewis and Wadsworth, along with Roberts, Paul Nash, David Bomberg, and Christopher R. W. Nevinson, were commissioned by Paul Konody (an art critic who, before the war, had been vehemently opposed to Vorticism) to create artistic depictions of the Canadian war experience. Though Konody was only interested in accepting representational works as part of this commission, the Vorticists still contrived to incorporate a progressive modernist aesthetic into these compositions.
Attempts at Revival: The Penguin Club Exhibition & Group X
While many members of the Vorticist movement were fighting or otherwise assisting with the war effort, Ezra Pound was working on promoting Vorticism in the United States in the hope that it might survive the war years. To this end, he and wealthy lawyer and art collector John Quinn organized an exhibition of Vorticist artworks at the Penguin Club in New York. The artworks showcased had been selected by Quinn as the ones he himself was interested in purchasing.
It worked out well for him, therefore, when none of the artworks were purchased by the public, though, of course, it did not bode so well for the Vorticist movement.
This lack of public interest continued after the war. After the horrors of war, there was a general return to representative styles of composition in what has come to be known as the “return to order.”
In a final attempt to preserve progressive, abstract art after the war, Lewis, Jessica Dismorr, Etchells, Roberts, Wadsworth, and Hamilton were among the members of Group X, founded by Lewis in 1920. Their membership, however, need not imply that Group X was a continuation of the Vorticist aesthetic in the strictest sense. In fact, there was little aesthetic unity within Group X. While Roberts pioneered his own distinctive Cubist style of painting, the others learned to incorporate their more radical tendencies within more representational, visually conservative works in the interests of saleability. And in Hamilton’s case, after 1920, he renounced his artistic career entirely and never took part in an exhibition again.
From its inception in 1914, Vorticism was an ambitious avant-garde movement through which Lewis and his fellow rebel artists had hoped to bring about a sea change in British art. Though its membership was divided with the outbreak of the First World War soon after the movement’s formation, its bold geometric designs were made use of as part of the war effort in the development of dazzle camouflage – a campaign in which Wadsworth was actively involved. Despite being a brief and largely British affair, therefore, Vorticism did indeed have a major impact on the history of the twentieth century and helped launch the careers of some of the century’s most important artists.