At Large  April 26, 2022  Rachel Ozerkevich

Vorticism: The Problematic British Art Movement

Wikimedia Commons.

Rotated view of an early cover for the magazine BLAST: The Review of the Great English Vortex, 1914. 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed an explosion of new artistic and literary movements throughout Europe. Some evolved organically, only receiving labels from critics and historians once they had disbanded, while others defined themselves with force, issuing manifestos and cutting ties with previous ideas and modes of working. British Vorticism falls into the latter category, yet is perhaps one of the least known of the era’s movements.

Begun in the months leading up to 1914 by a group of artists and writers interested in machines and motion, Vorticists wanted to push British culture out of Victorian complacency and stagnancy using aggressive, sharp artistic language. Poet Ezra Pound suggested the name, likening a vortex to a place of maximum energy—an apt metaphor for this group seeking to blast through the past into the future. Despite the momentum with which it began, the group lasted little more than a year. Its impacts, however, still haunt us today.

Wyndham Lewis was Vorticism’s spearhead. He drafted a manifesto in an issue of his own magazine called Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. The rest of the group members signed the manifesto, all condemning British cultural and political insularity and what they viewed as prudish, outdated values. In their work, the Vorticists explored modern technology, machine aesthetics, war, landscapes transformed by industry, and the artistic products of foreign cultures. Vorticism also encompassed a remarkable diversity of art forms, from painting and literature to photography, theatre, criticism, and sculpture.

Store Norske Leksikon.

Wyndham Lewis, Cover of Blast, July 1915.

Many Vorticist artists and critics were associated with reactionary politics. The movement largely celebrated bellicose masculinity and physical violence, two factors that began to seem deeply unsettling to even its own members during and after the First World War. Historians examining Vorticism during its lifetime and in the following decades noticed how closely aligned the group was with certain iterations of Fascism. This was part of the “point” for many of the group’s members, who believed that war offered a clear path to cleansing Britain of its dull past.

Cover images of Lewis’s Blast magazine give us insight into some of the formal features the group privileged: blocky, hard edges and lines that shoot upward in violent diagonals. Human forms merge with brutal architecture and artillery, erasing any distinction between the organic and mechanical.

Edward Wadsworth’s later still lifes are crisp, with planes of flat color and meticulously rendered, sharp shapes. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s sketches and drawings of human forms are distinctly robotic, distilled as they are into unsettling lines and unnatural angles. Brzeska’s drawings suggest that humans, animals, and machines might all be the same, with individuality pared down into efficient gestures.

Yale Center for British Art.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Two Figure Studies, 1910-15.

Vorticism served for many of its practitioners as an occasion to band together to exhibit work. The group only held one formal show, in the summer of 1915, and Lewis’ Blast ceased printing in July of that year. The movement dissipated early into the First World War, after some members were killed in action, and others lost interest in the group’s values once they saw the actual impact of the war.

Even so, a number of artists, such as Wadsworth, continued to explore and celebrate Vorticist themes such as machines, industrialism, and modern innovation. Even after the formal breakup of the group, Wadsworth’s forms resemble gleaming metal and aluminum shavings; we can almost feel these shards threatening to slice our fingers.

Flickr.

Edward Wadsworth, Composition on Pink Ground, Cones and Spirals, 1929-30.

In 2011, art historian Simon Watney accused Lewis of being self-aggrandizing, misogynistic, and a Fascist. Watney warns us against blindly celebrating the artist for his notoriety and creative activity: Lewis’ personal politics are inarguably disturbing and his legacy has largely overshadowed those of other members, such as Jessica Dismorr and Dorothy Shakespear (it seems more than coincidental that many of these marginalized figures were women, given Lewis’ own views about “effeminate weakness”).

Vorticism’s close associations with politics, which we now recognize as abhorrent and frightening, has helped relegate this movement to historical obscurity. This is a difficult movement to study, in part because Vorticism demands that we confront violent philosophies in a dispassionate way. Addressing Vorticism requires facing this troubling period of political history head-on, something that many historians have been reticent to do. Nevertheless, it is important that we continue to analyze the evolution and manifestation of radicalized ideas, in part so that we can be attuned to their development and ready to recognize them as they occur.

About the Author

Rachel Ozerkevich

Rachel Ozerkevich holds a PhD in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's an art historian, writer, educator, and researcher currently based in eastern Washington State. Her areas of expertise lie in early illustrated magazines, sports subjects, interdisciplinary arts practices, contemporary indigenous art, and European and Canadian modernism.

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