On Vorticism & Wyndham Lewis, Influencers of McLuhan

16Jun11

Into the vortex

In the summer of 1914 a new movement and its magazine changed the future of British art—and now the Tate is devoting its first major show to the Vorticists
The Crowd (1914-15) by Wyndham Lewis: a typical Vorticist painting “filled with lean, clear-cut vivacity and exhilarating colour

A century ago, rebellious young artists across Europe banded together in a succession of loudly publicised avant-garde movements. After Expressionism had erupted in Germany, Cubism revolutionised painting in France. Then the Futurists came out of Italy, demanding that art should celebrate the blurred excitement of machine-age dynamism. Rival groups issued manifestos, proclaiming their ability to transform everyone’s vision of the modern era. The years leading up to the first world war were alive with the energy of all these conflicting “-isms,” and in the summer of 1914 a new British movement was announced by a belligerent magazine called BLAST.

This publication marked the arrival of Vorticism, and it burst on the world with the impact of a bomb. The thick, black capitals peppering its pages had the force of a loudhailer. The images reproduced in BLAST proved that British art was being revolutionised by a fresh, London-based generation of painters and sculptors dedicated to extreme, urgent renewal. They wanted to sweep away the inhibiting legacy of the “VICTORIAN VAMPIRE,” and now the summer exhibition at Tate Britain intends to celebrate the landmark importance of the Vorticists’ achievement.

Although many of their key works are either lost or destroyed, enough survive to reveal the group’s vitality and daring at full stretch. Tate is devoting its first-ever major show to Vorticism, highlighting the movement’s significance and revealing in particular how BLAST managed to broadcast its groundbreaking ideas. Like the Expressionists, Cubists and Futurists, the Vorticists were in a hurry. Some of them had only just graduated from the Slade School of Art in London, and the exuberant iconoclasm of BLAST was powered by a healthy disrespect for their elders. The Vorticists were convinced that Britain had more of a right than any other nation to convey the essential character of the 20th century in its art. The BLAST manifestos proudly reminded readers that “the Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—its appearance and its spirit. Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else.”

Inspired by the inventiveness and drive that had made Britain the crucible of the industrial revolution, the Vorticists placed the machine-age world at the heart of the work they produced. Like the Futurists, they believed that a new art in an emergent century should reflect the dramatically changing character of contemporary life. Unlike the Futurists, though, they did not view modern existence with rhapsodic enthusiasm. A typical Vorticist painting like Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd (top) is filled with lean, clear-cut vivacity and exhilarating colour. But it takes a hard, critical view of mechanised prowess. Dehumanisation is a key theme, and so is a violence that threatens to burst through the boundaries of the picture. The Vorticists were bound to scorn the unqualified romanticism of the Futurists, whose country had begun to experience machine-age transformation at a far later stage.

Wyndham Lewis’s triple role, as artist, theorist and editor of BLAST, is central to understanding Vorticism. A decade older than most members of the movement, he rallied them to the rebellious cause and wrote trenchant essays about its aims. He also drew copiously, and the emphatic force of his line will give the Tate show a steely assurance from the outset. But Ezra Pound, the radical young American poet who had made pre-war London his home, christened the movement in the early months of 1914. Pound wrote in BLAST that “the vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.” He saw the vortex as a whirling force, which would draw together the most vital innovatory energies of the time and crystallise them in a rigidly immobile centre. Pound described it as “a radiant node or cluster… from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.” Wyndham Lewis explained his idea of the vortex by telling a friend to think of a whirlpool: “At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.”

The Mud Bath’ by David Bomberg. Photo: John Webb

A lifelong satirist, Lewis soon developed the robotic figures whose mask-like faces and metallic muscles appear in many of his images. But he also became fascinated by the urban jungle of the machine-age city. As The Crowd reveals, he often placed his angular people in the context of a metropolis based on New York’s pioneering skyscrapers. Photographs of Manhattan by Alvin Langdon Coburn, whose later Vortographs showed how Vorticism could lead the camera towards abstraction, helped to shape Lewis’s vision in a very decisive way. Read the rest here: http://tinyurl.com/6ewtela

Percy Wyndham Lewis Rejected Artist

Wyndham Lewis

My thanks to Lance Strate for bringing this article to my attention.



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