The Vorticists at the Tate: The Losers of History

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Like the movement itself, Tate Britain’s exhibition “The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World” comes front-loaded with its biggest hits, then quickly trails off and is over soon after. The dominant figure, rightly, is Wyndham Lewis, who later defined Vorticism as whatever it was he was thinking and doing at the time. As the last couple of rooms drift into derivative works by fellow-travellers, Lewis’ drawings remain the one consistently strong current amongst increasingly insipid art; and yet it is clear that Lewis himself is already beginning to exhaust the material of his art and looking to develop his ideas further.

Despite the objections of fellow Vorticists who felt they were written out of history by Lewis’s later pronouncements, everyone involved in the movement quickly moved on and either succeeded or failed as artists independent of theorising from before The War. One of several large failings of this exhibition is that it does little to address the question of how much the Vorticists were a movement of like-minded artists, or whether they were little more than Wyndham Lewis’ gang.

Not much actual Vorticist art remains, so as with many stunted art movements we find ourselves judging Vorticism by its words more than its deeds. This inevitably pulls us back to Lewis, editor and main polemicist of the Vorticist magazine BLAST. It has become too tempting in retrospect to judge the entire movement from reading BLAST, picking out the names that appear in it and judging how well their art fits with the magazine’s contents, particularly those written by Lewis. This mistake seems to have been repeated in the Tate show.

In reality, three towering figures form the central pivot on which Vorticism turned: Lewis, Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It was Pound who named the movement, and indeed seems to have been the driving force behind forming a movement at all. He had form: a year earlier he had started the Imagist movement in poetry, and had a long-term liking of starting organisations of artists. This was done partly because Pound liked the idea of having a posse, but also to attract and support like-minded talents. So many of Vorticism’s central ideas are an expansion of Pound’s basic concepts of Imagism, and for the rest of his life Pound’s poetry and essays on culture refined, developed and elaborated upon the principles formulated crudely in BLAST. Lewis was the more effective polemicist, but his manifestos for BLAST contain idealistic imperatives and revolutionary zeal closer to Pound’s temperament. That may have been Pound’s influence, or perhaps Lewis’ idealism was knocked out of him by The War.

Gaudier-Brzeska, the youngest of the lot, produced the first physical and most tangible manifestations of Vorticism. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound not only unites the two artists: the bust exemplifies their common understanding of culture, history and creativity. They saw Modernism as a new Renaissance, in the sense that as their forbears had rediscovered the Classical world and remade it in their image, they were re-finding the forms of civilisations across the world, throughout history, and the impulses that drove them. It is a thread that runs through all modernism and postmodernism for the past hundred years, from the poetry of Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, down to its most debased forms of International Style and Po-Mo Playfulness.

Gaudier-Brzeska was the first to die, killed in the trenches at Neuville-St.-Vaast four months short of his twenty-fourth birthday. His absence defines Vorticism as much as his presence did. After The War, Lewis turned his talents for Blasting and Blessing to satire and grotesques, casting himself as The Enemy, the perpetual outsider. For Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska’s death encapsulated all that was futile and destructive in war, so he devoted his life to trying to understand the political and economic circumstances that allow such outrages to happen, and to making others understand. His efforts led him into obsessions over social credit, fascism and Jews, and into a mental hospital with an indictment for treason hanging over him.

The War killed Vorticism as surely as it spawned Dada, and yet in the Tate show it appears as little more than a timeline that leads you from the first room to the last. The exhibition gives no wider context to show how Vorticism was born or how it was snuffed out, or how it related to other art movements at the time. Jacob Epstein is included (because he’s in BLAST, natch) but more to bulk up the show than to demonstrate what is and is not Vorticism. There is not even a clear explication of the crucial distinctions between Vorticism and the superficially similar Cubism and Futurism. Pound pops up here and there like a special guest star, with nothing beyond assertion that he was an important figure in the movement. There is, indeed, no context at all to show how Vorticism did or did not shape the subsequent careers of its participants (not just Lewis, but other artists like David Bomberg, Jessica Dismorr, Christopher Nevinson, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth.)

Worst of all, there’s no sense conveyed of why Vorticism matters. Nothing is presented in a way that shows how Vorticism spoke to the world, and how it made its presence felt throughout the century: through Pound and his many disciples, Henry Moore’s bronzes, T. S. Eliot’s “One takes from history what one needs,” Mark E. Smith’s contrarian denunciations. All the Tate can give us is a funny little English art movement that came and went. They met in Soho but for all we understand of them, they may as well have lived in Petrograd.