Review by Sarah Richter, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.
Vorticism was a British Avant Garde movement that occurred simultaneously with WWI and although the summer exhibition at the Tate Britain, the Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, contains work that exhibits infusions from Cubism, Primitivism and Futurism, the Vorticists main aim was to break with and challenge the objectives of the aforementioned groups. The Vorticists were concerned with achieving the recognition that Britain deserved in the art world. Long overlooked as a centre for artistic production, London was seen as not having any sort of artistic predilection, and if any, much lower than that of heart of artistic innovation, Paris. The movement, whose name was coined by American poet Ezra Pound, was a rejection of the propriety that defined Edwardian England and embraced the radical changes of the modern world. Voritcism, was led by the British artist Wyndham Lewis and encompassed more than just art but also writers, poets and sculptors.
The exhibition is chronologically arranged with the viewer’s introduction to Vorticism being the piece that started it all: Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913-14). The sculpture is comprised of an androgynous figure that seems to be caught between a knight in armour and a human. There is something reminiscent of an insect come to life, or some science experiment gone wrong as the figure sits atop a machine gun, operating it like a drill bit. The figure straddles the machine which is situated on a tripod base and commands the attention of the viewer. The presence of the figure is eerie, overwhelming and yet one can’t look away. Prophetic for its origin as a premonition of the impending war and what the machine can do to mankind, the piece still resonates much in the same way as it did almost a century ago. The way that war and its trappings turn men into androids and simple war machines was something that fascinated the Vorticists. Machines had never engaged with life in such a way.
On the walls surrounding Epstein’s sculpture are portions of the Vorticist’s manifesto which was published in the first exhibition catalogue entitled Blast. The magazine was shocking, with bright pink cover, but instead along with poems, short stories, plays and sketches, was the manifesto. This declaration of Vorticist aims at once condemned, Blasted, and Blessed different aspects of traditional British and foreign cultures. In the third room of the exhibition, this first issue of only two Vorticist exhibition catalogues has been recreated and reprinted for the modern viewer to peruse and read at their own leisure. This was an excellent touch to the show, allowing for the words and message of the group to have the same impact on a modern audience beneath that bold pink cover.
The second and last issue of Blast included the first published works of T.S. Eliot, and also grappled with the reality of war, as one of the Voriticist members was killed on the front lines, Henri Gaudier – Brzeska. This lends a humanity and reality to what the Vorticists were attempting to contend with, the reality of man and machine. The show also includes Vorticist photographs, known as vortographs, which comprised the Camera Club. The photographer was Alvin Coburn and his patron was Ezra Pound. The pair experimented with different photographic techniques, lighting, positioning and lens to create some images ahead of their time and eerily prophetic of humanity. The show also draws connection with New York, displaying much of the work that the Vorticists exhibited at a show at the Penguin Club in New York in 1917. Not just confined to Britain, but a more global connection is a palpable current of the movement. British based, but globally relevant.
In addition to the Blast issues and Epstein’s iconic sculpture, are photographs, paintings, old letters of correspondence, sketches and unfinished works on paper that highlight the diversity and commitment of the group to the movement. More than just a program associated with painting, but with every aspect of the arts and the human condition. Influenced by the changing world and the atrocities of the dialogue between man and machine, the Vorticists attempted to artistically make sense of this in a uniquely British way that was at once foreign and familiar. We are so often concerned with the Parisian Avant-Garde that we forget about the British. This exhibition is comprehensive, informative, fascinating and simply brilliant, allowing the viewer an insight into this short-lived art movement that attempted to make sense of the rapid modernity that was sweeping through their lives.
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World is on until 4 September.
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Composition in Blue and Black (1914 – 15)
Emerson Art Gallery Hamilton College
Courtesy Estate of Omar S. Pound
Posted on 20 June 2011