Tate Britain

An Ashen Kaleidoscope.


That Jacob Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ remains at all menacing, a century on, is a small shock in itself (albeit a reconstructed one).  The cold mechanical authority of the tripod’s gaze surpasses the multiple reinventions of the alien mechanoid, and subsequent kitsch of the science-fiction prop-house, the omnipotence of the sheathed lense now evocative of the ubiquitous CCTV camera. 


The multicultural group who became known, however loosely, as the Vorticists, formed largely through defining what they were not, Lewis, Etchells, Hamilton and Wadsworth leaving Roger Fry’s Omega workshop, Bloomsbury, after it became clear that he had appropriated a commission meant for Lewis.


Distancing themselves with a round robin letter denouncing those of the Omega workshop whose “Idol is still Prettiness”, and joined by Nevinson, Saunders, and Shakespeare, they went on to establish the Rebel Art Centre and alternative art school, funded by the painter Kate Lechmere, on Great Ormond street in 1914.


The letters and newspaper clippings following the developments that led to this disagreement and subsequent honing of what it was that would define the group, is some of the most interesting material in this exhibition. 


The Futurist Marinetti, a friend who had previously raised funds for the Rebel Art Centre, published the ‘Vital English Art: Futurist Manifesto’, in June 1914 with Nevinson, formerly a collaborator of the group, possibly timed to steal some of the thunder of the publication they knew Lewis and others to be working on which Nevinson had previously given the title to.


Sufficiently enraged with this ‘impertinence’, the group declared their autonomy under Ezra Pound’s newly coined term: Vorticism, publishing a riposte in the Spectator.  Ridiculing the Futurists, they denounced “their discovery of sport, their Futurists gush over machines, aeroplanes… ” declaring them to be “the most romantic and sentimental “moderns” to be found”.


‘BLAST, the Review of the great English Vortex’, soon followed in July, the jobbing printers Leveridge and co. providing the bold sans-serif emanating rudely from its bright pink background.  Distinguishing itself by ruining the reputation of the artist’s book, that until then had been a highly crafted affair, and taking its cue from the Futurist’s manifesto, it alternately blasted and blessed every complacent certainty of the age.  


Employing the typographical tactics of the radical pamphlet and political poster, designed to impart information in the most economical of ways it declared “We stand for the Reality of the Present – not for the sentimental Future, or the sacripant Past.”  The political unrest stemming from the stark contrast between the stuffy Edwardian drawing room, and the violence and poverty of the streets could be felt in its determination, as any notion of modern positivism was mocked and ridiculed in quick fire contradiction.


The works collected here from the first exhibition held in the Dore galleries in 1915, seem a loose collection that don’t appear to share much in common, and for the most part, work their way through the continental influences of Post-impressionism, Cubism, and not least Futurism.


The two painters who stand out are David Bomberg, never a signatory of Vorticism and exhibited as an invited artist at the Dore exhibition, with his abstracted geometry of the East End baths he frequented in The Mud Bath, and of course Wyndham Lewis.


‘The Crowd’ depicts abstracted beings increasingly trapped in the prism of the modern metropolis, modular parts caught in an expanded grid of the city. Lewis is at his best though when he leaves mimetic pursuits behind, and begins to rethink the picture plane, perhaps taking a further cue from the mechanics of printing, and abandoning the three-dimensions of representation, allows a greater sense of conflict to occur on the page.


Edward Wadsworth’s, Frederick Etchells’ and Dorothy Shakespear’s dynamic prints all engage similarly in this alternative take on the picture plane, driven by the architecture of the machine and the mechanics of printing.


The second edition of BLAST, displayed near Epstein’s now muted ‘Rock-Drill’, having abandoned the drill in horror at the increasing numbers of war-dead, only now drawing attention to the strange lumpen foetus held in the Torso’s hard-edged rib-cage, was also less than bombastic. Pages of BLAST II, hung nearby, show Gaudier-Brzeska still writing fervently from the trenches, adjacent to Helen Saunders ‘A Vision of Mud’, conjuring an ashen kaleidoscope in the health spa, whilst Brzeska’s ends with notice of his death, shortly before the 1st Vorticist exhibition, on the Western Front (June 1915).


A selection of Coburn’s Vortographs, produced by another kaleidoscopic device strapped to the camera lense, show some of the first abstract photographs (1917), and besides protagonist Pound’s growing indifference, soon to be followed by the artist’s Coburn himself, involve some real experimentation for the time.


Despite the advice dispensed to the real vanguard; the suffragettes, to not destroy art after all, as well as some dreadful political undertows (later to take form in colossal errors of political judgement by some members of the group), the prescience of some of the works is unmistakable. Caught in a deathly embrace of that which ails them, they pre-emptively invoke a society overwhelmed by the machinations of capital.