Vorticists at Tate Britain

Filed in Reviews by on June 15, 2011

The Vorticists: Manidesto for a Modern World

Tate Britain

14 June to 3 September 2011

The Mud Bath 1914 by David Bomberg 1890-1957

It is sobering to think that Modernism in art began just over a hundred years ago. The Vorticists exhibition at Tate Britain is a vivid reminder of the fact that the pace of artistic, technological, social and political change in the 1910’s suddenly accelerated enormously. It is difficult to believe, for example, that only 3 years passed between the composition in 1910 of Stravinsky’s music for the ballet The Firebird, full of folk tune style immediacy and glossy orchestration, and that for The Rite Of Spring, with its extravagantly rude noises, violence and extreme dissonance. There were riots in Paris at the first performance of The Rite and in the same year Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, Number 2 also scandalised audiences in New York.

This intention to produce something very new and fresh spread to Britain and the Vorticists were Britain’s first truly avant-garde art movement. It could be said that they were led by Wyndham Lewis – at least Wyndham Lewis thought so even if other members of the group were less sure – but in fact, much of the theoretical impetus for the movement was derived from the American-born poet Ezra Pound, who coined the term Vorticism. There were naturally very strong Continental associations as well, as that was whence the avant-garde ideas upon which the movement was based truly originated. Indeed, the Italian F T Marinetti attempted to annex Wyndham Lewis and his fellow artists as the British branch of the Futurist movement but Wyndham Lewis was outraged by Marinetti’s arrogance and would have none of it. While the Vorticists shared many attitudes and preoccupations with the Futurists, the work of Vorticist artists drew also on many other influences, including non-Western art forms.

While Wyndham Lewis is the artist most strongly associated with Vorticism, that is probably more a consequence of his skill as a polemicist and self-publicist than as a painter (he was also an author who wrote several novels). The magazine-cum-manifesto Blast is probably the most significant piece of work he produced in this period. It is a fascinating document and one which records the excitement, energy and violence of the age.

In my opinion, however, the most interesting works in this exhibition are the sculptures of Jacob Epstein and the paintings of David Bomberg. Epstein’s The Rock Drill (1913) is a very disturbing and powerful work and very different to the sculpture he was producing just a few years earlier. It is interesting to compare it with the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni’s equally challenging and impressive Unique Forms Of Continuity In Space, made in the same year, and to speculate on how shocking these sculptures must have been to a visitor to an exhibition nearly 100 years ago. The fact is that they are shocking even now, much more shocking and interesting than so much of the tired, lazy and complacent work produced by so many of today’s artists.

In retrospect, the exploits and achievements of the Vorticist movement might be considered to be little more than a footnote in the annals of art history but as well as being an extremely interesting insight into London’s artistic avant-garde’s sensibility at the time, this exhibition is a powerful reminder of a brief period when artists were a thousand miles ahead of their audience and the shock of the new was truly shocking and very new. This time was indeed an artistic Spring when new shoots were emerging everywhere. We have not seen its like since and the locus traced by recent history suggests that we will probably not do so again.

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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