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Cerebral vortex The American-born poet Ezra Pound was the first person to employ the term Vorticist, describing the energy of London in 1913 to a friend as a vortex. The Vorticists were artists observing the swirling eddies of modern life around them. They comprised a small, London-based group of poets, artists and photographers, including Pound, the painter Wyndham Lewis (who led the movement), the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn. They were reacting to a period of great social and political change. The years from 1910 saw the peak of the women’s suffrage movement, the start of the struggle for independence in Ireland, the proliferation of motor cars, the beginning of the end for the British Empire, and the emergence of the idea of a welfare state. The Vorticists sought to express that culture of change, energy and movement. Their art would have been unimaginable without the precedents of Cubism and Futurism (Lewis spent time in Paris with Picasso, and the influential Futurist Marinetti visited London in 1910 and after). But the Vorticists were distinct. The Futurists explicitly celebrated the speed and the violence of modernity. They actually called for war as a purging

force. The Vorticists were much more philosophical: Vorticism was about ideas of flux, a world that is constantly changing. Aesthetically, Vorticist paintings were characterised by being non-representational. Abstract art was developing internationally at this time, and the Vorticists created the first British works. Their

paintings weren’t totally abstract, though. A number of Lewis’s paintings reference the city, and traces of figures can be discerned in several artists’ paintings. The linear and repetitive patterns represent the idea of blocks of windows and the grid pattern of city streets. But what really makes the paintings stand out is their bright colours,

and their diagonal and sharp-angled form, which gives them energy and a sense of movement. The idea of the city, and New York in particular, featured in other Vorticist works. Langdon Coburn was already established as a photographer in New York, his images showing the wonder of the high-rise city.

He took a particularly famous photograph called ‘The House Of A Thousand Windows’, which was taken from the top of one tall New York building, looking across to another. At a time when travelling to America was out of reach for most people, Langdon Coburn’s photographs became one of the ways in which New York

Clockwise from top left: ‘Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1914; Dorothy Shakespear’s ‘Composition in Blue and Black’, circa 1914-15;

‘Balance’ by Helen Saunders, circa 1915; David Bomberg’s ‘The Mud Bath’, 1914; ‘Two Step II Study’ by William Roberts, circa 1915

became known to the British. Later, in London, he developed with Pound his self-titled Vortographs (photographs taken in a Vorticist style). In addition to their individual works, the Vorticists produced two issues of a magazine called Blast, edited by Lewis. It is the movement’s most lasting legacy – you can still buy reprints online for £12. Its front section included the Vorticist manifesto and lists that ‘blessed’ or ‘blasted’ different parts of British culture. The first issue ‘blasts’ Britain from 1835 to 1900 – the whole Victorian era. Blast was one of the great works of early graphic design. A bright pink cover has the name BLAST written diagonally across it in bold black capitals. The whole front section was incredibly innovative in terms of graphics. It was a forerunner of Eighties style magazines, and in particular, was a clear influence on Neville Brody’s art direction for The Face. Vorticism was undermined by the outbreak of World War I. The movement started building up in the summer of 1913. Blast was published in 1914. Within a few weeks, war began. By the time of their first group show (in

London in 1915), GaudierBrzeska had been killed in the trenches. All of the artists were in uniform, either as nurses, soldiers or war artists. By 1916, the whole world had changed. Lewis tried reviving the movement after the war with Group X, but there was no longer an appetite for its values, as more conservative values prevailed. The immediate legacy of Vorticism was problematic. Thirties Abstract artists, such as Ben Nicholson, distanced themselves from the movement they had witnessed in their youth. It was a long time before the movement was reappraised. But thankfully it was, as the Vorticists made some of the most radical and exciting works of art in the 20th century. David Bomberg’s ‘The Mud Bath’ – there are few paintings as powerful as that. Q ‘The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World’, is at Tate Britain until 4 September; Chris Stephens is Curator of Modern British Art at the Tate. If he could bring one modern art movement back from extinction it would be post-impressionism, ‘because I’d like to see if it really was a movement at all’


Vorticism was one of the truly British avant-garde movements. As a new exhibition opens at Tate Britain, curator Chris Stephens explains the legacy of an aesthetic that embraced the maelstrom of the modern world


Vorticism article

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