‘Long live the great art vortex sprung up in the centre of this town!’ declares BLAST, the 1914 summer publication by the Vorticist artists. This opening statement is painfully ironic; emerging just as Europe descended into World War I, Vorticism was destined to be short-lived. The Tate’s Manifesto for a Modern World is an intriguing insight into four years at the height of the London-based movement.
The show recreates the Vorticists’ 1915 and 1917 exhibitions. Including works by Wyndham Lewis, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska along with paintings by their female contemporaries Jessica Dismorr, Dorothy Shakespear and Helen Saunders, the Tate’s summer exhibition is an educational investigation into a forgotten period of British avant-garde.
Many of the celebrated sculptures were in The Royal Academy’s 2009 exhibition Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, and Gill. But Tate Britain makes the work far more accessible, taking the viewer through the Vorticist movement from its cubist influences to the invention of the ‘Vortograph’ (the first abstract photographs) allowing the visitor to pause and read BLAST; a combination of art, poetry and prose.
Jacob Epstein’s iconic sculpture ‘Rock Drill’ opens the show, displayed against a magenta wall (the same shade used for the Wyndham Lewis-designed BLAST cover) which encourages the viewer to look upwards at this imposing 1913 symbol of the machine. Recreated in 1974 for the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Vorticists and its Allies’, Epstein’s sculpture combines modern mechanised structure with primitive traditions. It is accompanied by sketches illustrating the development from its African art influences to its final reflection of an obsession with mechanised power and with its robust, robotic legs it embraces modernity. Its inclusion of a real life rock drill explores Duchamp’s 1913 idea of the ‘ready-made’; a concept that considered the choice of object to be a creative act.
Controversially once claiming, ‘Vorticism was, in fact, what I, personally, did and said at a certain period’, Wyndham Lewis is widely considered the group’s leader, noted by the Tate’s 1956 exhibition ‘Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism’. However, it is another exponent, Gaudier-Brzeska who steals the focus of this exhibition. Presenting an opportunity to see some of his sensitive sketches, it is the drawings which make Manifesto for a Modern World most attractive. They are displayed alongside his glistening alabaster sculptures, and the viewer is encouraged to explore the relationship between what the artist sees and what he has created. Gaudier wrote that ‘sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation; sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.’ Gaudier’s seminal Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound is also on display. It was commissioned by the poet himself and carved from Pentelicon marble (a resilient material used for the Parthenon’s architecture). Its magnificent scale and robust material makes this one of the most exceptional sculptures in the show.
For four years the Vorticists pioneered the machine aesthetic, idolised new inventions and cemented these as the future of Britain. By 1914, global events meant the Vorticists’ optimistic embrace of modernity became redundant. Gaudier died in 1915 while serving with the French army, just weeks before the publication of BLAST War Number: Review of the Great English Vortex. With its geometric monochromatic cover and less controversial content, the influence of the war on the movement was clear. BLAST NO.2 was to be the last review by the Vorticists and included Gaudier’s essay on Vortex, subtitled ‘Written from the trenches‘,where he died. Epstein’s Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill depicts an emasculated, shrunken figure which epitomises the artists’ depression following the loss of Gaudier and signalled the end of the movement.
While Tate Britain’s exhibition allows one to appreciate Vorticism visually it lacks some of the historical backing needed to understand the group’s cloudy concepts fully . It also skilfully neglects some of the more controversial theories. In one text, BLAST states, ‘To Suffragettes: In destruction, as in other things, stick to what you understand’. The publication is presented, but not explained. The show encourages the viewer to focus on the art and its visual influences, but not the extreme opinions of the artists themselves.
Manifesto for a Modern World, which consists mostly of smaller ink prints and previously unseen miniature sculptural experiments sourced by the Tate is, however, beautifully executed, allowing each exhibit to be individually appreciated. The curator, Chris Stephens, acknowledges the limited sizes of the works presented a challenge. Within such a large gallery space it would have been easy for these works to be lost. Instead, the space engagingly leads one through the colours and materials explored in Vorticism.
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World until 4 September at the Tate Britain