Blasting the Future! Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920 at the Estorick Collection

Notwithstanding its formidable collection of modern Italian art (the best in the British Isles), its charming staff, handsome Islington home and a café so satisfactory in all respects as to seem virtually Italian itself, London’s Estorick Collection is not as well know as it ought to be. When a friend of mine recently received an invitation to speak at an event there, he thought the invitation had been issued by the ‘Esoteric Collection’ and immediately imagined a dingy front room somewhere in the uncharted grey expanses of north-west London, full of too many pamphlets and too much dust, and smelling of cats — although obviously he accepted the invitation anyway. The truth, when he discovered it, was considerably more appealing. The Estorick Collection is a sparkling small-scale gem, as charismatic as, say, the Geffrye Museum, and if the calibre of the art is not always up there with that of those other two great private initiatives, the Dulwich Picture Gallery or the Wallace Collection, then at least the Estorick fills what would otherwise be a notable gap in British cultural life. There is more to modernism, after all, than Paris and New York City.

The story behind the creation of the Estorick Collection is a surprising one — involving, inter alia, Sir Stafford Cripps’ most sympathetic American hagiographer, a Packard Convertible Roadster crammed with Futurist masterpieces, and commissions from Lauren Bacall — but too complicated for accurate summary or ideological unpicking here. Never mind. The result, at any rate, is an entirely happy one. The Estorick Collection is as significant in its advocacy of artists about whom the London art world knows too little (Boccioni, Bala, Severini, Marini) as for its important holdings of those artists (Modigliani, Morandi) about whom we possibly know quite enough. In any event, a visit to the Estorick is generally an education, tweaking away as it does as one’s own personal narrative of the art history of the last century and — especially important in a British context — reminding one how differently the notional lingua franca of modernism was inflected within different national traditions.

This, perhaps, is the great point of the marvellous exhibition currently on show at the Estorick Collection. Blasting the Future! Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920 sets out to describe the moment — and despite those dates, it really was hardly more than a moment, lasting little more than a couple of years — when British art drew as close as it ever would to the art of the Italian Futurists before veering away quickly again amidst the distractions of the Great War.

Who, then, were the Vorticists? Key figures included Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound, Edward Wadsworth, Jessica Dismorr and William Roberts. David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein were associated with the movement but avoided signing manifestos, whereas C. R. W. Nevinson signed the wrong manifesto, joining up as the English adjunct to Italian Futurism, and hence excluding himself from the Vorticists. Yes, it was all rather complicated. Many of these figures had been members of Roger Fry’s circle in the first decade of the century, and several exhibited at a landmark show at the Sackville Gallery in 1912, to which the origins of the Vorticist style — spiky, angular — are usually traced. Lewis, who had a great gift for making enemies, fell out with Fry soon afterwards and founded something called the Rebel Art Centre as a counterpoint to Fry’s Omega Workshop. As a teaching institution, the RAC was remarkably unsuccessful — the only pupil who ever showed up was a female pornographer who was too shy to show her drawings to anyone — but it was enough to create the nexus of the Vorticist movement, which was given its name by Pound and its voice by that famous if short-lived journal, Blast, whose two issues — and there were only two issues — were published in 1914 and 1915. And then within a year or so, Vorticism was over, its members dead or dispersed or working in different sorts of styles.

Was it, then, ever more than a self-indulgent little footnote at the margins of art history? Vorticism was meant to be Britain’s home-grown improvement on Futurism — an assault on everything stuffy, old-fashioned, rural, bucolic, nostalgic or sentimental. As with any innovative British art movement, a good proportion of the protagonists didn’t actually come from Britain. Lewis, born on a ferry crossing the Bay of Fundy, was that rare thing, a pointlessly belligerent and terminally unpleasant Canadian, while poor, brilliant, mad Pound, who played nursemaid to the movement, sprang from the soil of the Idaho prairie. Gaudier-Brzeska was French. Others grew up in circumstances that tended to alienate them from mainstream British cultural life — Bomberg amongst the Polish-speaking immigrants of London’s East End, Nevinson amid neighbours who disliked his parents’ left-wing politics so much that when he was a small child they booed and hissed at him in the street. Did this matter? Possibly it did. Looking back, it is easy — perhaps slightly too easy — to see in Vorticism — not just its self-conscious radical outsider stance or the reactions it elicited from the press, but in its strangely co-dependent relationship with ‘traditional’ Britain — the ancestor of everything from the Mods to Punk to the YBAs. In the development of the strange cultural rituals supporting such movements, a bit of genuine alienation probably did no harm at all.

Vorticism insisted, from the first, on its distance from the Futurism of Marinetti. Indeed, one of the great achievements of the current exhibition is the skill with which it demonstrates how great that distance actually was — based not, as some have assumed, simply on Wyndham Lewis’ inability to face up to his debts to others (real though this was) but on the genuine originality of what the Vorticists were doing and the language in which they chose to elucidate it. For while the Futurists had been fascinated by speed — a quality, they felt, without which modern life could not be understood — their way of rendering speed and movement has in retrospect a curiously soft, gentle, old-fashioned look, full of obvious borrowings from the French Impressionists and carried out in sweet, generous colour. Contrast this with the hard-edged briskness of Edward Wadsworth’s 1918 image of a ship at dry dock in Liverpool (below), or his breathtaking 1919 ‘Blast Furnaces’.

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There is probably, amidst all this fascination with facets, some knowledge both of Cubism and Constructivism. Yet the language is a distinct and, it must be said, a highly persuasive one.

And language, here, was the key. For while Futurism had been obsessed with machinery in general and the automobile in particular (something that Lewis blamed, unkindly but characteristically, on Italy’s relatively recent history of industrialisation) Vorticism was much more about style than subject-matter. If we remember it now as an art that spoke mostly about aeroplanes, explosions, dazzle-camouflage and barbed wire, this is largely a trick of chronology and the fact that key Vorticist painters were still working within a Vorticist idiom when they took up their places as war artists. Away from the battlefield, we have Lewis’ nudes (like something from Blade Runner) to remind us what the Vorticists could make of figuration, and works like Wadsworth’s marvellous ‘Mytholmroyd’ to show what they could do when they abandoned representation altogether.

Spread over two large rooms, the exhibition at the Estorick Collection includes a wide enough range of Futurist work, as well as enough early and late Vorticist work, from a wide enough range of figures, to give some idea of the movement’s actual scope. The excellent catalogue that accompanies the show provides much helpful chronology and emphasis. It is hard to imagine who else could have done such a good job with this particular subject — or, indeed, who else would have gone out of their way to do it at all. If I have a single complaint about the exhibition, it lies in the fact that the works are hung against starkly white walls, very much in a ‘gallery’ context. Showing them in a cluttered Edwardian setting, against brocaded walls and heavy dark furniture, would have made a different sort of point about them, emphasising their radicalism in a different sort of way. This, I know, is asking for the moon. Yet if Electric Review were to follow Blast in its adorable litanies of ‘Blast’ versus ‘Bless’, the decontexualising hang would come in for a fair amount of Blasting. Considered yourself warned.

So what happened to the Vorticists? There are several answers to this, some more convincing than others. One strand of argument suggests that Vorticism was destroyed by the ‘hygiene’ of the Great War it had apparently so famously and vehemently desired. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in action; as war artists, Nevinson, Lewis and others ended up modifying their visual language in the face of the reality they were being asked to transpose. War, in any event, is more interesting than art and tends to distract attention from the art world’s rather meaningless little savageries. Even the media had, for once, something better to write about than a bit of enjoyable prodding at middlebrow taste. Meanwhile another strand of argument holds, more or less explicitly, that Vorticism — perhaps Modernism itself — was simply an exotic species that could not be grafted onto the native body of British art, with its historic emphases on decoration, anecdote and whimsy.

Neither suggestion is inherently foolish; one could make a case supporting either of them. But all the same, I think there is more to it than that — indeed, that one could also make a case both that Vorticism was always more connected to the British painterly tradition than some seem to think, and that it never really went away entirely. Certainly there were reasons not to say much about it. For one thing, its links with Fascism were not encouraging. Marinetti, having been a spur towards the development of Vorticism, went on to dabble in right-wing Italian politics and to champion Mussolini, while Lewis’s reputation never entirely recovered from his less-than-critical book Hitler (1931), followed up with The Jews: Are They Human? (1939) — the latter of which was, it should be said, considerably less appalling in its conclusions than that clumsily ironic title might lead one to expect. Still, it wasn’t until end of the 1940s that anyone got around to staging a retrospective of Vorticist work — and even then, it was couched in terms of a tribute to Lewis himself, whose post-Vorticist career as a portrait painter had by then veered in yet another direction, leaving him writing bad, grumpy Anglo-Catholic fiction, blind as a bat and rebarbative as ever, awaiting his own death with bad grace. A successful retrospective at the Redfern Gallery was followed by a Tate retrospective at few years later. Here the Tate claimed that Lewis had invented Vorticism. William Roberts, still very much a practicing painter, wrote pamphlets denouncing this claim. At one level, it was all rather sad to see these old men fighting over these tattered scraps of past glory.

Yet if the Vorticist prophets remained without honour here, they were perhaps not entirely without influence, although it often showed itself in strange, indirect ways. Obviously the practice of Art Deco in Britain owed something to the Vorticists, as graphic design continues to do to the present day — see, for instance, the work of Peter Saville. But high art may have carried away its own surreptitious legacy, too. For example, to pick an instance particularly dear to my heart, is it foolish to suggest that the sharp angles and spiky drawing so typical of Frank Auerbach’s best work was in part the result of the time he spent being taught by David Bomberg? Or that a certain attitude towards machinery went on to survive the war and went on influence figures like Eric Ravilious and W. H. Auden? I don’t think it is foolish. For while it is pleasantly neat, in art historical terms, to treat the relationship between classicism (of which Vorticism was a form) and romanticism as an either / or, that is not the way the human mind works in its habits and instinctive sympathies. Like everything that prides itself on novelty, Vorticism came to seem hideously dated — but that did not prevent it from striking roots and becoming, itself, a part — however subliminal — of Britain’s visual tradition. Anyway, as James Hyman has shown so clearly, it is a matter of fact that the mature Lewis’ critical writing, as well as his painting, stamped its mark on British figures as diverse, influential and, incidentally, left-wing as Michael Ayrton and John Berger. How long was the shadow cast by those few brief years of Vorticist enterprise? In the early 1950s, it was simply too soon to be sure. Today, with the Cold War long gone and even post-modernism starting to fray a bit at the edges, the time may well be right to turn our attention to such matters once again.

And this, really, is the main point — why, ultimately, William Roberts was right to spend 1952 fighting with his decrepit old comrade over something that had happened forty years before. These battles are still being fought. If, by the early 1950s, it seemed clear to many people that the baton of modernism had been passed, at some point in the past decade, between Paris and Manhattan, it doubtless seemed particularly important to others to suggest that the modernist lineage had, ultimately, always been a little more complicated, a little more tangled and troubled than that — and that Britain ought to feature, somewhere, in the resulting story. There is, then, nothing remotely esoteric about the Estorick Collection’s excellent Vorticist exhibition. Although the context keeps changing, the questions it raises about the politics of culture are as relevant to the future of British art as they are to the still-contested outlines of its past.
Blasting the Future! Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920 is at the Estorick Collection, 39 Cannonbury Square, London from 4 February – 18 April 2004.

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