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Beyond Action & Reaction: The Vorticists At Tate Britain
Luke Turner , July 8th, 2011 14:58

Writing on the current Vorticist exhibition, Luke Turner explores the short-lived movement that influenced The Fall and post-punk

On one of the three sturdy legs of the reproduction of Jacob Epstein's 1913 sculpture The Rock Drill is a makers badge: Holman Brothers LTD, Camborne England. The Holman Brothers were manufacturers of mining equipment, and specifically powerful drills. During the First World War they turned their attention to supporting the national munitions effort, and in the Second contributed towards the construction of a Polish 20mm cannon and pneumatic anti-aircraft weapon called The Holman Projector. Winston Churchill was a big fan of the device, saying, "A very good idea, this weapon of yours. It will save our cordite." Epstein's sculpture predicts this turning of ploughshares into weaponry, the rock drill resembling one of the machineguns that would soon cause so much carnage on the battlefields of the first modern war. The form wielding the drill suggesting humans reduced to functional, skeletal automata. Writing in 1924, Virginia Woolf wrote that "in or about December 1910, human character changed".

Epstein's sculpture and Woolf's words greet visitors to The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, the Tate's current exhibition of the art of the first, short-lived flowering of the British avant-garde. Wyndham Lewis founded the Rebel Art Centre in 1914 as a direct competitor to the Omega Workshops, the Roger Fry-founded organisation that acted as the design wing of the intellectual Bloomsbury Group. As is revealed by letters on display at the exhibition, Lewis had fallen out with Omega over work for the Ideal Home Exhibition, and the Rebel Art Centre became the focus for Vorticism, a multi-disciplinary movement that forged the ideals of Futurism into a more radical new form.

The work of the Vorticists explored (indeed, at first celebrated) the new technology that was shortly to satisfy humanity's self-destructive instincts and the frailty of the human in a mechanised, industrial, capitalist world. The movement lasted for only a few years, the horror of the First World War and the irascible Lewis proving its practical and intellectual undoing. The fruits of this intense period make up the exhibition, with the works split across seven rooms.

Even in the early stages of Vorticist art, the human form is reduced to the primitive, shying away from the forthcoming mechanical threat that the ominous Rock Drill represents. Jacob Epstein's Birth, a crayon picture of a foetus, arms and legs folded within the uterus, is a vivid contrast to such brutalism, while his sculpture of the same name, a depiction of a foetus bursting from between thighs, is angrily primitive, despite being almost akin to a shield relief carving on a medieval church. Conversely, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's 1914 statue of Ezra Pound is entirely phallic – he had been requested by the poet to "make it virile". Horace Brodsky subsequently described the piece as "entirely pornographic".

Many of the works at the Tate display a sense of increasing alienation from the mechanical world as the First World War approached. Contrast Christopher Wynne Nevinson's The Arrival (1913, and a key inspiration to the Vorticists), where dock workers are present, although dwarfed by ships, ropes and cranes, and Edward Wadsworth's Cleckheaton, where all is hard lines, rows of windows chimneys and angular hills behind. People are entirely excised.

Cleckheaton was one of the works shown in the Dore Exhibition of October 1913; in the pieces from that exhibition currently at the Tate the only human or animal forms to be seen relate to a primitive aesthetic, such as Gaudier-Brzeska's Singer, or his peaceful crouching faun. Gaudier-Brzeska was heavily influenced by so-called primitive art, and the memoir of him written by Ezra Pound after his death in the trenches had a design based on Gaudier-Brzeska's green stone charm, itself based on a Maori ornament. It's pertinent that in Lewis' The Crowd human figures take up just a fifth of the canvas, and even these seem to be in conflict, two under a French tricolour screaming as a faceless trio in what could be German field army grey approach from the right. Above, buildings tower and topple over.

Connecting sculpture and painting is the BLAST manifesto - the Vorticist moment that had the most significant impact on subsequent art, and especially music (see below). In this pamphlet, its title emblazoned in stern block black on a pink cover, the Vorticists proclaimed that "we stand for the Reality of the Present – not for the sentimental Future, or the sacripant Past". It sets up oppositions, "blasting" England, France, humour ("Quack ENGLISH drug for stupidity and sleepiness. Arch enemy of the REAL") then blessing England, largely for its symbols of progress, travel, the smart (hairdressers receive fulsome praise). Its directness makes for a thrilling read, even nearly 100 years on, direct and impassioned, even humorous (why is Putney blasted?) – though the text itself warns against an amused response: "curse those who will hang over this manifesto with silly canines exposed."

Yet by the time of the second, 'War Number' edition of Blast (which featured the first published poems by TS Eliot), the movement was nearly over. Those things that the Vorticists had so celebrated became instruments of destruction, including their own. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed at Verdun, just weeks after contributing an article entitled Vortex (written from the trenches). The work of Christopher Wynne Nevinson, an ambulance driver on the Western Front, embraced the terror and dehumanisation of the trenches. The Rock Drill was exhibited months after the outbreak of war. Wadsworth's woodcuts depicted ships in dry dock being painted in dazzle camouflage - the vessels that inspired the Vorticists in The Arrival were increasingly being sunk in huge numbers by the German U-boat fleet.

So what of the Vorticist legacy? Aside from The Rock Drill clearly providing the design inspiration for Industrial Light & Magic's Battle Droids, The Vorticists have had a powerful influence on subsequent generations, especially the post-punk generation. When I spoke to Mark E Smith for the Quietus about his artistic interests, he enthused about the work of Wyndham Lewis' movement. "I'd never seen anything like it. I liked the way it was all pamphlets, and BLAST! - which was one of the best magazines ever made, still is." Smith told me. "He was into manifestos as art. Nobody comes out with anything like that now, do they? 'fuck machinery!' 'Bless machinery!'" Although Smith perhaps best channelled the cadence of BLAST! in his lyricism (try reading the manifesto in his voice for evidence of the very direct inspiration), all of punk was influenced by its sloganeering. Much of what came soon afterwards – OMD's Dazzle Ships, Paul Smith's Blast First record label – continued to reflect Vorticist themes and aesthetics. Arguably in 2011 we now lack artists across the disciplines who are taking on the Vorticist ideals and themselves contributing to the eternal whirling. Today, self-conscious posturing, irony, and the power of the market wins out over gritty determination to respond, radically, to difficult times. Perhaps this inspiring exhibition may redress this.

In 1916 the original Rock Drill was altered by Jacob Epstein. The drill itself was abandoned, one arm and both legs lopped off the figure, the hand removed (see image above). All that remained was a torso, the implication of assured mechanist life extinguished. Wyndham Lewis subsequently tried to revive the Vorticist spirit, but it lay amidst the torn metal and broken bodies in the mud of Flanders and the Eastern Front.

Vorticism is currently showing at Tate Britain. For more information, go here