There is No Vulgarity in Revolt Part 1: The Role of Conflict in the Formation of Vorticism

“The Mud Bath” -David Bomberg, 1914 Photo from the Tate Gallery

Over the past week or so, I’ve spent my time researching the history and philosophy of the Vorticist movement to gain a more precise theoretical aim for my incoming survey of the art and literature of the movement.  However, for the sake of brevity and clarity, I will refrain from Blasting you all with the entirety of my research so far.  Instead, I will focus on one prevailing theme throughout Vorticist philosophy and history: conflict.  Conflict within the early 20th century political and art scenes in Europe created the ideal environment for Vorticism to emerge.  The avant-garde philosophy of the movement found within the publication BLAST reflects the significant impact of this conflict.   

Vorticism was born in an England rife with socio-political turmoil.  A series of mass labor strikes lasting from 1910-1911, the growing movement for women’s suffrage and the accompanying arson and bomb threats, and the Irish people’s threat of an armed attack for their independence all left the English people with a sense of fear and failure to meet the rapid modernization of the rest of Europe.  Karin Orchard notes that this “general uneasy mood” was “accompanied by rebellion and revolt in the world of culture,” especially amongst the politically conscious artistic avant-garde (15).  Times were changing quickly and many young artists of England believed that the replacement of the old Victorian society and Romantic conservatism in contemporary England with a new radical art was in order.  Chief among these thinkers was the painter Wyndham Lewis, whose desire to “take over the direction of the new movement [within English art] instead of leaving it to the older generation” would put him in direct opposition with the modern art of Europe (especially that growing in England), spawning his own movement: Vorticism (15).

Wyndham Lewis, photo by George Charles Beresford, 1913

Of all of Lewis’ conflicts with the European avant-garde, that which contributed the most to the formation of Vorticism was that with Filippo Marinetti and the Italian Futurists.  In the summer of 1914, Marinetti, along with the Englishman Christopher Nevinson, published “Vital English Art: Futurist Manifesto” in order to “confirm or destroy Futurism’s hold over the English rebels” (Cork 227).  Along with citing the movement’s desires for modern English art, the manifesto also listed nine “great Futurist painters or pioneers and advance-forces of vital English art,” including Wyndham Lewis and his artistic peers.  Outraged by his inclusion without permission in a movement he saw as an intrusion into the English art scene, Lewis began to persuade his associates that “they needed a fully-fledged movement of their own” along with a “a concerted show of strength” (230).  This show of strength arrived five days later at a Futurist demonstration of the manifesto at London’s Doré Gallery; Lewis and his rebels arrived and, according to the article in the Evening News a month later “set off some fireworks in the center doorway” and jeered at Nevinson until he retreated “amid laughter and the shouting of names.”  Put succinctly by Lewis in his 1937 autobiography, “The Italian intruder was worsted” (37).  The next morning, a report in the Manchester Guardian noted that the attack was carried out by a group “who now call themselves the Vorticists,” the first public appearance of the word and a forceful indication of the movement’s origins in conflict. This skirmish was significant for the Vorticists, as it pushed back against the Futurists’ presence in England.  Even more significant was the conflict’s contribution to the central Vorticist publication, BLAST.  Andrzej Gasiorek notes that the row with the Futurists “resulted in the addition to BLAST of a new pro-Vorticist manifesto and two ‘Vortex’ statements by Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska,” a move which he suggests gave the movement “more of a focus” and allowed it to move forward more quickly (293).  The conflicts within English society and the European avant-garde allowed Lewis and his peers to unify their frustrations into a movement.  Without these conflicts, Vorticism would likely have never been formed.

A futurist portrait of Marinetti -Enrico Prampolini, 1925

Similar conflicts that contributed to the rise of Vorticism ultimately led to its fall. The outbreak of the First World War in late July of 1914 led to the death of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a sculptor and outspoken Vorticist, and the delayed publication of the second issue of BLAST.  Occupied by the national war effort and lacking one of their most energetic members, the Vorticists began to lose their momentum. The muted brown and black cover of the second issue of BLAST, a notable departure from the screaming magenta of the first issue, and the much smaller “Blast/Bless” section reflects the more subdued creativity of the movement.  Cork notes that the Vorticists, like many artists at the time of war, “found themselves separated from one another” and after they returned “discovered that that all feeling of continuity had been irretrievably dispersed” (548).  Wyndham Lewis exhibited this feeling of lost continuity in his 1919 art exhibition Guns in which he displayed his paintings of the war that “made no attempt to depict the war in a Vorticist or abstract manner” (535).  This exhibition marked Lewis’ virtual departure from the group who, with the exception of a few small showings in galleries, eventually fell apart 1921, when Lewis replaced the publication of a third issue of BLAST with his new magazineThe Tyrosignalling a “new purely individualistic phase in Lewis’ career” and the death blow for Vorticism (Wees 210).  Lewis later wrote in a letter that the war was “a black solid mass, cutting off all that went before it.”  This rings true for Vorticism; a movement built on conflict was ultimately ended by the largest conflict the world had ever seen.  

“A Battery Shelled” -Wyndham Lewis, 1919–One of Lewis’ first significant post-Vorticist paintings. Note the traces of Vorticist influence on the angular lines and violent imagery.

Works Cited

Cork, Richard. Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age. Berkeley: U of California, 1976. Print.

Gasiorek, Andrzej. “The ‘Little Magazine’ as Weapon: BLAST (1914–15).” The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. By Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 290-313. Print.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blasting & Bombardiering:. London: Calder & Boyars, 1967. Print.

Lewis, Wyndham. “MANIFESTO.” BLAST: Review of the Great English Vortex 15 June 1914: 11-43. Print.

Orchard, Karin. “‘A Laugh Like a Bomb’: The History and the Ideas of the Vorticists.” BLAST: Vorticism 1914-1918. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2000. 14-23. Print.

Wees, William C. Vorticism and the English Avant-garde. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1972. Print.