There is No Vulgarity in Revolt Part 2: The Combative Philosophy of Vorticism

The cover of the first issue of BLAST, 1914. The bright magenta cover and massive lettering of the title were an assault on conventional graphic design of the time.

The aesthetic philosophy of Vorticism, put forward in BLAST magazine, reflects the artistic conflict of the day and emphasizes the importance of this conflict in establishing revolutionary art.  The Vorticist Manifesto comes in two parts: the experimental “Blast/Bless” section and more straightforward “Manifesto.”  

 

The use of “Blast” and “Bless” in the first manifesto presents the first example of the conflict motif by alluding to Biblical extremes of being sent to Hell or Heaven in order to identify the enemies and allies of the movement. This use of two extremes additionally suggests a condemnation of moderate or peaceful thought, instead underscoring radical juxtaposition and opposition.  The first manifesto further encourages radical opposition through the use of violent verbs and phrases in large capital letters such as “CURSE WITH EXPLETIVE OF WHIRLWIND,” “WRING THE NECK,” and “DAMN” (Lewis 15, 18, 19).  The “blasted” topics are those of complacency, such as England, whose channel exists “TO MAKE US MILD” and whose weather “can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle” and “cannot stiffen the back” (11, 12).  Other condemned sources of complacency include humour, for being a “quack ENGLISH drug for stupidity and sleepiness” and the Victorian “years 1837 to 1900,” which gave way to a “pasty shadow” and the “PURGATORY OF PUTNEY [an English suburb of London]”  (17, 18).  A blast against France’s  “PARISIAN PAROCHIALISM” also levies a rejection of the artistically dominant French avant-garde, notably Cubism, which Lewis viewed as avoiding the struggle in the modern world “in favor of the old studio repertoire of portraits and still life” (Lewis 13, Cork 246).  However, the first manifesto further reinforces the importance of conflict by “Blessing” many of the similar “Blasted” targets, creating an internal conflict.  The “BLESS” section approves of the energy emerging from England, whose ships “switchback […] all around the PINK EARTH-BALL” and whose ports contain “RESTLESS MACHINES” (Lewis 22, 23).  This section also approves of English humour for its potential to be used in conflict as “the great barbarous weapon of the genius among races” (26).  Finally, France’s “GREAT FLOOD OF LIFE pouring out” of the French revolution also receives a bless.  Through the paradoxical listing of “Blasts” and “Blesses,” the first Vorticist manifesto not only suggests that radical art must be in opposition to the complacent Victorian elite of the time, but that it must exist in conflict with itself so that it can remain perpetually dynamic and fresh.

The second, more straightforward manifesto concretely states the Vorticist aims that were explored in the first manifesto, primarily the necessity of conflict against the ruling aesthetic elites of the time.  This manifesto, divided into seven parts, heralds the Vorticists as “Primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World,” as they “discharge [them]selves on both sides” to fight for “the SAME cause,” mirroring the internal conflict set up in the first manifesto to combat complacency (30).  The following segments of the manifesto set up numerous other opposed concepts working together, including the Vorticist desire for “Humour if it has fought like Tragedy,” the creation of a new nature of machines by the appearance of “steel trees where the green ones were lacking,” and that life in England “has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art” (31, 36, 39).  These juxtapositions of primitivity and modernity, humour and tragedy, industry and nature, and life and art reinforce the movement’s celebration of opposition working together to counter the “violent boredom” and “Cosmopolitan sentimentality” brought about by the Romantic elites (34).  The final section of the manifesto identifies a major source of this boredom and snobbery in modern Europe as the Futurists, who “gush over machines, aeroplanes, etc.” and are the “most romantic and sentimental ‘moderns’ to be found” (41).  In the end, the Vorticists, after identifying and emphasizing the conflict within their contemporary artistic society and within their own movement, use these oppositions to place themselves in direct conflict with the reigning avant-garde movement of their time in order to bring back revolutionary art to the “unmusical, anti-artistic, unphilosophic country” of England (32).  

The first section (out of seven) of the second Vorticist manifesto

In the coming weeks, I plan to apply my more comprehensive understanding of the history and philosophy of Vorticism to my readings and analyses of various paintings, sculptures, and works of literature.  Specifically, I will look out for the aforementioned opposed concepts working together as well as critiques of Victorian society.  By the end of my research, I hope to have a more complete knowledge of the unifying themes of Vorticism to return some (what I believe to be) much deserved critical attention to this short-lived movement.  

 

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.

 

Speak Your Mind