There is No Vulgarity in Revolt Part 3: The Disruptive Aesthetics of Vorticist Painting

“The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915” -William Roberts, 1961-1962

In my previous blog posts, I examined and explored the role of conflict in the history and philosophy of Vorticism, concluding that the social and artistic conflicts of the early 20th century provided the environment for Vorticism to emerge and that these conflicts left a serious impact on the movement’s philosophy against both the Victorian and avant-garde art of contemporary England.   In this post, I will analyze the role of similar conflicts within select works from four Vorticist painters: Wyndham Lewis, Helen Saunders, Edward Wadsworth, and David Bomberg.  The paintings of these Vorticist artists each, through different means, reflect the various conflicts, such as those between violence and complacency, mechanization and nature, and humanity and society, established in the “Vorticist Manifesto” and other works of Vorticist philosophy.  

Wyndham Lewis’ statements against two of the most prominent art movements of his time, Futurism and Cubism, shaped his style of painting as a Vorticist.  Lewis’ manifesto in the first issue of BLAST states that “Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium” for art, as it does away with the “narrow and pedantic Realism” of the Victorian era (39).  His critiques of Futurism and Cubism stem from their inability to capture this view of the machine.  Lewis decries the lack of structure in Futurist art for its elimination of the very machines it attempts to depict, noting that “a machine in violent motion [typical of Futurist art] ceases to look like a machine” (79).  He attacks Cubism for the opposite reason.  Lewis explains in “Relativism and Picasso’s Latest Work” that the work of Picasso and the Cubists resembles “a sort of machinery,” but the rigid structure of their paintings leaves that machinery unable “to propel nor make any known thing” (140).  By criticizing the Futurist and Cubist way of painting, Lewis suggests that the strongest art—the most capable of capturing the machinery and conflict of the modern day—is that which balances both the speed of the Futurists and the structure of the Cubists.

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Lewis exhibits this balance of speed and structure in his 1913-1914 painting Composition (pictured above). While this piece appeared before the official creation of Vorticism, Richard Cork notes that it creates “a rigidly mechanized vocabulary” which allows Lewis to “shout out his own emotional plea for aesthetic rebellion,” essentially laying the foundation for what Vorticist art should look like (128).  Thick, black lines cut across the piece in violent diagonal paths, fracturing the painting into small shards.  These black lines conflict with the fraImage result for workshop wyndham lewisgmented boxes of colors and whites to establish a struggle between lines and shapes as well as blacks, whites, and colors.  Finally, the central gray structure of the painting, with its window-like latticework towards the bottom, resembles a crumbling skyscraper, underscoring the violence and conflict within a modern, urban setting.  The use of sharp, energetic diagonal lines and conflicting colors along with the depiction of urban violence and mechanization would become unifying motifs within Vorticist painting.  Lewis’ 1914-1915 painting Workshop (pictured right) further refines these motifs.  The conflicting orange, yellow, pink, and blue of this painting exist alongside each other with strict contrasting lines, thus avoiding any mixing of color or creation of a Futurist blur.  The network of black, diagonal lines resembles “the boundaries of a prison” which keep its prisoners “satisfied with their environment” (342).  However, the lack of these lines around the edge of the painting suggest escape from these rigid boundaries, creating a conflict between confinement and freedom, complacency and energy, and structure and speed.  Finally, while the title Workshop suggests an enclosed, personal space—antithetical to the Vorticist focus on urbanity—it also alludes to the manifesto’s description of England as a “pyramidal workshop,” an indication that the painting depicts an entire urban space (26-27).  Thus, the struggle between confinement and freedom not only applies to the lines and shapes of the painting, but to the citizens of the city within the painting. 

 

Image result for design for a book jacket helen saunders

Lewis’ style and approach towards painting had a considerable impact on many of the Vorticists.  Among these artists, one of the most significantly inspired by Lewis was Helen Saunders.  Frederick Etchells, a fellow Vorticist, describes her admiration teasingly in a 1939 interview; “if Lewis had painted Kate Greenaway pictures [a prominent Victorian children’s illustrator] Saunders would have done them too.” One painting which follows the Vorticist style laid down by Lewis is her 1915 piece, Design for a Book Jacket (pictured above).  The standard Vorticist vocabulary is readily present; conflicting diagonal patches of green, white, yellow, and black violently push into or radiate froImage result for design for a book jacket helen saundersm the gray plant-like structure in the center, establishing a contrast between active colors and staid gray tones.  Another gray structure wraps itself around the base of the plant, suggesting both protection from the crushing diagonals as well as the confinement of escaping rays.  The conflict between the colorful lines and the gray cage suggests a struggle between attack and defense or, like Lewis’ Workshop, the struggle between entrapment and freedom.  Finally, the metallic tone and sharp angles of the central figure resemble a mechanized plant, mirroring the manifesto’s statement that modern industry “has reared up steel trees where the green ones were lacking,” an illustration of urbanization’s struggle with and eventual replacement of natural forces (Lewis 36).  Another one of Saunders’ pieces which reflects Lewis’ influence is her 1915 painting, Vorticist Composition in Green and Yellow (pictured left).  Richard Cork notes that this piece is an ideal representation of “the movement’s ability to fuse two ostensibly opposed qualities in one work” (424).  The primary source of conflict within the painting is the central structure which simultaneously produces explosive bands of color and is compressed by the center-moving force of those bands.  This paradoxical pairing suggests a still, compressed energy which is capable of bursting at any time.  In pairing both violence and stillness, this painting recalls the statement in “Our Vortex” that “the Vorticist is at his maximum point of energy when stillest,” one final indication of Saunders’ strong roots within the Vorticist philosophy (Lewis 148).

 

Bradford

Despite the large presence of painters within the movement, Vorticist graphic art was not limited to paintings alone.  Lewis praises the energy and precision of woodcuts in his “Note on some German woodcuts at the Twenty-One Gallery” for being “rough and brutal, surgery of the senses, cutting and not scratching” (136).  Edward Wadsworth exhibits both this dynamism and precision in his own woodcuts to illustrate the conflict between humanity and machinery as well as that between energy and stillness.  In his 1914 woodcut, BrNew Delightsadford: View of a Town (pictured above), the dense multitude of architectural shapes and energetic diagonal lines are all compressed into a single structure in the center of an otherwise empty page, highlighting the internal action of the urban area in the title and contrasting the title’s suggestion of a straightforward, Victorian-esque landscape.  Richard Cork, regarding this piece, also remarks on the mechanical process of woodcuts in his note that “the colors are stamped onto the paper with a precision that utterly precludes […] a human hand in their creation” (355).   Through Cork’s observation, this woodcut further emphasizes the struggle between humanity and mechanization by its very medium; the individuality and spontaneity of the artist contrasts the reproducibility and relative immutability of the woodcut.  Put succinctly by Cork, “style and subject-matter meet in perfect unison” (355).  Wadsworth’s 1914-1915 woodcut, New Delight (pictured right), explores similar conflicts between action and complacency.  The sharp diagonal shapes and lack of parallel lines within the center of a blank page suggest the same internal danger and energy as Bradford and the outward radiating lines and negative space indicate an explosive fracturing resulting from this internal pressure.  However, Cork explains that the peaceful title along with the independent shapes “do not attack or aggravate” but instead “assert their right to exist without in any way threatening to disrupt,” resulting in the illustration of a conflict not only between energy and complacency, but between harmony and the very idea of conflict itself (358).  This sort of meta-conflict challenges the typical Vorticist celebration of struggle and reinforces the movement’s use of internal conflict as a source of renewal.

 

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The eleven signers of the Vorticist manifesto do not make up the entirety of artists painting in the Vorticist style.  The paintings of David Bomberg, an outsider yet contemporary to the movement, resemble the Vorticists’ in both construction and in theme while also standing independent from the typical abstraction of Lewis et al.  Bomberg’s paintings, through their geometric and chaotic depiction of human forms, reflect the Vorticist ideas of conflict between primitivity and modernity, machinery and humanity, and chaos and coherence.  One of his most celebrated paintings is his 1914 work, The Mud Bath (pictured above).  While this painting uses the typical Vorticist sharp diagonal lines and solid planes of conflicting colors, it differs from the standard Vorticist painting in its depiction of human figures.  These figures, most notably the one directly in the foreground, exhibit basic human anatomical structure made up of abstracted geometric forms.  In doing so, the painting strips the human form down to its most basic, primal shapes, much like a cave painting.  However, the sharp geometric lines are suggestive of a machine, creating a fusion of primitivity and modernity which elevates the conflict between humanity and machinery.  While Bomberg painted this piece before the publication of BLAST, these duos within The Mud Bath reflect the manifesto’s statements that truly modern art emerges from those “Primitive Mercenaries of the Modern World” who explore the place of the “savage” in “this enormous, jangling, journalistic fairy desert of modern life” (Lewis 30, 33).  Bomberg’s In the Hold (pictured below), painted from 1913-1914, similarly strays from typical Vorticist abstraction, instead relying on its own style of abstraction to explore the Vorticist themes of the struggle between chaos and coherence within an urban setting.  The 64 individual squares which make up the painting indicate some level of order and planning, resembling strongly the gridwork of a city.  However, the “holocaust of glittering segments” which overlap and break up the gridwork of this piece underscores the struggle between order and anarchy within an urban environment (Cork 198).  The central anchoring figure of the blue working man is similarly shattered and shot-through, suggesting that the laborer’s life in a savage, conflicted city renders him similarly fragmented and torn by the conflict between order and chaos.  Finally, the very size of these two paintings highlights their controversial and inflammatory nature.  Both were well over seven feet in length and were displayed prominently in their respective galleries.  The Mud Bath, in one instance, was placed outside Bomberg’s 1914 one-man show at the Chenil Gallery in London and, as Bomberg recalled, “the horses drawing the 29 bus used to shy at it,” a forceful illustration of the painting’s evocative and startling presence.

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By fusing the structure and speed of Cubism and Futurism, the Vorticist graphic artists were capable of partially disrupting the growing hold of these two movements on the English avant-garde scene, allowing them to create new directions in the depiction of the machine age’s conflict.  For the next stage in my research, I plan to identify similar strains of conflict within Vorticist sculpture, analyzing how the creation of three-dimensional art provides its own perspective on the many struggles outlined in Vorticist thought.  

 

Works Cited

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

Lewis, Wyndham. BLAST: Review of the Great English Vortex 15 June 1914. Print.

Lewis, Wyndham. Wyndham Lewis, the Artist: From “Blast” to Burlington House. New York: Haskell House, 1971. Print.

Comments

  1. Hello!

    The graphic design elements of these selected Vorticists really reminds me of the Russian Constructivism in Soviet propaganda posters, specifically the geometric shapes and sharp quality of the lines. It’s an interesting parallel because both seem to borrow from Cubism and Futurism so they arrive at a similar aesthetic but their messages are so different. Vorticism seems to be obsessed with the present so much so that it picks present concerns and ongoing turmoil as subjects. However, as much as Vorticism is focused on the present, it draws a lot of inspiration from the past and the Victorian subjects that its manifesto shunned. While trying to disrupt the major artistic movement of the time, Vorticism also seems to fight itself for a cohesive definition. I really enjoyed reading your analysis of the artists in this post since it helped distinguish the different kinds of conflicts and expand a little on how each was treated aesthetically.

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