There is No Vulgarity in Revolt Part 4: The Mechanized Primitivity of Vorticist Sculpture

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska with “Bird Swallowing Fish,” circa 1914

In my last post, I presented a brief survey of Vorticist painting and graphic design, analyzing how the treatment of conflict within Vorticist philosophy influenced the composition and subject matter of these works.  While most Vorticists were painters, the movement also produced its own strain of sculpture.  In this post, I will similarly analyze two sculptors closely associated with the movement: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein.  Like Vorticist painting, Vorticist sculpture reflects the conflicts underscored in Vorticist philosophical writings, such as those between machines and nature, art and life, and primitivity and modernity.  However, the added third dimension of sculpture allows these works to further emphasize the alternate perspectives and internal conflict championed by the movement.  

Gaudier-Brzeska’s Vortex statement in the first issue of BLAST outlines his perspective on the history of sculpture as well as his personal sculptural aesthetic.  In this statement, he identifies and lauds the “PALEOLITHIC VORTEX” which appears throughout the art of ancient civilizations (Gaudier-Brzeska 156).  He praises the rock carvings of stone age humans, who exhibited conflict by “disput[ing] the earth with animals” (156).  The statement additionally approves of the massive, angular “intensity” of the pyramids found within the “HAMITE VORTEX of Egypt” (156).  Finally, he praises the “masterpieces of fetishes” from ancient West Africa and their being made of clay and wood that was “difficult to win from nature” (158).  Gaudier-Brzeska also issues condemnations of the realistic, human statues of the Greeks, which he proclaims as “DERIVATIVE” and “secondary” (156).  He argues that this “absence of direct energy” in Greek sculpture resurfaced in Europe during the Renaissance and persisted as “SOLID EXCREMENT” until the fifteenth century, “LIQUID until the seventeenth century” and “GASES” until the contemporary era: each era lacking the solid and energetic sculpture of more ancient eras (156).  By blasting Greek and Renaissance sculpture and blessing the sculpture of ancient civilizations, Gaudier-Brzeska indicates that the strongest sculptures—those containing the “Paleolithic Vortex”—are those which emphasize energetic primitivity in contrast to the staid realism of contemporary European sculpture.

Gaudier-Brzeska’s 1914 Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (pictured above) displays this primitivity.  The simplicity of the face and the large, monolithic verticality of the entire piece bears striking resemblance to the massive statues built by the ancient Polynesian peoples on Easter Island, highlighting “primitive man’s ability to create potent symbols” (Cork 182).  On the contrary, the slick surface of the bust along with the sharply angled lines—not one of which is parallel to another—employ typical Vorticist artistic features to illustrate a mechanized, dangerous figure.  By exhibiting both ancient structure and mechanized features, Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpture reinforces the conflict between primitivity and modernity within one solid entity, creating the internal conflict championed by the Vorticists for self-advancement.  Bird Swallowing Fish (pictured right), Gaudier-Brzeska’s 1914 sculpture, uses the additional third dimension of sculpture to further emphasize this internal conflict.  From the side, the sculpture depicts the conflict between a large bird and its smaller meal; the bird is clearly the victor from this perspective.  However, Richard Cork notes that from an elevated viewpoint  the fish is “ramming itself into the bird’s open mouth” and the bird is “choking, gorged with the outsize dimensions of a prey he was unwise to chase,” reversing the outcome of the struggle and establishing an internal contradiction in a way that only a sculpture could (438).  The subject matter of the sculpture additionally allows for an illustration of the struggle between nature and machine.  Ezra Pound, in his Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, explains that Gaudier-Brzeska exhibited an “instinct for the combination of organic with inorganic forms” (27).  The image of a bird swallowing a fish—the organic form—contrasts the sharp angles and flared planes of the sculpture—the inorganic form.  These angular bends and flat sections result in a mechanized and weaponized nature, recalling the statement that modern industry has “reared up steel trees where the green ones were lacking” in the Vorticist Manifesto (Lewis 36).  The use of gunmetal in one of the earliest castings of this sculpture further reinforces the weaponization of natural figures.  Despite his career being cut short by his 1915 death in the trenches of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, Gaudier-Brzeska, by applying the techniques of Vorticist painting to his three-dimensional sculpture, provided an additional medium of Vorticist expression and was able to explore conflicts of the movement not only with composition and subject matter, but in the manipulation of perspective and the choice of materials as well.  

Both venus

Jacob Epstein similarly experiments with alternate perspectives of sculptures to reinforce internal conflict in his pair of statues, both entitled Marble Venus (both pictured above).  From the side, these sculptures depict a pregnant female body, bent at energetic angles resembling a lightning bolt.  From the front, however, these sculptures (especially the second) become an unbroken, vertical block of stone.  This change in perspective creates “two independent variations […] within one sculpture:” variations which underscore the central Vorticist conflict of energy against complacency (Cork 460).  Additionally, the stance of both sculptures as well as the avian figures at their base resemble the ancient West African sculptures and their use of animal fetish emblems praised in Gaudier-Brzeska’s vortex statement.  These ancient roots contrast the statues’ angular, helmet-like heads and their sharp angles, both of which resemble a modern, mechanized human.  This contrast illustrates one additional emphasis on the conflict between primitivity and modernity within these set of sculptures.  Epstein’s 1913-1915 sculpture, Rock Drill (pictured below), through its inclusion of an actual rock drill, additionally illustrates various other Vorticist conflicts, namely that between humans and machinery.  Richard Cork argues that this sculpture provides “the ideal sculptural counterpart to the thesis [of the struggle between man and machine] laid down in the Vorticist manifesto” (467).  The very color division of the sculpture provides the first depiction of this struggle; the human figure is a bleached white while its mechanical rock drill is a metallic black, thus highlighting the distinction between the two elements.  However, the sculpture does not only present this distinction as a black and white dichotomy.  Each part of the sculpture contains its own internal conflict between man and machine.  The human figure, much like those in Bomberg’s The Mud Bath, exhibits basic human anatomy using stylized, geometric lines, thus creating both a primitive human form and a mechanized one.  Furthermore, the human figure’s curved legs jut out at unnatural angles from its torso, making the rock drill itself “a more natural extension of the torso than the legs,” reinforcing the conflict between the figure’s mechanical and primitive elements (474).  The actual drill’s position resembles that of a massive, mechanical phallus, blending a visceral symbol for humanity into a violent machine.  The similar conflicts within each element combine to create a primitive, yet modernized, man which strongly resembles the paradoxical “Primitive Mercenaries of the Modern World” who fight within the “Jungle […] of machinery, Factories, new and vaster buildings” described in the second Vorticist manifesto (Lewis 30,40).  Although Epstein was not a signer of the manifesto, his sculpture is fully capable of expressing the contradictory aesthetics of the movement.

 

By utilizing the various advantages granted by sculpture to resist the realism of Greek and Renaissance statues, the Vorticist sculptors were able to shake off the hold of this convention  to continue the legacy of the “Paleolithic Vortex” in modern sculpture.  For the next step in my research, I will move away from the visual arts and begin to focus on the poetry and prose of the movement, analyzing how the literary depictions of humans and nature embody the conflicts outlined in the philosophy of Vorticism.

Works Cited

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

Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri. “Vortex.” BLAST: Review of the Great English Vortex. N.p.: n.p., 1914. 155-58. Print.

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

Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970. Print.

Comments

  1. tlwansink says:

    The Vorticists’ use of contrasts seems especially apparent in these sculptures, and this visual element is helping me understand what Vorticism was all about. In the same way that BLAST refused to take middle-of-the-road positions in order to create some sort of synthesis between the two sides, it seems like the power behind Vorticist art lies in its contradictions, be they between natural/unnatural, primitive/modern, etc. I especially liked your analysis on Bird Swallowing Fish and how you pointed out that the fish seems to almost be choking the bird; not only do the constructed material and jagged style of the sculpture reflect the natural/unnatural divide, but even the presentation of the fish and bird reflects a relationship that violates the “rules” of nature. This makes me think that the title may even reflect this shifting dynamic; either it is means to say “a bird swallowing a fish” or it is of “a bird-swallowing fish.”

    Something that may be interesting to examine further is the problematic implications of appropriating styles of art for their primitiveness. It seems like some of the Vorticists are fetishizing the “primitive,” pointing out other cultures as less complex and closer to nature, idealizing these cultures through a colonial lens. While I see how they might have developed this train of thought as a way to rebel against the industrialized Western mode of thought, it would be interesting to delve into that aspect and see how Vorticists approached primitiveness in contrast to other art movement at the time (I know surrealists similarly revered elements of the occult from other cultures).

    Overall, very interesting analysis. Looking forward to reading what you have to say about Vorticist literature.

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