A unique blend of Cubism and Futurism, Vorticism was an important British avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century, although it lasted officially for no more than two years. The movement's central figure was the English painter, writer and polemicist (Percy) Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), while the name - referring to the emotional vortex which was considered to be the necessary source of artistic creation - was coined by the American poet Ezra Pound. These two, together with members of the Rebel Art Centre founded Vorticism in 1914. The journal "Blast", published only twice (in 1914 and 1915) proclaimed the Vorticist Manifesto and supplied publicity for the movement. Two exhibitions in London of Futurist art were significant catalysts for the movement's launch, while the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 led to its premature demise. As a result only one Vorticist exhibition was ever held. The movement effectively broke up in 1915 due to the impact of war, and the loss of financial support from its backer, the artist Kate Lechmere (1887-1976). Vorticist philosophy was briefly revived in 1920 with Lewis' formation of Group X.
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The Vorticist movement started to come together in about October 1913, inspired in part by two important futurist art exhibitions held in London, in 1912 and 1913, and in part by the establishment of the short-lived Rebel Art Centre. The latter was founded by Lewis and several associates in April 1914 when they left the decorative arts company Omega Workshops following a quarrel with its owner Roger Fry (1866-1934). In addition to Lewis, members of the Rebel Art Centre included Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939), Frederick Etchells (1886-1973), Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946), Helen Saunders (1885-1963), and Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949). A group exhibition of work by Rebel Centre artists was held at the Allied Artists Association in June 1914, and the centre closed in July. The Vorticism movement was launched in the same month, with the publication of the first edition of the magazine Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, which contained the Vorticist Manifesto. The latter 'blasted' what was seen as the smug complacency of the British arts and cultural establishment and announced the new Vorticist aesthetic: "The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the Present: we produce a New Living Abstraction". Signatories to the Manifesto included Lewis, Pound, Dismorr and Wadsworth, as well as the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) and the English painter William Roberts (1895-1980), a close friend of Lewis.
Unfortunately, with the onset of war, the Vorticists managed to hold only one art exhibition - in June 1915 at the Doré Gallery in London. The following month saw the publication of the second and final edition of Blast. Featuring contributions from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot as well as from Vorticists themselves, plus reproductions of now lost Vorticist works by Lewis and others, Blast is now seen by some critics as one of the catalysts of the renaissance in graphic design which occurred in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.
In addition to those Vorticist members mentioned above, certain other artists were closely associated with the movement including the much underrated painter David Bomberg (1890-1957), the US-born sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), who settled in Londin in 1905, and the American-born British photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) noted for his avant-garde black-and-white abstract photographs, known as Vortographs.
Vorticism was effectively over as a movement by 1916. Gaudier-Brzeska was already dead, other members had been scattered by the demands of war, and the public was completely uninterested in fine art painting. There were no more Vorticist shows and no further issues of Blast.
Vorticism combines the geometrical fragmentation
of Cubism with Futurist-style machine-like imagery, in order to illustrate
the dynamism of the modern world. Lewis considered Vorticism to be a genuinely
independent alternative to both Cubism and Futurism. He was impressed
by the strong structure of Cubist painting,
but declared that it lacked life when compared to Futurist art. The latter,
however, he criticized for its lack of structure. Vorticism was intended
to combine the best elements of both. Although - optically - Vorticist
painting can look very similar to Futurist works, philosophically they
are relatively distinct. Because while movement was the key feature of
Futurism, modern industrialization was the key motif of Vorticism, expressed
in a 'dry', stripped-down, angular style.
After the war, in 1919, Wyndham Lewis founded another artist association known as Group X. Its purpose was to provide a spiritual home for London's avant-garde exponents of modern art, and an alternative showcase to the London Group. Members included the former Vorticists Edward Wadsworth, Jessica Dismorr, William Roberts and Frederick Etchells, plus the sculptor Frank Dobson (1886-1963), the French-trained painter Charles Ginner (1878-1952), the painter/ designer E McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), and Cuthbert Hamilton (1884-1958). The group's sole exhibition was held at the Mansard Gallery in 1920.
Although it had only a short life, Vorticism made its mark and laid the groundwork for future developments in British abstract art. During the 1920s and 1930s, something of the Vorticist idiom entered the cultural mainstream with Edward McKnight Kauffer's posters for London Transport.
A retrospective exhibition was held at the Tate Gallery in 1956, entitled "Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism". The title's implicit personnification of the movement attracted some controversy, notably from other Vorticists who felt that it belittled their contribution.
Works by Vorticist painters hang in several of the best art museums in Britain and America, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Imperial War Museum, the Transport Museum, the Tate Britain, and the Tate Modern (all in London).
Alvin Langdon Coburn
Group X Paintings