Vorticism and the Rules of the Game

The exhibition ‘The Vorticists’ on at the moment at Tate Britain is subtitled ‘Manifesto for a Modern World’.  It came to mind when the wordpress topic suggestion a couple of days ago was to ask what you would put in the constitution of your own country.

The most striking thing to me about this British art movement, which existed for a brief period just before the First World War, was indeed the set of rules they wrote for themselves, and the consequent fights between who was in and who was out by virtue of their signing up to the manifesto or not.  They sound as if they were a splendidly disputatious bunch.

They set out to distinguish themselves from everything polite in British art in the Victorian period, and after a very brief period they disappeared without trace, according to the material accompanying the Tate’s show.

In a period when there was little modern avant garde art in London, Percy Wyndham Lewis sought to create a group separate from the one around Roger Fry on the one hand and Sickert and other post impressionists on the other; generally falling out with them all in the process.

Wyndham Lewis styled himself as the leader if the group, and according to a statement written just before his death in 1957 ‘Vorticism was, in fact, what I, personally, did and said at a certain period.’  You’ve got to love it.

I enjoyed the stories that the exhibition told about the group, rather than the art itself.

Evidently not much of the work of the signatories of the Manifesto still exists, because much of it was lost or destroyed during the subsequent wars.  David Bomberg may be the best known ‘Vorticist’ painter, according to art critic Richard Cork, even though he didn’t sign the manifesto, because he had the foresight to store his works properly.

One explanation of how they fell out with Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury group was that Fry failed to share information about design opportunities available at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It all sounds so cosy and parochial.  But the artistic temperament and commerce  is always likely to be a toxic mix.

The idea was that it would be a movement that encompassed both visual art and writing; Ezra Pound coined the phrase ‘Vorticism’, and was the the model for a couple of angular busts.

They launched a ‘magazine’ ‘Blast’ which, while made up of slogans and big black words, and managed only two issues, also published early TS Eliot.

Good things are ‘Blessed’, disapproved of things ‘Blasted’  There are things we can all agree with on the Blast list, I suspect – ‘Purgatory of Putney’ anyone?  Beecham’s (Powders and Sir Thomas) too.

It just goes to show that the best way to be in charge is to write your own rules and let the rest of the world go hang.

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