The Vorticists Groundbreaking British Modernism
New Exhibition at Tate Britain Reevaluates This Short-lived Movement
Vorticism, founded in the summer of 1914, during the out-break of the First World War, is considered to be
Britain’s first major contribution to modernism in visual art. In the early part of the 20th Century, Mainland Europe lead the way in both influence and productivity for outstanding work, in this innovative and ever changing period of art history. It was an era which saw movements such as Cubism, Futurism Expressionism, and Orphism take centre stage. The Vorticists were a British avant-garde group they were not only exponents of a new époque but have managed to leave a lasting legacy of influence on several generations of younger artists, here in the UK.
It was a somewhat fleeting affair; the onslaught of the war not only meant the central figure to the movement, Wyndham Lewis, enlisted, but Gaudier-Brzeska, another pioneer of the group, died in the trenches at the age of 23. Works were either lost or destroyed in this period, rendering a revival quasi impossible. However, almost a century on, Tate Britain has managed to comprise a mouth-watering exhibit of a movement that may well have finally rediscovered its footing in art history.
The exhibition starts with a 1973 reconstruction of Jacob Ebstein’s Rock Drill. This large figure, holding something that resembles a cross over between a drill and a WWI machine-gun, towers above its public with a solemn face, structural form and futuristic imagery, and equally a sure virility that resounds throughout the first two rooms of the exhibition. You might, in fact, mistakenly think you have walked into an exhibition of H.R Giger on the road to inspiring the Alien film series.
There is a wonderful coherence throughout the works, each room seemingly colour coded to fit the different facets of the movement. Indeed, this coherence further comes to light in chronological form as we see for the second time the large Jacob Ebstein’s figure from Rock Drill, but this time parted from his drill, an arm and a hand unforgivingly severed; the war has undoubtedly taken its toll. It is as though we have been taken through time, from the early vibrant aspirations of a mechanical era to one torn and dismembered due to cataclysmic events.
Great paintings by the highly acclaimed painter David Bomberg are also on show (The Mud Bath, 1914, and Vision of Ezekiel, 1912) in the second room. Like Bomberg, works by C.R.W Nevinson also feature - two artists who did not sign the Vorticist manifesto but who were highly associated with the group. Perhaps it was the latter’s fine drawing (Returning to the trenches, 1914-15), etching (Returning to the Trenches, 1916) and pastel (Marching Men, 1916), all placed together, that most found their inspiration in Italian Futurism. He appears to have used the Futurist’s structural code implemented upon movement in order to portray with aplomb the constrained but determined gait of the soldiers.
Another section to the exhibition shows the works of Alvin Coburn, a photographer who used new-found techniques to create works that resembled the inherent style of the movement. By creating a structure of interlocking mirrors, he was able to dissect and manipulate his subject matter and create what he called a Vortograph. This series of photographs is considered to be the first abstract photography.
The works do in fact include a great number of mediums, from more classical painting and charcoal drawing to wood carving and typography. Indeed, the influence that the movement had on the multifaceted art world was undoubtedly far larger than the short period in which it lived – it has been said to have had a great effect on graphic design and it could also be argued that much of the work appears to resemble the stencil street-art that has been so prominent in recent years.
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World is a superb exhibition of a body of work that was inspired by its contemporaries but transformed itself into something quintessentially British and equally something to be proud about. It is a movement that was unfortunately forgotten at times on its journey through the ages, but has now been majestically brought back to its time of glory.- © Max Costley 2011
The Exhibition runs until 4th September Visit The Exhibition