"Can you fell the force of the Vorticists?
by Brian Sewell.
16 Jun 2011
A vortex, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary I had at school, is a whirlpool, a whirling mass of fluid, fluid in rotating motion, anything whirling that is capable of swallowing all and everyone drawn into it.As this definition goes on to discuss rings, spiral, arcs and curves, it might be reasonable to assume that a group of artists dubbing themselves Vorticists produced art that was certainly curvilinear and possible soft-edged, suggesting fluidity, rotation and other characteristics of the vortex, its depth and singular dedicated force. There was indeed such a group, but arcs and curves, though occasionally present, played surprisingly little part in their work; this, in painting, was for the most part hard-edged and rectilinear, jagged and fragmented as though by internal explosion, centrifugal rather than centripetal, rather than forced into a coherent design suggesting vortical compulsion.
If there is depth in it, it is the depth of shallow planes superimposed, or of low relief entirely subject to design, or of some architectural or mechanical construction often set, like an object of still life, against a flat ground. In painting, vertiginous rather than vortical forces are implied; in sculpture, either no force of any kind, just enclosed weight and form, as with Gaudier-Brzeska, or a force of entirely different character, that of the machine, as in Epstein's Rock Drill.
In 1914, the American poet Ezra Pound, his associate Thomas Ernest Hulme (always known as T E Hulme), a combative philosopher-cum-theorist-cum-critic, and a very small group of artists working in Britain chose the vortex as their emblem and dubbed themselves Vorticists. The term was far more logically first used in the 17th century of those who followed Descartes' hypothesis that vortices of matter had determined the structure of the universe, and my hunch is that Pound, who re-coined the term in 1914, must have known Descartes' considerations of cosmogony when he proclaimed the vortex to be "the point of maximum energy". Wyndham Lewis slightly modified this view, arguing that "at the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist." Hulme, who knew nothing of the creative processes of the painter and sculptor and whose head was full of the theories of his immediate contemporary and associate in Germany, Wilhelm Worringer, who had firm grounding as an art historian before he became a philosopher, introduced the notion that "the idea of machinery" would differentiate all that was then contemporary art, and particularly the Vorticists, from the long arm of an exhausted Renaissance. He who reads Worringer's thesis, Abstraction and Empathy, published in 1908, need never read Hulme's Speculations, published posthumously in 1924. Both men wished to clear away "the sloppy dregs of the Renaissance", both offered a blueprint for a modern aesthetic and justification for all modern art movements, and both commended reference to the near abstract art of the far past (Egypt) and the primitivisms of Oceania and Africa, rather than the realism of the Renaissance which, they claimed, had weakened man's capacity for abstraction. I suspect that Hulme had difficulty with the concept of abstraction - for "abstract" he substituted "geometric" and as the term empathy first entered the English language in 1912, he may not have known it and used "vital" in place of "in feeling", the meaningless literal translation of "Einfühlung".
One may reasonably argue that Hulme was an ass with influence far beyond his knowledge and experience of art. One may argue, with equal reason, that Pound too was an ass, a frivolous intellectual gamester whose knowledge of art reached no further back than Whistler, recently dead, whom he saw as a touchstone of aesthetic excellence, "the great grammarian of the arts" and, absurdly, as some sort of avuncular spirit for his "little gang" of Vorticists. They influenced each other's thinking, yet for each behind the other's back lay scorn and derision, Pound complaining of Hulme's unintelligible lectures and loud-mouthed "crap", while to kick Pound downstairs was often in Hulme's mind. They are part of the history of Vorticism only because they were the pseudo-philosophical leaders of the little gang, but to it they contributed nothing but drivel and confusion. The one man who really matters is Wyndham Lewis.
According to Pound, in December 1913 the gang had been forming for five years. The minor figures drawn into the vortex and very rarely heard of in any post-Vorticist context were Malcolm Arbuthnot, an experimental photographer, Lawrence Atkinson, Jessica Dismorr, Cuthbert Hamilton, Frederick Etchells and Helen Saunders; the major figures, in addition to Lewis, were Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth. David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein were closely associated with the gang, but neither joined it nor signed the manifesto issued in July 1914; nor was Etchells a signatory, but Pound and another poet, Richard Aldington (one of the Imagist group for whom Pound wrote another manifesto), were.
Christopher Nevinson drew close to Vorticism but was never quite sucked in.
A month later the First World War began. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed within 10 months; Hulme, an early volunteer to the Royal Marine Artillery, survived until September 1917 and was then killed within sight of Lewis, who had joined the Royal Artillery six months before; in November 1915 Bomberg enlisted as a sapper, and in April 1916 Roberts too became a gunner; Wadsworth joined Naval Intelligence in June 1916 and in the same month Jessica Dismorr went as a volunteer to France. Pound did what he could to hold the rest of the depleted and inactive little gang together and took on Alvin Langdon Coburn, an American and another experimental photographer, assisting him in the development of his futile Vortoscope for taking Vortographs (no, not to be found in Edward Lear's little dictionary of Wurbl Inwentions) first exhibited in the London Camera Club in February 1917; these were superimposed exposures that rendered image and portraits semi-abstract.
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