Wyndham Lewis And Vorticism - Essay

Wyndham Lewis And Vorticism

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

William C. Wees

SOURCE: "Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism," in Blast 3, edited by Seamus Cooney, and others, Black Sparrow Press, 1984, pp. 47-50.

[In the following essay, Wees documents Lewis's activities as the founding figure of the Vorticist movement.]

In 1914 Wyndham Lewis devoted much of his time to what he described as his "undeniable political activity." In the space of half a year Lewis directed London's new Rebel Art Centre, led a widely reported campaign against the Italian Futurists, and edited and made most of the major contributions to BLAST, Review of the Great English Vortex. These activities attracted attention—exactly the purpose of art politics—and won for Lewis a reputation as, in the words of the Daily News (7 April 1914), "the extremely able leader of the Cubist movement in England."

Lewis's sly self-caricature in Blasting and Bombardiering describes "Mr. W.L., Leader of the 'Great London Vortex,'" who discovered in himself the "romantic figure [who] must always emerge to captain the 'group.'" In accordance with his role, he never passed up a chance to explain in articles, interviews and manifestos, "why life had to be changed, and how." "'Kill John Bull with Art!' I shouted. And John and Mrs. Bull leapt for joy, in a cynical convulsion. For they felt as safe as houses. So did I." Exciting and inconsequential—Lewis's role as leader seemed little more than that, when measured strictly in political terms. Nevertheless, without the urge to captain a group, Lewis might not have produced the public pronouncements that were, certainly, propaganda for himself and his group. The pronouncements were critical and aesthetic documents as well, and they emerged from a concerted effort to find new art forms appropriate to the new times.

BLAST was the major document. It was the Vorticist group's statement, not Lewis's alone. In fact, it was one of the fruits of a four-year transformation of the English art world that had begun with Roger Fry's "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" exhibition in November 1910.

In 1910, as the art critic Frank Rutter said at the time, "Art in Paris had entered upon a stage practically unknown to us in Britain." Two years later, however, at Fry's "Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition" there was an "English Group" including some English artists as "advanced" as any in Paris. December 1913 saw a large exhibition of "Post-Impressionists, Cubists and Others" at Brighton, with a separate "Cubist Room" for eight of the exhibiting artists. Most of those eight joined Wyndham Lewis at the Rebel Art Centre when it opened in April 1914.

Intended as a crafts workshop, atelier, gallery and lecture hall, the Rebel Art Centre in reality was little more than a meeting place for some of the English Cubists, who were soon calling themselves Vorticists. This group included Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Lawrence Atkinson, William Roberts, Jessie Dismorr, Helen Saunders, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. It was Pound who first applied the label "Vortex" to their particular phase of English Cubism, and in July 1914, BLAST appeared, defining and illustrating Vorticism as a movement in its own right.

"We worked separately, we found an underlying agreement, we decided to stand together," Pound said of the group. "To stand together" was a political way of talking, and characteristic of a time when "avant-garde" had not lost all of its military connotations, when "revolutionary" or "anarchical" art was still regarded as a political threat to the Establishment, when "militant" was as readily applied to artists as to suffragettes, when artists joined "conspiracies" and "putsches," had "headquarters" and issued "manifestos." The format and predominant tone of BLAST derived from that state of the arts in England, and the way Pound, Lewis and others talked about Vorticism was strongly shaped by it.

The Vorticists' "underlying agreement" revealed itself in the strikingly similar phrases they used to convey their sense of intense artistic expression: "a mental-emotive impulse" (Lewis), "an intellectual and emotional complex" (Pound), "a vast intellectual emotion" (Gaudier-Brzeska). It appeared in the images with which they characterized art they admired: "sharpness and rigidity" (Gaudier), "hard light, clear edges" (Pound), "rigid reflections of stone and steel" (Lewis). It expressed itself most powerfully in the visual and literary styles of the movement, and in the theory and criticism included in BLAST.

The essence of the Vorticists' visual style lay in the kind of solutions those artists found to the problem of formally unifying abstract, geometrical shapes. The most forceful solutions came from Lewis, who had been working on the problem since 1911 or 1912. Lewis brought to his work an Expressionist fascination with strange, stark pictures with powerful psychological overtones; a Futurist desire to shatter his subjects into interpenetrating fragments locked together by dynamic "force-lines"; a Cubist refusal to make more than minimal reference to anything outside the picture's own formal, abstract framework. Perhaps the first fully successful synthesizing of these predilections appeared in his Timon of Athens drawings of 1912. There Lewis integrated mask-like faces, stylized limbs, truncated bodies, arcs, lines and wedges, to produce abstract designs with representational details. By the end of 1913, some of Lewis's work eschewed representational elements entirely.

In the "Cubist Room" at Brighton and in subsequent exhibitions of 1914 and 1915, he showed a number of totally abstract pictures. Interlocking lines, arcs, triangles, rectangles and other geometric forms drawn with mechanical precision and painted with flat, lowkeyed hues (when colour appeared at all) had become characteristic of all the Vorticists' work by the time they exhibited together at the "Vorticists' Exhibition" in June 1915. But only Lewis seemed fully capable of conveying what the Athenaeum (19 June 1915) called "systems of interacting movement" and the "clash of opposing forces." In Lewis's work, the meeting and interpenetrating of abstract, geometric elements reshaped and energized the spaces they defined, so that the whole design and all of its parts, seemed forever locked in conflict, or in a highly aggressive embrace. Combat, dance and courtship had often served as subject matter for Lewis's pre-Vorticist pictures, and they continued to be reference points or analogies for the brutal and delicate, passionate and coolly precise relationship implicit in his abstract, Vorticist work.

Similar preoccupations were at work when Lewis tried to produce a literary counterpart to the Vorticist visual style. The diction and layout of BLAST's manifesto grew out of Lewis's efforts to bring literature up to the front ranks of the "visual revolution." Gaudier-Brzeska's "Vortex" essay in BLAST 1, and Pound's "Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess (Theme for a Series of Pictures)" in BLAST 2, were also contributions to that effort, but the piece de resistance of literary Vorticism was Lewis's Enemy of the Stars in the first issue of BLAST.

In that violent closet drama, character, setting and action emerge in glimpses and fragments. A characteristic passage presents a fight (strongly suggestive of the combat relationships in Lewis's visual art) between Argol and his disciple Hanp:

Flushes on silk epiderm and fierce card-play of fists between them: emptying of "hand" on soft flesh-table.

Arms of grey windmills, grinding anger on stone of the new heart.

Messages from one to another, dropped down anywhere when nobody is looking, reaching brain by telegraph: most desolating and alarming messages possible.

The attacker rushed in drunk with blows. They rolled, swift jagged rut, into one corner of shed: large insect scuttling roughly to hiding. Stopped astonished. (BLAST 1)

The action and language are violent, but individual moments of action are strangely isolated and static. Events are broken down and reconstructed like the interrelated fragments in Vorticist pictures.

No single work, except BLAST itself, fully expressed the whole set of attitudes that constituted Vorticist doctrine. With its pinkish-purple cover crossed diagonally by the single word "BLAST" in three-and-one-quarter-inch-high black letters, its 160 nearly folio-sized pages of unusually heavy paper, its thick, blocky print, some of which was larger than newspaper headlines, its manifesto of "blasts" and "blesses," and its generally aggressive tone, BLAST 1 seemed exceedingly brash and in bad taste. Its sense of humour ("great barbarous weapon," as the manifesto called it) mixed with a tone of righteous indignation, gave BLAST the mien of a modern barbarian bent upon destroying an old, weak, decadent civilization. In the spirit of Nietzsche's declaration. "This universe is a monster of energy without beginning or end, a fixed and brazen quality of energy," BLAST set about establishing a new, virile civilization based on hardness, violence, and the worship of energy. "Will Energy some day reach Earth like violent civilization, smashing or hardening all?" Lewis asked in Enemy of the Stars. BLAST was meant to be a harbinger of that Energy pursuing its self-appointed mission of, in Lewis's words, "blowing away dead ideas and worn-out notions."

The Vorticists intended to build—or rebuild—as well as destroy, and they regarded England as the proper site for their constructive efforts. "The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—its appearance and its spirit," they announced in their manifesto. "Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else." English artists should be the best equipped to bring "the forms of machinery" into modern art, for the English "are the inventors of this bareness and hardness, and should be the great enemies of Romance." By this line of argument the Vorticists accomplished two things at once. They emphasized the Englishness (and hence, uniqueness) of their movement, and they linked their movement—whether they intended to or not—with T. E. Hulme's crusade against softness, empathy, and other expressions of the "Romantic" point of view.

The Vorticists exceeded Hulme, however, in their invocation of a great, primitive "Art instinct" that used machinery for its models of "bareness and hardness." "Vorticism accepted the machine world," Lewis said later. "It sought out machine-forms." In fact, in BLAST 2 Lewis insisted that all modern artists should strive to express "something of the fatality, grandeur and efficiency of a machine." The perfect Vorticist machine was the dynamo, whose work goes on out of sight, beneath a hard, implacable exterior. Internally dynamic and energy-producing, externally calm—that was the impression aimed for in Vorticist art, and evoked by the image of the Vortex appearing several times in the pages of BLAST 1: a solid cone whirling on an unshakeable axis, a symbol of primordial energy harnessed by the intellect and by art.

The broadest implications of the Vortex led to the division of all art into two categories essentially parallel to Hulme's "abstract" or "Classical" (of which the Vorticists approved) and "empathetic" or "Romantic" (of which they did not). Anything clearcut, hard, rigid, and uncompromising gained the Vorticists' approval; conversely, blurred lines, softness, flexibility, and compromise were rejected and ridiculed. Speed, mass education, democracy, and all forms of sentimentality were attacked because they, too, seemed to blur lines of distinction and break down rigid demarcations.

Of all the Vorticists, Lewis was the most uncompromising. He praised the "disciplined, blunt, thick and brutal" designs he found in a display of German woodcuts, and he referred admiringly to the "savage" artist who prefers to "reduce his Great Art down to the simple black human bullet," rather than risk "dissolv[ing] in vagueness of space." Lewis prescribed a "course of egoistic hardening" for artists to save them from the diluting effects of a social life where men "overlap" and "intersect" and where "promiscuity is normal." "The Vorticist does not suck up to Life," Lewis proclaimed. The Vorticist uses "Life" for his "brothel," so that he can keep himself "pure for non-life, that is Art."

Lewis's "Vortex" was a whirling, arrogant monster of energy: "Our Vortex is fed up with your dispersals, reasonable chicken-men. Our Vortex is proud of its polished sides. Our Vortex will not hear of anything but its disastrous polished dance," Lewis wrote in BLAST 1. This Vortex symbolized the "Art instinct" that expressed itself in a few, distinct cultures. England, with its "iron Jungle [of] the great modern city," was one of those cultures, and Vorticist art, with its "rigid reflections of stone and steel," fulfilled the vigorous demands of the Vortex.

Lewis might have continued to think and work along these lines had war not broken out in August 1914. At first, he regarded the war as simply another expression of the Vortex, and, in itself, unlikely to change his own theory and practice of Vorticism. He wrote in BLAST 2, "All art that matters is already so far ahead that it is beyond the sphere of these disturbances." With equal confidence he promised that BLAST would accompany England into a post-war world of an even "more ardent gaiety." But no more issues of BLAST appeared, and while some of the Vorticists continued to work in the pre-war Vorticist style, Lewis rejected that style when he produced his war paintings and drawings, and he never returned to it. "The geometrics which had interested me so exclusively before, I now felt were bleak and empty," he said. "They wanted filling." He had even deserted the Vorticist literary style by the time he published BLAST 2 in 1915 and Tarr in 1916. After writing Enemy of the Stars he concluded that "words and syntax were not susceptible of transformation into abstract terms, to which process the visual arts lent themselves quite readily."

Some Vorticist ideas continued to be central to Lewis's concerns, but the Vorticist visual and literary styles were not. He just as decisively rejected his "leader" role after a brief regrouping with some of the pre-war Vorticists and a few other artists for the "Group X" exhibition in the spring of 1920. There was, in fact, no longer a movement for Lewis to lead.

"In the early stages of this movement," Lewis once wrote of Vorticism, "we undoubtedly did sacrifice ourselves as painters to the necessity to reform de fond en comble the world in which a picture must exist.… In the heat of this pioneer action we were even inclined to forget the picture altogether in favour of the frame. …" Though unfair, perhaps, to Vorticist art, Lewis's emphasis on the social commitment of Vorticism is proper. No matter how advanced an art movement may seem to be, no matter how new its art forms, it can make no serious claim to relevance unless it is bound, at some irrevocable point, to society. If it be truly avant-garde, the movement's reference points will be images of the future society embedded in the present one. The avant-garde movement will not so much lead the society, as show that society the direction it is going. Lewis believed that Vorticism had produced images of "a new civilization." The problem was to teach people how to see them. "It was more than just picture-making," he said; "one was manufacturing fresh eyes for people, and fresh souls to go with the eyes"—which is to be political in the profoundest sense of that term.

Wyndham Lewis

SOURCE: "Mr. W. L. as Leader of the Great London Vortex" and "Some Specimen Pages of Blast No. 1 (June 20, 1914)," in Blasting and Bombardiering, 1937. Reprinted by Calder and Boyars, 1967, pp. 32-45.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis discusses his involvement in the Vorticist movement and his editorship of Blast.]

At some time during the six months that preceded the declaration of war, very suddenly, from a position of relative obscurity, I became extremely well-known. Roughly this coincided with the publication of Blast. I can remember no specific morning upon which I woke and found that this had happened. But by August 1914 no newspaper was complete without news about 'vorticism' and its arch-exponent Mr. Lewis.

As chef de bande of the Vorticists I cut a figure in London not unlike that of Degrelle to-day in Brussels. There were no politics then. There was no Rexist Party or suchlike. Instead there was the 'Vorticist Group'. I might have been at the head of a social revolution, instead of merely being the prophet of a new fashion in art.

Really all this organized disturbance was Art behaving as if it were Politics. But I swear I did not know it. It may in fact have been politics. I see that now. Indeed it must have been. But I was unaware of the fact: I believed that this was the way artists were always received; a somewhat tumultuous reception, perhaps, but after all why not? I mistook the agitation in the audience for the sign of an awakening of the emotions of artistic sensibility. And then I assumed too that artists always formed militant groups. I supposed they had to do this, seeing how 'bourgeois' all Publics were—or all...

(The entire section is 7450 words.)