Manifesto For A Modern World
Edited by Mark Antliff & Vivien Greene
London: Tate Publishing, 2010
Paperback. 192 p. 57 black & white and colour illustrations. 86 plates
ISBN 978-1854378859. £24.99 / $39.95
Reviewed by Grant Pooke
University of Kent
The short-lived aesthetic known as Vorticism (1913-1919) objectified the dynamic and contradictory modernity of the ‘machine age’. Its very disparate protagonists variously witnessed both the noontide and self-confidence of Edwardian imperialism and the mass slaughter of the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18. As the catalogue introduction makes clear, Vorticism was everything that the inertia and insularity of British Edwardian culture and its immediate aftermath was not: a militant, secular aesthetic, veering towards the abstract and fashioned by émigrés and outsiders. Stylistically, Vorticism was a bold and combative fusion of Italian Futurism and French Cubism, which nevertheless insisted on its autonomy and distinctness from both.
The Vorticists: Manifesto For A Modern World was authored to accompany an international touring exhibition which spanned Durham (North Carolina), Venice and London, between September 2010 and September 2011. As the preface and introduction make clear, this critical anthology of essays questions the perception of Vorticism as a particularly British (or London-based) phenomenon, for one which delineates a broader and more complex web of interconnections with Europe and transatlantic ties to New York. Whilst previous monographs and biographies have long since dismissed the egregious claims made by Wyndham Lewis back in the 1950s to the effect that the movement was his particular creation, this catalogue outlines the various intellectual and philosophical strands to Vorticist painting, sculpture, abstract photography and to the drawings and woodcuts which contributed to the distinctive design and content of the Blast manifesto statements of 1914-15.
Lavishly illustrated, The Vorticists is an incisive, highly researched but wholly accessible catalogue which sets a high bar for exhibition-occasioned research. What is particularly commendable about this publication is its responsiveness and reflexivity to a broader audience and readership, whilst making no concessions to convenient simplification or generality. Aside from clear and incisive essay contributions from respected scholars and researchers in the field, there is a very informative timeline and chronology [180-183] and a useful bibliography. In particular, for readers who may not be familiar with the context and background to Vorticism and its emergence, the introduction by Philip Rylands offers an excellent and detailed overview of its milieu and the various ruptures and disputes with other contemporary avant-garde groupings such a Futurism and the Bloomsbury coterie led by Roger Fry and Clive Bell.
Aside from individual chapters which chart the trajectory and content of particular Vorticist exhibitions (with detailed essays by Robert Upstone, Anna Gruetzner Robins and Vivien Greene), contributions also explore the highly distinctive synthesis and influences which characterised Wyndham Lewis’s aesthetic (Paul Edwards), and the sculptural practice of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dora Marsden and Ezra Pound (Mark Antliff). Robert Hewison’s chapter, ‘Blast and the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, looks in detail at the process, content, collaborations and legacy of the two editions of Blast which provided Vorticism with its very public manifesto declarations, including the now famous and idiosyncratic listings of ‘Blast and Bless’.
Tom Normand’s essay, ‘Alvin Langdon Coburn and the Vorticists’ [85-91], addresses a largely overlooked legacy, that of the abstract photographs or ‘Vortographs’ fashioned by Coburn using a camera lens within a “triangular tube lined with mirrors”.(1) Although the impetus for these creations arose from the planes, arcs and geometry associated with Vorticist composition, some of Coburn’s photographs which explored the abstract potential of New York’s urban spaces, including The Octopus and House of A Thousand Windows (both 1912), and exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in October 1913, are considered by Normand as having been among the stylistic influences evident in some of Lewis’s early Vorticist compositions such as Workshop (c.1914-15) and The Crowd (1914-15) . As the essay makes clear, although Coburn’s sensibilities proved to be very different to that of Lewis and to some of his contemporaries, his Vortographs “parallel and obliquely reference Vorticist art rather than express its provocative, angular, hard-edged stasis” .
The Vorticists: Manifesto For A Modern World is an excellent catalogue which not only supports the innovative premise of the international touring exhibition for which it has been collaboratively authored, but it also provides a highly readable and scholarly introduction to an avant-garde which, as Paul Edwards notes, was a “high watermark of modernism in England at least until the early 1930s”. (2)
(1) Alvin Langdon Coburn in a letter to Helmut Gernsheim quoted by Tom Normand, p. 85.
(2) Paul Edwards quoted in the foreword by Kimerly Rorschach, Philip Rylands and Penelope Curtis, p. 7.
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