Bold colours, harsh edges, angular forms- the imagery is as vivid as the vorticist painting is eponymous. Although Vorticism as a movement is reminiscent of the early 20th-century paintings of London, the movement had its roots in a diverse range of art forms, from sculptures to paintings, from typography to poetry. Tracing influences from other modernist art movements like cubism and futurism, the movement sought to be radical by rejecting the British tradition of landscapes and nudes. What the movement favoured was a geometric style that inclined towards abstraction.

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A Canadian Gun-pit (1919) by Wyndham Lewis _©Wyndham Lewis

Staying true to its fascination with the industrial age, the movement became in spirit what it was in its visuals- bold. Be it Wyndham Lewis’s A Canadian Gun-pit or Ezra Pound’s revolutionary literature surrounding the metaphors of whirlpools; the early vorticists worked towards an art form that was distinguished. Following its unprecedented rise to prominence, the movement became a testament as to what becomes of art in the face of war. The First World War marked the demise of the movement, with its artists either drafted or killed in action. But for the brief time that the movement lasted, it proved to be revolutionary. 

Vorticism’s Journey to Limelight

Coming up on the heels of the First World War, the birth of the movement can be traced back to 1913. The movement was given its name by the American poet Ezra Pound. But the British painter, writer, and critic Wyndham Lewis have been using the vorticist style since 1910. The movement was officially announced in the first issue of its magazine Blast in 1914. This was followed by the exhibition held at London’s Doré Gallery in 1915. The movement’s recognition as the first avant-garde group is relatively recent.

Vorticism is noteworthy for bringing in aspects of both cubism and futurism. But the vorticists have created an identity of their own, which is reflected in the colours of the paintings, the ferocity of thought, and the dynamism of the sculptures. Despite the movement not using futurism’s depictions of movement, vorticist art conversed the dynamism of the machine age with its relatable subject matter and communicated emotions through its composition of contradictions, the scale of paintings, and relevancy of ideas.

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Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool (1919) by Edward Wadsworth_©Edward Wadsworth

Icons of Vorticism

Although Vorticism has become synonymous with its distinctive paintings, the movement featured a diverse range of artists. The artworks of Vorticism included the sculptures of Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, poetry of T. S Eliot, Helen Saunders, and Jessie Dismorr among the paintings of Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, William McCance, William Patrick Roberts, and Edward Wadsworth.

Lewis’s The Crowd, one of the notable vorticist paintings, was exhibited at the exhibition of the London group in 1915. The painting can be regarded as the one that marked the distinguishing characteristics of a vorticist painting with its raw yellow, mustard, red and white colours. With its distinctive abstract geometrical forms, The Crowd documents the journey of Vorticism towards Lewis’s aim for the movement to create an art form that is as abstract as music. Exhibited in London’s Tate Gallery, the painting is one of the very few surviving ones of the movement’s early works. 

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The Crowd (1914–15) by Wyndham Lewis _©Wyndham Lewis

Epstein’s The Rock Drill evolved through the time in which vorticism existed and became, in the end, a symbol for the fate of the movement itself. As a tribal-looking skeletal figure on top of a mining rock drill, this sculpture was initially envisioned by Epstein to be an exhibition of the vorticists’ fascination with the machine age. But after witnessing the devastation caused by industrial advancements in the First World War, Epstein cut the skeletal figure from the waist down soon after its first exhibition in 1915. This became an act of emasculation of the worship of the industrial age. Epstein also removed the left hand and the right arm of the figure to express the status of the figure to be one of a victim rather than a perpetrator of violence.

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Rock Drill (1913–1915) by Jacob Epstein _© Jacob Epstein

Saunders’s A Vision of Mud serves as an important article of vorticist art by creating vivid imagery through a medium that does not have a visual dimension. Her strong descriptions of a body drowning in mud resonate with Pound’s assertions on the movement, seeking to recreate the emotional influences of music in varying art forms. The overwhelming muddy soup of bodies brings to the imagination the fear and destruction caused by war and stands as a testament to the lasting damage created by something as violent as war. 

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Helen Saunders 1885-1963 by Brigid Peppin_©Brigid Peppin

Blast!

The vorticist manifesto was published in the movement’s exclusive periodical Blast, the first issue of which was published in 1914. The journal manifested the aim of the movement and its rejection of the prevailing British artistic traditions in support of a modern art world inclining towards urbanization, innovation, and modernization. The journal was edited by Lewis himself, with Pound assisting him. Although envisioned as an art magazine, Blast was more of a literary magazine featuring literary pieces of Pound, T.S. Eliot, Saunders, and Jessie Dismorr. The periodical is regarded as one of the earlier breakthroughs in the field of graphic design with astonishing explorations in typography. However, there are only two editions published of the magazine, the second taking up a sombre tone reflecting the aftermath of the war. The second and final issue features the poetry of Eliot and Saunders on the subject of the destructive nature of warfare. 

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Blast (1914) by Wyndham Lewis_©Wyndham Lewis

Legacy

The movement’s demise can be circled back to the widespread destruction of the First World War, with some of the vorticists like Gaudier-Brzeska being killed in service. Another reason is the public’s lack of interest in art in a war setting. Lewis’s attempts to revive the movement as Group X, after the war, proved to be unsuccessful. Despite the movement’s short life, Vorticism made its impact by becoming the forerunner for the following era of abstract art, influencing movements that came after it and continuing to be appreciated by artists around the world even today. 

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Ezra Pound (1939) by Wyndham Lewis_©Wyndham Lewis
Author

Mariam is an architecture graduate who is inclined towards architecture's influence over the lifestyle of people. A lifestyle in which the cycle of existence is complete and is towards the neutrality of existence. The power of architecture to influence that kind of social setting is what she likes to explore. To rethink and reconsider the things that we usually overlook and to strive not towards excellence but a collective essential is what motivates her work. The collective being an intersection between art, architecture, history, literature, and culture.

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