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View of “The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914–1918.” From left: Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill,” 1913–14; Wyndham Lewis, The Crowd, 1914–15. Photo: Andrea Sarti.

“The Vorticists”

View of “The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914–1918.” From left: Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill,” 1913–14; Wyndham Lewis, The Crowd, 1914–15. Photo: Andrea Sarti.

LINED UP NEATLY in the first gallery, the sepia-soaked portraits of Vorticism’s leading lights––Wyndham Lewis in a suit, Edward Wadsworth in a bow tie––hardly betray their subjects’ defiance of post-Edwardian propriety. Only Ezra Pound in a broad-collared cloak––bearing some Napoléon III stubble, a shock of unkempt hair, and the glazed expression of a poet—looks the part of bad boy. Of course, Vorticism’s erratic boys’ club was not only male, and “The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914–1918”––curated by Mark Antliff and Vivien Greene, and traveling here from the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina––goes a long way in underscoring the contributions of female artists to its efforts. Yet the aggressive, machinist affinities of its most infamous works remind us that virility was the glue that most often bound the movement’s disparate components. Launched as an Anglo-American venture in London between 1913 and 1914, Vorticism flourished under the direction of Pound and Lewis until 1918, by which time World War I had dispersed its energy and claimed some of its notable practitioners. Owing to the peaks of the movement’s achievement—characterized by a hard-edge figuration derived from Cubism and Futurism—its members constituted Britain’s first true avant-garde, who used the mechanized energies of the war to propel England out of its genteel introversion.

Perched in a corner of the exhibition’s first room is perhaps the epitome of such aesthetics: a reconstruction of Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill, 1913–15. Atop a jet-black tripod, a white body, more machine than human, holds a piece of attenuated machinery, seeming to presage the imminent violence of the Great War. It is a statement the artist––not a Vorticist but a close associate––would redact after recoiling from the war’s horrors. The subsequent room contains Epstein’s bronze Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill,” 1913–14, which he extracted from the original Rock Drill in 1916 and cast in bronze. Cut in half and with its arms partly amputated, Epstein’s torso has become, in a sense, a victim of the previous sculpture’s metaphoric violence. Such a shift speaks chillingly of Europe’s recent carnage but also sheds some light on the contradictions that haunted Vorticism from the start: its elegies to mechanized aggression taking turns with more measured approaches to unadorned form.

Vorticism’s belligerent self-stylization was cast in the image of F. T. Marinetti’s Futurists, from whom the movement drew many of its basic aesthetic ideas, but against which it aimed to distinguish its particular ethos. Literary, visual, and abidingly iconoclastic, the Vorticists aped many of the Futurists’ performative, countercultural antics, holding their own “Blast Dinners” and “Vorticist Evenings” and publishing the journal Blast in emulation of Futurist typographic experimentation. The difficulties in evoking such wide-ranging dimensions are multiple. Admirably, the curators here have shaped their exhibition around objects from three fundamental events: London’s 1915 Doré Gallery show, the 1917 Penguin Club exhibition in New York, and the February 1917 Camera Club exhibition of so-called Vortographs in London. Complementing these objects are key canvases, woodcuts, and watercolors, as well as select printed material, from Pound’s monograph on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to issues of Blast opened up to Lewis’s fiery editorials.

For all the ways in which the Vorticists emulated Marinetti and his followers, there were significant differences between the movements’ aesthetic approaches. Notably opposed to the Futurists’ overlapping and intersecting planes, the Vorticists begrudged Christopher Nevinson his penchant for Futurist curves and frayed edges, preferring a careful economy of form, as suggested in the very titles of Wadsworth’s drawings from the first Vorticist exhibition at the Doré: Centrifuge, Enclosure, Rigid Drawing, all 1915. The nuance is telling, pointing to Pound’s Imagist influence and the poet’s insistence on “ideogrammatic” simplicity and directness. Also suggesting the movement’s precariously unified style are Frederick Etchells’s Stilts, 1914–15, and Helen Saunders’s paintings, with Gaudier-Brzeska’s work––ranging from decorative stylizations to hard-bitten primitivist pieces––something of an exception in the movement’s orbit.

In his role as Vorticism’s adjunct agitator, Pound also invited Alvin Langdon Coburn to develop the Vortograph, made using a camera lens inserted into a mirror-lined tube. The kaleidoscopic results remain an interesting––if brief––subspecies of Vorticist work by its fellow travelers. But Pound soon soured on Coburn, and the photographer was pushed from the movement’s ranks, even as these unraveled in turn. While nothing like André Breton’s series of Surrealist excommunications, the revolving door of Vorticist participation can be confusing, as can the very core of the movement itself. Serving, perhaps, to underscore Vorticism’s ambivalent nature, the penultimate room in this exhibition puzzlingly includes earlier works by Lewis, such as his Architect with Green Tie, 1909, and Composition, 1913. Why these are placed after the artist’s later works, and how they precede or prefigure Vorticism proper, are unclear in the show’s narrative.

Despite Vorticism’s yen for hard lines and crisp imagery––not to mention its claims to containment––the dimensions of the movement itself were hazy. And despite its rhetoric of chaos and warmongering, Vorticism revealed a certain disciplining of avant-garde tendencies well before the war’s end. As Lewis’s 1915 polemic “Marinetti’s Occupation” reads, “[Marinetti] will have to abandon War-noise more or less definitely.” In sneering at the shelf life of Futurism’s bellicosity, Lewis writes, in a sense, the epitaph of his own movement––one plagued by the impact of the war, as well as the shifting allegiances and affinities of its practitioners. We need to think of Vorticism outside the vortex of its own overdetermined appellation. In its controlled flow of rooms and solid catalogue of essays, this tight exhibition––worthy of the movement’s aesthetic economy at its best––offers a welcome dip into the swirl of an art-historical eddy.

“The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914–1918” is on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, through May 15; travels to Tate Britain, London, June 14–Sep. 4.

Ara H. Merjian is assistant professor of Italian studies and art history at New York University.