Long Live The Vortex!

In 1914, the Vorticists’ manifesto blasted its way into polite society. It nowforms the centrepiece of a new exhibition on the movement at Tate Britain…

In the first decades of the 20th century any self-respecting modern art movement looked to distance itself from its predecessors, even from any contemporary schools of thought, in pursuit of The New. Aside from taking the materials that art could be made from into new realms, as Post-Impressionists and Cubists had done, the most effective way to set out a newly-formed artistic intent was to use print and paper to distribute the message. In this climate, the magazine became the most significant method for disseminating radical ideas on literature and the visual arts.

Journals and periodicals were frequently used as a platform from which artists could declare their particular manifesto. Some revolutionaries shouted louder than others, but ‘isms’ that declared a total independence often owed much to earlier movements, whether it was admitted to or not. This was art that sought to create an identity for itself, even beyond the aesthetics of the painting or sculpture that might be produced.

Canny artists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, knew the reach of the mainstream and independent press, and used the tricks of advertising and publicity to both extol their own beliefs and disassociate them from others. At a time when society (and much of Europe itself) was fracturing, modern artists took on an increasingly combative stance in the promotion of their work. Perhaps none more so than the painter, writer, designer, and master self-publicist, Percy Wyndham Lewis, whose short-lived Vorticist movement – named by poet Ezra Pound – is now the focus of a new exhibition at Tate Britain.

Here comes the Blast

Significantly, the concept of the artist’s manifesto is name-checked in the show’s title, The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, and has a central role within the exhibition, which also examines the movement’s two exhibitions at London’s Doré Gallery in 1915 and the Penguin Club in New York in 1917. And this makes for a fascinating encounter with an English avant-garde movement that has always seemed overshadowed by its continental forebears, namely Cubism and Marinetti’s Futurism.

It also means that this is a different kind of art exhibition: it’s as much about the ways that Vorticism explained itself to the world, as it is about the art made in its name. From the angular, geometric paintings of Lewis, William Roberts, Frederick Etchells and Helen Saunders, to the kaleidoscopic Vortographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn and sculptures of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; these works are presented in orbit around the two issues of Blast, the Vorticist’s uncompromising journal.

The first issue – bright pink and inch-thick – was intended to have the effect that its name implied and Lewis, as editor, made sure it nailed the Vorticists’ manifesto to the wall. Two months prior to its launch in June 1914, Lewis ran a full-page ad for the issue on the back of the literary journal, The Egoist, which obliquely set out a claim in mock headline-style phrasing. “Putrifaction of Guffaws Slain by Appearance of BLAST,” it asserted. “NO Pornography. NO Old Pulp.” And as if that wasn’t dramatic enough, the ad concluded with what ultimately lay in store should the interested reader stump up their two shillings and six: “END OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA.”

Mark Morrisson, contributor to The Modernist Journals Project in the US, which has scans of both issues of Blast in their entirety at modjourn.org, writes about the evocative nature of these ads and how in containing “no informational value” they were “clearly meant to function as commodity ads did – to catch attention and create an association with the product.” There would be no mistaking Blast for anything else.

A sick headache

Bombastic talk aside, while Lewis’ claim of “no old pulp” may well have been true, Blast itself was no high-end product. But then it was never designed to be. It was produced by a jobbing commercial printers, Leveridge and Co., in Harlesden in north west London and its design consciously aped the sloganeering of the modern street poster (which Leveridge also printed using large, diagonally set type). Paternally referring to Blast as his “puce baby”, Lewis had no doubt realised that the use of bold and aggressive typography, combined with cheap mass market production techniques, would only serve to generate more column inches. And so it did. In Chicago, The Little Review described the inaugural Blast as resembling “the colour of a sick headache”, while London’s Pall Mall Gazette thought it a “chill flannelette pink”, rather like “the catalogue of some cheap East End draper”.

In his introduction to the new facsimile edition of Blast 1, published by Thames & Hudson, Paul Edwards writes that far from adhering to “the book as art object in the tradition of fine printing, design and binding”, Blast “proclaims itself as participating in an urban culture of ephemeral printed posters, newspaper headlines, handbills and political leaflets”. In what Edwards regards as the most fully formed piece of Vorticist writing in the first issue – Lewis’s abstract play, Enemy of the Stars – the layout of this again references the typographical mode of the manifesto section, with the play’s characters even introduced via an “Advertisement”.

To blast or to bless?

There are four original copies of the first issue of Blast on display at Tate and the now faded pink covers and dissonant layouts retain a sense of the shocking power they must have wielded nearly a century ago. The curators have ensured that visitors can be hands-on with a range of the facsimiles, while key passages from the manifesto itself (it’s a substantial 34 pages in all) are stuck to the walls. What feels so refreshing, picking out statements from Lewis’s provocative text – which opens with the Vorticists’ infamous list of who and what to “blast” or “bless” – is that this is far from a po-faced diatribe and, frequently, very funny.

The berating of stuffy Victorians and satirising of authority in general (made with trademark bombast, of course) reveals a direct link with future rabble-rousers such as the Surrealists, Monty Python, and The Sex Pistols. Like them, Blast was a jarring mix of the serious and the comic, of high and low culture, and one of the first true artistic hybrids.

The Vorticists’: Manifesto for a Modern World is at Tate Britain until September 4. More details at tate.org.uk/britain. A catalogue for the exhibition, edited by Mark Antliff and Vivien Greene is published by Tate Publishing.
Blast No. 1 is currently published as a facsimile edition by Thames & Hudson

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