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Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Vorticists, Tate Britain

Vorticism is pretty much the English equivalent of Futurism, a twentieth century Italian avant-garde art movement that celebrated modernity and progress. The similarities were immediately apparent to me when I entered Tate Britain’s summer exhibition ‘The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World’, and despite the Vorticists claiming to be a reaction against this preceding group.

This exhibition shows a collection of the main works that emerged from their brief four year existence in London fro 1914 to 18. The name was coined by radical American poet Ezra Pound, with the literary journal ‘Blast’ setting out to proclaim Vorticism’s ideas and opinions. The group was made up of various artists over the four years, led by painter and writer Percy Wyndham Lewis. Other members included: Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The work is bold and brave, much of it has obvious similarities with the Cubist works of Braque and Picasso. The use of colour is sensational: bright rich tones juxtaposed to create striking statements. The influence of the machinery and brutality of modern urban life is particularly evident in the recreation of Epstein’s sculpture, ‘The Rock Drill’ – a pale figure holds a dominating big black machine gun type tool. It is impressive and domineering, a dismal premonition of the war. On a smaller scale this modernity and terror can be seen in the monochrome Vorticist woodcuts. These tiny works are angular and geometric, movement is created through furious zigzagged lines and sharp shapes.

My favourite room focussed on 'BLAST' the Vorticist magazine. Despite the publication collapsing after the second issue it caused quite a stir, and gives us a real insight into this movement. The cover is bright red, with the title ‘BLAST’ printed in daring black capital letters across the front. It is striking and exciting, just as the name suggests. The first issue focussed very much of topical concerns like feminism and the suffrage movement, however the second edition seemed less revolutionary.

There was only one proper Vorticist exhibition at the time, which took place at the Dore Galleries in London in 1915. Some of the work shown then was included in the Tate exhibition. The show concludes with examples of Vorticist photography hung in an area painted bright cobalt blue. These ‘Vortography’ experiments consist of ghostly fragmented images with mysterious abstract and futurist connotations.

It is clear that these artists were desperate to be different. Once you forget about the ‘Vorticism’ label, and the fact that this is just another ‘ism’ from another group of proud artists, this show is definitely worth a visit, even if just for the sake of a little bit of patriotism.

The Vorticists continues until 4 September 2011, book here.

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