Friday, 17 June 2011

The Vorticists, Tate Britain

The Vorticists exhibition at Tate Britain has probably the punchiest opening room I've ever walked into - not just at Tate but at any exhibition anywhere (including the grand drama of the V&A's Baroque atrium). There is one piece, Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill (1913-15), reconstructed in the 1970s (an account of which can be read here), and mounted here in a room painted a vibrant magenta-purple (a colour not dissimilar to the copies of the Vorticist manifesto Blast on display later on). I was all but winded by its monumentalism and dynamism as well as being rather startled by the anonymity of the character as it goes about its business, which is overtly violent and vulnerable.

This ambiguity was a character of the works throughout the exhibition, and so typical of the movement, that I wasn't really expecting. The strong geometrics of the lines in the art, the density and confidence of the shapes and grooves in the sculpture as well as the bold statements of the Blast manifesto exhibit unimpeachable confidence on the face of it. Yet time and again I found myself looking at corners of doubt hidden not too far under the surface of a work - and, of course, what characterised the short-lived movement was a paranoia and discontent that was at odds to this overt confidence.

For a basic, brilliant example of the style at its best there's nothing better than Percy Wyndham Lewis' collection of lithographs for Timon of Athens: highly detailed, meticulously composed, modern. In the same, second room there is also one of the Tate's great permanent collection masterpieces, David Bomberg's The Mud Bath (1914) but beside it another, related piece Vision Of Ezekiel (1912, right). The spasms in which the figures are caught could be ecstatic - or they could be panicking. The kineticism of the painting is not in question, just the character. Two other key members of the movement are represented in this first room with Henri Gaudier-Brezska's Hieratic Bust of Ezra Pound, the great sculptor (lost to the very war that would claim the movement) rendering one of the few non-visual artists of the group in the eponymous poet.

So, a monumental sculpture suggesting a prophet. Dynamic paintings whose reason for action is as yet undefined. Lithographs for the most violent and bloody of all Shakespeare's plays. On the eve of the Great War, this industry positively throbs with bullishness, a confidence projected beyond the means and understanding of those at its centre. Indeed, in the subsequent room, where one is able to read one of a dozen facsimile copies of the first colossal manifesto, Blast, one of the principal aphorisms is we reject the sentimentality of the future. For the Vorticists the future was not a dreamscape but an algorithmic extension of the present - causal, motorised. In this room, beside the bold but strangely empty slogans of Blast are a number of Epstein sculptures after African models. Feral, barely human figures nurse pregnancies, grotesque but tender possibilities for the next generation.

It's in this room that my admiration for the qualities of the style began to get pecked at by the foggy agendas to which the period was prey. The expressionism at the heart of the style is bound to a robust hierarchy in line and form, a geometric natural selection. Vorticism was seen by its founding collective as an English response to Cubism and Futurism. Unfortunately that also ties its aesthetic in with the political trajectory of the latter of the two European movements, as well as the aesthetic progeny - the cold style of Tamara de Lempicka or the passionate but hectoring prose of Ayn Rand. The Vorticists' politics is rather more opaque. Wyndham Lewis' The Crowd (1915) looks to represent people within and against the vast space of the modern metropolis. A revolutionary sentiment drives the ant-like characters but they are dwarfed by the structures about them, redundant and inconsequential. Fritz Lang's famous 1927 movie Metropolis is a shiny extrapolation of this seductive but soulless kingdom of modernity.

Alongside this treacherous subject matter then are more startling visions from the war thrust upon the group. Richard Nevinson's Bursting Shell (1915) is the most surreal of the figurative canvases on show, and Angela Dismorr's Abstract Composition of the same year sets the familiar lines of Vorticism within a three dimensional space that's black and hollow. The final act of this dark tunnel is tragedy - the second and final copy of Blast has a notice of Henri Gaudier-Brezska's death at the hands of the conflict itself.

The final room of the exhibition is a cooler affair. Wyndham Lewis' canvases retain their style and the photographs of Alvin Coburn show the transatlantic repatriation of the aesthetic in the monumental modernity of (the Rand of The Fountainhead) Manhattan. In general though the fire has gone out, as if the movent has consumed itself with its contradictions. Rather like the lifeless life-giver anthropomorph of The Rock Drill has finally reconciled itself to its redundancy.

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