The Vorticists @ Tate Britain
I’ve been interested in early Twentieth Century Art ever since I read Robert Hughes hugely influential book The Shock of the New as part of my Architecture degree back in the late 1980′s, and although Vorticism didn’t get a mention in the book, it was the spur I was looking for and soon I was soon reading everything I could find about the Art “ism’s” of that heady period – Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Purism etc…
Despite being overlooked by Mr. Hughes, Vorticism was an important British art movement that sprung up in London in 1914, and was all over bar the shouting, before the end of WWI. Through an explosive combination of iconoclastic writings, fractured paintings and innovative sculpture however, those short four years produced some of the most outstanding works of the First half of the Twentieth Century.
We both thought the exhibition was excellent, displaying a large variety of works from most of the movements well known and less well known characters, including the borderline genius/ nutter that was John Wyndham Lewis, along with Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier Brzeska and Edward Wadsworth.
There were a number of aspects that really stood out for me. Firstly it was an opportunity to see the reconstructed Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein. About the only disappointing thing of our 9 month world tour a couple of years back, was that we were away for Wild Thing, the major retrospective at the Royal Academy of three of the giants of British sculpture, Epstein, Brzeska and Gill (not much of an issue really, when you consider what we did and saw over those 9 months). Still I was keen to see this legendary piece of work in its original form, and it really didn’t disappoint. It’s an amazingly powerful piece of work, full of anguish, sitting high above the gallery floor like some kind of alien.
As the War dragged on, Epstein like many of his generation felt the dehumanising effect of the conflict to such a great extent, that he took the original sculpture apart and recast it as a single torso, which, bereft of its arms, machinery and legs, he saw as an altogether more fitting reflection of the age.
The second thing that struck me was the consistency of the work of Wyndham Lewis. In a wide range of work on display, from woodcuts to prints and from pen and ink drawings to oil paintings, he was very obviously the driving force of the movement, and despite his tendencies to megalomania, was obviously a man brimming with ideas and ability.
Finally and most surprisingly, was the sculptural work of Henri Gaudier Brzeska. A Frenchman by birth, Brzeska moved to London in 1910 to become an artist. Having little money and no reputation upon his arrival, he concentrated on small works from cheap off cut materials until he met up with the Vorticists in about 1913 and finally began to win commissions. Tragically for him and the world of sculpture, this naturally gifted artist had only four years to develop as his skills, as he was killed in France in 1915, at the age of 23.
His work over these four years however is truly wonderful and inspiring: beautiful shapes, beautifully crafted. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound may not look that special in the photo adjacent, but when you see it up close and in the flesh so to speak… it takes your breath away.