Vorticism: The pinnacle of the English Avant-Garde?

Rarely exhibited, Vorticism is something of a forgotten movement.

wyndham lewis

Wyndham-Lewis, ‘Workshop’, 1914-15

To be honest, if it hadn’t been for my History of Art degree, I wouldn’t know anything about Vorticism. Even then, it was crammed into a two hour session somewhere in the middle of third year, slotted neatly between the monumental movements of Futurism and Cubism. Presumably it was forgotten about by many; the neat A4 page of notes cast to the back of the folder in order to focus on more important things.

But, something about Vorticism stood out to me. Somewhere within this shady group of artists, amidst their artistic temperaments, lies a real unique feeling of moderninty, geometry and the machine age. So, what I wanted to focus on today, is the importance of Vorticism in both English art history and the wider European Modernist movement. Plenty disagree with me, claiming that Vorticism was by no means a ‘proper’ movement, so please feel free to comment accordingly!

In a nutshell, Vorticism was a very short lived, British art movement just before World War One. Lead by Wyndham-Lewis (who was by no means a pleasant character- this is probably the reason for their lack of publicity), other Vorticists include Bomberg and Epstein. Their emphasis on structure, geometry and scaffolding was indeed heavily influenced by the Italian Futurists and Spanish Cubists.

The angular handling of space we find in Vorticism is undeniably similar to that of the Cubists. But, this is combined with a real sense of dynamism and fascination with machinery. This in turn aligns the Vorticists with the Futurists. But, the way movement is handled is far more destructive, and soaked in a kind of ‘brutal energy’.

Therefore, Vorticism is in many ways something of a problem to your regular art historian (if regular art historians exist…). Let me explain.

Composition 1913 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

This is Wyndham-Lewis’ ‘Composition’ of 1913. The harsh contrasts of colour and form, and overall geometric severity once again align the work with both Cubism and Futurism. But, the subdued brown tones deaden the movement of the work, giving the shapes and contrasts more definition than a true piece of Futurism. In essence, ‘Composition’ demonstrates the hardness of Vorticism. Strong tonal contrasts and lack of modelling charge the painting with mechanical and industrial connotations.

For Wyndham- Lewis, man must become a machine; an automaton, in order to survive in the face of modernity. Urban life is a modern jungle. Hard, coarse machinery is the only means of staying alive. Vorticism is barbaric, raw, and brutally honest to such an extreme level that is not found in any other Modernist movement.

Is this the English Avant-Garde’s finest moment? Quite possibly.

Images: Tate.org

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