Enigmatic Vorticism

Timon of Athens, by Wyndham Lewis, 1913, drawing. Painting © and shown here courtesy of the Trustees of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust. Photograph © by VortexMaster 2013.

Vorticism is still a bit of an enigma. Why did it happen here in Britain all those years ago? How long could you say it lasted? And was it genuinely ground-breaking? Were the claims made by the artists themselves in the outrageous magazine BLAST based on fact? How can you define what’s Vorticist, and what’s not? So Vorticism is still quite a problem, and there are masses of questions that remain, even after 99 years.

A Two-Edged Sword

Having a showman like Wyndham Lewis centre stage didn’t help. His naive comments about being the sole originator of Vorticism years after the event was, to say the least, controversial. As a result of these claims made in the 1950′s, Vorticism has sometimes been perceived as a mere marketing exercise by Lewis for his own ends. Some of the older art histories clearly adopted this view at a much earlier date. Lewis was a fractious, uncompromising fellow, with a lifelong habit of telling people either to their face (bad enough) or in print (ring the lawyer) what he thought about them. This clearly won few friends in the art establishment. Would you have risked talking to him, with the possibility that you would be doomed in print by him a fortnight later? Of course not. He had few friends, and those he did have tended to require patience and tact. Of course, art-establishment types would keep their distance. Lewis never had much time for them, anyway. As a result of this, Vorticism was written out of history for the first 50 years after its origins. Lewis died in 1957. Since the 1960′s, Vorticism has regained a massive amount of respect both through exhibitions and through more responsible and mature art histories, such as Richard Cork’s two-volume Opus. But what could have been achieved if Wyndham Lewis had been less confrontational? Perhaps we would have never had Vorticism in the first place.