The Vorticist group was formed in may 1914. The members were London-based artists who wanted to identify themselves as a distinct group in contrast to the then well established Italian Futurists, with which the Vorticists shared similar objectives. The label “Vorticisim” was coined by Ezra Pound in early 1914. It is generally considered that the Vorticists were current until 1917, the year of their American exhibition. The Vorticists were unfortunate in forming weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, and they did not outlast it.
The Vorticists were united in a mission to bring British art out of the Victorian era – in effect they wanted to update the country’s artistic taste buds, which had been lagging behind the continent where pictorial art and sculpture were concerned. They had already been doing this before they became the Vorticists. In the previous year, 1913, the group was known as the Rebels. Then in June, 1914, the Vorticist label was announced at the same time as the publishing of their magazine / manifesto, BLAST.
BLAST was the groups’ magazine / manifesto. It was edited by Wyndham Lewis and was produced as a large “Puce Monster” that had ‘BLAST’ printed diagonally on the cover. Inside its large pages, amongst many articles and illustrations of their art, was a series of pages where the group either ‘blasted’ or ‘blessed’ people and institutions. It was an idea adapted from the Futurists who were also trying to make a name for themselves using similar methods at this time in London and Italy. Although not all BLASTS actually sold (most were probably given away!), the magazine had enormous influence on subsequent movements, who would feel incomplete without a magazine of their own. The Vorticists were able to publicize themselves, and their aims and objectives more easily with their own magazine. Before the internet, this was how publicity worked.
The Vorticists created a new aesthetic virtually overnight (let us remember they only existed as a group for six weeks of peace time) and their industrious output caused their art to be seen in many places. Meanwhile they declared war on the Futurists, were involved in supporting women in their fight for universal suffrage, and were busy developing new ideas in sculpture.
Democratisation of Art
The curiosity of newspaper editors and the public in general made Vorticist painters the first 20th century British Art celebrities. They were loved or loathed by the public much like a modern day Turner Prize winner. For a few months, the idea of enigmatic abstract paintings executed by bohemian prophets whilst intoning mysterious terms like ‘vorticism’ completely gripped the imagination of the public. The popular press featured cartoons, reviews and articles about artists and the exhibitions they appeared in. Although the tone of such content was often uncomplimentary, the fact they were publishing such content pointed to a vigorous ongoing debate about art, and its place in society. Let’s not forget that a school education had been mandatory for all children in Britain for at least a generation, which meant more people than ever had the capability to read books, newspapers and periodicals and follow interests. Working people now had time to research their interests; museums and libraries were free, and there was a proliferation of books, magazines and periodicals of all kinds. A new art-empowered public had been fostered by the many recent exhibitions of modern art, especially Frank Rutter’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions held in London and Manchester. The Vorticist artists were from all levels of society, and the movement could be presented as a classless entity in a still hugely class-conscious society. In this climate of democratisation, art now belonged to all, rather than a favoured elite. More people could engage in the debate.
War and After
That other big activity of 1914, War, effectively killed the Vorticist movement. Although Vorticism had its own exhibitions in wartime, in 1915 in London (and another in New York in 1917) these were almost formalities. After the War, Vorticism struggled, and it seems now that a general embarrassment of its pre-war exuberance led its exponents to abandon Vorticism, and more unfortunately, some of its artistic achievements.
However, one hundred years later, we can begin to see how much Vorticism achieved in its few months’ existence. It was an important, internationally known art movement, which can claim some credit in laying the common foundations of Modernist Art.
Vorticism produced the first British abstracts.
Vorticism was the first multi-media art movement in Britain, using pictorial art, sculpture and the printed word.
Vorticist artists saw themselves as revolutionary educationalists as much as artists, teaching the public a new graphic language that spoke of the Modern Age.