'English Cubism' and Italian Futurism

'Vorticism' is the name given to a very improbable moment in the history of twentieth century painting when, for a couple of years more or less coinciding with the outbreak of the First World War, a group of English painters appeared who could be counted among the most radically 'abstract' painters in Europe - indeed they could well be regarded as the most radical, perhaps even the first, group of abstract painters, since Kandinsky, despite his close association with the Blaue Reiter, Kupka, despite his association with the Cubists, and Mondrian were still working as isolated individuals, and Malevich had not yet produced his first 'Suprematist' work.

The emergence of Vorticism was all the more improbable because nothing in English painting seemed to have prepared the way for it. Surprising as Cubism was when the French public first became aware of it in 1910-11, it had been preceded by a series of 'avant-garde' developments, all of which had a tendency to detach the understanding of colour and the manipulation of shapes from the need to present an illusion of real life in a three dimensional space. But this had been resisted in England. England had not even experienced Impressionism. The major English Impressionist (Alfred Sisley), the major Irish 'synthetist' (of the school of Gauguin and Van Gogh - Roderic O'Conor) and the major Scottish 'fauve' (John Fergusson) all worked in Paris. When Roger Fry launched his exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists in 1910-11, he was introducing England to developments that had occurred in France in the 1880s.

I am not suggesting that this is something reprehensible on the part of English culture, only that the English adventure was notably different from the French adventure. The 'Camden Town Group' which emerged in 1911 has sometimes been called 'Late Impressionist', largely because of a fondness for small brushstrokes giving a slightly blurred effect. But the concerns of the Camden Town painters - who, as it happens, included Wyndham Lewis, soon to be the leading figure identified with Vorticism - were wildly different from those of the Impressionists and their successors in France. They wanted to record urban life, often, but not necessarily, in its most banal and sordid aspects. Their technique as painters was being used to convey their understanding of a subject whereas already, even among the Impressionists, the subject was becoming a pretext for exploring the 'object', the painting itself as an organisation of interacting colours.

Roger Fry was developing round himself a small group of artists in different media who were very conscious of what was happening in France and Germany, and again Wyndham Lewis was briefly involved with them. But the Bloomsbury based 'Omega Workshop' - despite some continuity with the British 'Arts and Crafts' tradition - was clearly following continental, especially French, models. This wasn't necessarily a problem for Lewis and his friends since even after they had broken with Omega they continued to call themselves 'English Cubists'. The term 'Vorticist' was adopted because they did not want to be identified with Italian 'Futurism'.

Whereas Cubism remained safely installed in Paris and lacked a proselytising spirit, Futurism could be said to have invaded England in the noisy form of the poet F.T.Marinetti whose aggressive polemics and theatrical antics, supported in the early days by Lewis and his friends, made perfect copy for the popular press. As in Russia, Marinetti probably provided a useful stimulus to artists who were already breaking with old habits. But also as in Russia (and indeed as in Paris) his claim that a world wide movement was developing in response to a specifically Italian initiative, obliged them to make it clear that they weren't his followers. So Marinetti also provided a stimulus for the development of a theoretical literature as the painters, explaining why they weren't Futurists, were obliged to explain what they were.

The Futurist idea could be summed up very crudely as a religious excitement attached to changes in technology, with a particular emphasis on the way in which such changes alter our sense of space and time - what the world looks like from the air, or what it looks like when going by very fast. Lewis and his friends complained that this was really just an extension of Impressionism, in the most primitive understanding of the word - the artist recording the impression made on him by some phenomenon in the outside world - motor cars and aeroplanes in the case of the Futurists, daffodils and outdoor garden parties in the case of the Impressionists. The art of the new English school, by contrast, would be based on clearly defined shapes which, whether or not they evoked some object in the outside world, would be willed and invented by the artist.

The need for a name of their own - an 'ism' - arose when, in June 1914, Marinetti and his closest English supporter, the young Christopher Nevinson, produced a 'Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art', published in The Observer and other mainstream journals, praising as vital English artists Lawrence Atkinson, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Wyndham Lewis, Nevinson himself, William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth. Nevinson compounded the offence by giving as his address the 'Rebel Art Centre' which had been set up under Lewis in opposition to Fry's Omega Workshop (like Fry's workshop and in conformity with the Arts and Crafts tradition it advertised itself as a centre specialising in interior decoration).