What is a vortex?

The actual term 'Vorticism' was invented by Ezra Pound. In a letter to his friend and fellow poet, William Carlos Williams, written in December 1913, he had used the term 'Vortex' to refer generally to the city, as opposed to the country and later it became a general term referring to a metropolis such as London and Paris which drew into itself a large amount of talent and constituted a cultural centre. Pound's lifelong concern - the subject of The Cantos and the motive for his support for Mussolini - was the creation of the social circumstances in which culture could flourish as it had flourished in the Italian Renaissance and such 'Vortices' played a role in the process as he imagined it. He had also used the term in a way that was specific to poetry. He had been attempting for the previous few years to launch a school of poetry called 'Imagism' or, somewhat irritatingly, 'Imagisme'. In his essay entitled 'Vorticism' published in The New Age in January 1915 he declared: 'the image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which and through which and into which ideas are constantly rushing.' And he continues: 'It is as true for the painting and sculpture as it is for the poetry. Mr Wadsworth and Mr Lewis are not using words, they are using shape and colour ... The organisation of forms is a much more energetic and creative action than the copying or imitating of light on a haystack.'

A vortex is basically a spinning cone turning round a centre that is itself empty and still. Hence Wyndham Lewis declares (Blast 1, p.148): 'The Vorticist is at his maximum point of energy when stillest.' This period, round the beginning of the War, was the period when Pound was closest to Yeats and one might wonder if there is a relationship between Pound's Vortex and the 'gyres' that were central to the system of Yeats' A Vision, worked out in the 1920s. We will soon be encountering in the Vorticist circle T.E.Hulme, who developed a cyclical theory of history that bears some resemblance to that which was soon to be developed by Yeats. Also, considering that the only poet I know of who deserves to be called a 'Vorticist' in Pound's understanding of the term - that is, whose images are sufficiently simple and powerful - is Edgar Allen Poe, I wonder if Poe's Descent into the Maelstrom, which he describes as a 'vortex' might have had something to do with the development of the idea.

Vorticism as a movement was launched with the publication of Blast in July 1914, a rather inauspicious moment, just prior to the outbreak of war. (1) Blast  was intended  to be a quarterly review but in the event only two issues appeared - as in 1921 Lewis launched The Tyro which only ran to two issues and in 1927 The Enemy which ran to three issues, almost exclusively written by Lewis.

(1) Blast has been reprinted by Gingko Press, Berkeley, 2009. It is a facsimile so the page references I give here are as in the original.

Blast is best known for its aggressive layout and its first 'Manifesto' with its list of things that are disapproved - blasted - and approved - blessed. That, however, like the famous aggressive, unreadable sans serif typeface, is just flim-flam. Of much greater interest is the second manifesto obviously written by Lewis giving some idea of what he thought might constitute a distinctively English art in relation to the Futurist fascination with speed. It argues that:

'The Modern World is due almost entirely to the Anglo Saxon genius - its appearance and its spirit. Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else ... but busy with this LIFE-EFFORT, she has been the last to become conscious of the Art that is an organism of this new Order and Will of Man ... Once this consciousness towards the new possibilities in present life has come, however, it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe. It should also, as it is by origin theirs, inspire them more forcibly and directly. They are the inventors of this bareness and hardness, and should be the great enemies of Romance.' (pp.39-41)

The Manifesto is signed by (in alphabetical order) Richard Aldington, a poet, one of Ezra Pound's Imagists who quickly dissociated himself from the movement; Malcolm Arbuthnot, a photographer who, as early as 1908, had been exploring the 'abstract' possibilities of photography; Lawrence Atkinson, a painter, perhaps the oldest member of the group; the young French sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska; Jessica Dismorr who, like Atkinson, had studied under the Scottish Fauve painter, J.D.Fergusson, in the Académie de la Palette in Paris; Cuthbert Hamilton, a contemporary with Lewis at the Slade School of Art; Ezra Pound; William Roberts, painter, part of a later generation of students at the Slade; the painter Helen Saunders - her name misspelt as 'Sanders'; Edward Wadsworth, a contemporary of William Roberts at the Slade; and Lewis, coming last by virtue of the 'Wyndham'. His full name was Percy Wyndham Lewis but he couldn't stand and never used the 'Percy', which didn't fit his aggressive persona. Fate, however, played an unkind trick on him in the 1920s when a writer completely unknown and unrelated to him appeared with the name D.B.Wyndham Lewis, with the result that 'Percy' became the means commentators used to distinguish them.

To that list could be added the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the painter Frederick Etchells, younger than Lewis but a friend from his pre-Vorticist days, and David Bomberg, contemporary of Wadsworth and Roberts at The Slade. His In the Hold and The Mud Bath are widely regarded as the outstanding paintings of the period but, although he undoubtedly belongs with the group and was particularly close to Roberts, he always kept a distance, and never identified himself as a Vorticist.

The standard history of Vorticism is Richard Cork's great study Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age published in 1976, (2) two years after the exhibition Vorticism and its Allies which he organised in the Hayward Gallery - a great work of archaeology apart from anything else since so much of the work done at the time had since been lost. Cork's account has the form of a story, summed up in the titles of his two volumes - 'Origins and Development'; 'Synthesis and Decline'. And the story has a hero - not any of the painters, not even Lewis, but 'abstract art', meaning non-representational art. The story tells how this group of painters approached a fully non-representational art through 1912-13, more or less achieved it by 1914-15, were disrupted as most of them engaged in the war and then, one by one, lost faith in it, moving on to other things. Sharing Cork's view that non-representational was the great adventure of twentieth century painting I like this approach. But it is not the only way in which the story could be told. In particular it is not the only way to approach the evolution of Lewis, a stubborn man, not easily thrown off course by the fashions of the age.

(2) Richard Cork: Vorticism and its allies in the first machine age, 2 vols, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976

Which provides an opening for other possible approaches. Like Cork's book, Vorticism: New Perspectives, edited by Mark Antliff and Scott Klein, follows on from a major exhibition - The Vorticists - Manifesto for a Modern World - which was shown in 2010-11 in Duke University, North Carolina, where Antliff is based, before moving on to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and to Tate Britain. New Perspectives is made up of the papers read in the wake of this exhibition at a symposium in Duke University. It has the usual character of a symposium - a collection of broadly unrelated perceptions. Insofar as there is a connecting theme, a hero whose story can be told, it is not, as in Cork's book, 'abstract art' but the hopelessly amorphous concept of 'modernism'. The editors have tried to provide some coherence by grouping it into themes - the European context, Machine aesthetics, Vorticism in America, and something called Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism and After, which might have talked interestingly about Lewis's later development, but doesn't.

Cork's book is out of print and I know of no book that could replace it as a general introduction. New Perspectives, again typically of an academic symposium, presupposes a good basic knowledge on the part of the reader. It also suffers from too much concentration  on Wyndham Lewis. Atkinson, Etchells, Hamilton and, even more surprisingly, Roberts and Bomberg, barely get a mention (I shall use that as an excuse for doing the same, though they deserve better). There are good articles on Wadsworth and on Jessie Dismorr and Helen Saunders. Mark Antliff himself writes on Gaudier-Brzeska and his relations with the anarchist ideology of Dora Marsden, the extraordinary power behind the journals The Freewoman, The New Freewoman and The Egoist, the last of these named for her enthusiasm for the philosophy of Max Stirner and his book The Ego and its Own. But this is really a long footnote to the article he had published on Gaudier in the exhibition catalogue. I found the article by his brother, Alan Antliff - Ezra Pound, Man Ray and Vorticism in America - particularly interesting, dealing as it does with a moment when Man Ray was thinking seriously about the world, before he succumbed to the blandishments of Marcel Duchamp. But though the article did turn on themes related to Dora Marsden's The Egoist the connection with Vorticism as such was tenuous (the anarchist bookstore Man Ray frequented apparently stocked Blast). I felt the same about the contributions from Rebecca Beasley on relations wit Russia, Martin Puchner on the theatre and Douglas Mao, a rather wandering reflection on Lewis's paintings The Crowd and A Battery Shelled in their relation to the general theme of personal celebrity. The book doesn't succeed in what is presented as its main aim - to show that Vorticism had very wide ramifications. It doesn't widen the ramifications beyond what had already been established by Cork.