Blast from the past

Two significant mini-exhibitions struggle to burst forth from the disappointing confusion that is Tate Britain’s The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World. One is a focus on pioneering sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose terrific, sexually suggestive machine-man “Rock Drill” opens the show. The other is an overview of the poignantly brief career of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Verdun in 1915. His metre-high marble masterpiece, “Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound”, rarely lent from the US and still startling today in its brute-elegant force, is the chief reason for visiting Millbank this summer.

For his “Head”, Pound demanded something “virile”. Gaudier-Brzeska responded with a mask-like face carved in simple, hard-edged planes in the manner of Polynesian totems, and a back resembling a gigantic penis. It was applauded by Vorticist founder Wyndham Lewis as “Ezra in the form of a marble phallus”, while Pound himself bragged that “Gaudier’s column gets more gravely beautiful and more phallic each week”.

But Horace Brodzky, mutual friend of artist and sitter, claimed on the other hand that the “entirely pornographic” piece was carved “by way of disapproval and in contempt of Pound”. Ford Madox Ford, the first owner, paid £2 10s for it, and noted Gaudier-Brzeska’s “great sense of the comic”.

Here, evidently, is an artist who provoked mixed responses. He continues to intrigue today. The “Blue Chenil” sketchbook that Tate recently acquired is a delight, revealing how Gaudier-Brzeska’s abstracted sculptures had their beginnings in closely observed representational drawings of organic or animal forms such as “Duck” and “Fish”. Gaudier-Brzeska’s 10 works here – ranging from “Crouching Fawn” and “Singer”, whose gentle grace still evince the influence of Rodin, to the savage, stocky “Red Stone Dancer”, rhythmically compressed to convey an ecstasy of movement – were all made within a year (1913-14). They demonstrate the dazzling development that the French artist made under Epstein’s influence as soon as he took up direct carving.

Along with Epstein’s primitivist works from the period – the marvellous graphic stone relief “Birth”, depicting a foetus emerging from between its mother’s thighs; several sinuous dark green fertility figures in flenite – these are undisputed highlights.

But they are also extremely familiar to London audiences. “Hieratic Head” and “Birth” apart, all were on display last year at the Royal Academy’s Wild Thing, which covered the same ground more intensely and succinctly. Set in the international context where they belong, “Rock Drill” and “Red Stone Dancer”, moreover, featured as well in Tate Modern’s 2009 Futurism survey. And the Vorticist magazines, pamphlets and posters constituting the documentary material here are also known from the British Library’s wider-ranging Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant-Garde in 2007-08. This show comes too soon, and is too parochial and uneven, to bring much that is new.

That complaint, of course, could be levelled at Vorticism itself. Was it ever more than a tame English merger of French Cubism and Italian Futurism? Was it a visual movement at all? Announced by Wyndham Lewis in the summer of 1914 in the journal BLAST, its theories and aesthetic were wholly derived from Paris and Milan. When presented in Lewis’s bright pink inaugural edition, these must indeed have been a blast of fresh air in post-Edwardian London – and the magazine’s only subsequent issue, in 1915, had a jagged abstract woodcut by Lewis as cover and a ruptured typographical style sufficiently innovative to attract praise from Russian suprematist El Lissitzky. But BLAST’s really original contributions were poems by TS Eliot and Pound; the best modernist visual artists by contrast mostly kept their distance.

Thus the incoherence of this exhibition. Epstein refused to sign up to Vorticism, though he contributed sketches to BLAST. Gaudier-Brzeska signed up, but was killed in the war soon afterwards. In any case both were already shaped by 1900s Paris, and the influence of Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani. Yet the Gaudier-Brzeska piece that chimes most convincingly with Lewis’s angular, mechanised language – the armoured creatures in “Bird Swallowing Fish”, with the torpedo-like fish rammed into the bird’s mouth a symbol of war – is inexplicably absent here, even though Tate owns it.

Among painters, the key British pre-war radical was David Bomberg. The brilliant-hued “Vision of Ezekiel” (1912) – skeletal animated figures surging from a valley of bones at the prophet’s calling – is visionary: it fuses cubism with Jewish narrative in a way that emotionally recalls Chagall, though Bomberg’s simplification of the human form is tougher. His treatment is yet more reduced and dynamic in “The Mud Bath”, depicting crowds at east London’s Jewish steam baths.

Surrounded by flags, this hung on an outside wall at Bomberg’s seminal solo show at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea in 1914, causing “the horses drawing the 29 bus ... to shy at it as they came round the corner of King’s Road”. That show proclaimed Bomberg’s independence: he would have nothing to do with BLAST, although his aims overlapped with Lewis’s at this stage: “I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery, into an art that shall not be photographic but expressive.”

Here Bomberg is shown alongside CRW Nevinson’s “The Arrival” – representing, a contemporary commentator surmised, “a Channel steamer after a violent collision with a pier. You detect funnels, smoke, gangplanks, distant hotels, numbers, posters all thrown into the melting-pot. Nevinson acted as interpreter, explaining that it represented a state of simultaneous mind.” A committed Futurist, Nevinson also excluded himself from the Vorticists.

With the exception of Edward Wadsworth’s lively if predictable woodcuts referencing urban life, the works of those painters who did subscribe to the movement as shown extensively here are feeble. Lewis’s geometric monochrome compositions look formulaic and dated. The inclusion of too many post-Cubist abstract repetitions by Helen Saunders, Jessica Dismorr and Dorothy Shakespear – all lacking energy, flair or individuality – is lamentable; if this is an attempt to rehabilitate women artists, the attempt backfires.

The room of experimental “vortographs” – abstracted photographs – by Alvin Langdon Coburn looks especially dull when you recall the thrill of Rodchenko’s contemporary camera-work. And a mise-en-scène reconstructing the Vorticist exhibitions in London and New York from 1914 to 1917 is heavy-handed rather than enlightening.

Lewis’s boast that “Vorticism was what I, personally, said and did” is only too true: his movement was little more than a self-promotional gimmick. This show, imported from the Nasher Museum in North Carolina via the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, may have had value in exposing British modernists abroad – the last previous Vorticist exhibition in the US took place in 1917. But for Tate this is home territory, and it ought to do better. The serious artists here – Tate has superb holdings of Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Bomberg – deserve resurrection in committed retrospectives; the rest can be forgotten.

‘The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World’, Tate Britain, London, until September 4.

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