The Great Vortex

In theory lectures put on for the public are a great idea, in practice normal people like you and I are given cause to wonder what sort of person voluntarily attends a lecture that they don’t have to go to, or even in some cases pays to go to such an event, especially if the pubs are open. That’s not to say we should spend all our time catching the dew from the barmaid’s apron, it’s just by way of saying that you get a certain type at these things. (A type that would probably benefit from a drop of what does you good from time to time, truth be told.)

Still, as I went to one a week or so ago, the last laugh is on me. I did take the precaution of going to the pub first, feeling it was unwise to embark on such an undertaking without a Beatific Cushion of Alcohol to protect against any potential boredom. I also plead the excuse that the lecture was on Blast, that remarkable and explosive Vorticist periodical of two issues, whose creator Wyndham Lewis I have long been a fan of, while accepting that he is a ‘funny old stick’ as Mark E Smith once, with a considerable amount of cheek, called him. 

Some art critic called Richard Cork gave the lecture, held in a disconcertingly space age lecture theatre at the British Library (the windows seemed to reverse their polarity at one point, which had me briefly listening for the sound of bolts thudding shut across the doors and the hiss of escaping gas as an accompaniment).

As with most lectures on matters in which you’ve some sort of interest, this one seemed to consist of things I already knew, and things I didn’t really care about. CW Nevinson, for instance, produces nothing but indifference in me. His Vorticism and abstract stuff seems imaginatively lenten; conventional mutton dressed with radical mustard, the art end of what would become 20th century design. I see however that he’s credited with holding the first cocktail party in Britain, so props for that Charlie boy.

Corky also evidently has a bit of a pash for Bomberg, so he went on about him a bit, not entirely relevantly I felt.

Anything interesting?

I suppose so – he said something along the lines of (adopts sonorous, authoritative voice) ‘as the current exhibition shows, the avant-garde of this period (1900-1930) is never really associated with Britain’. Well, I ain’t seen it yet, and it may well show that, but I must admit I rather dubiously sucked my lip at this point and scrawled a suspicious ‘Really?‘ in my notebook. Ok, the figures that immediately spring to mind aren’t exactly the Roast Beef of Old England themselves (Gaudier-Brzeska – French; Eliot, Epstein, Pound – American; Wyndham Lewis – difficult to say) but they congregated in London, they worked in London, and are far from being unimportant figures in art and literature.

It wasn’t just the Italian Futurist influence, trafficked into Britain by Nevinson, either – The Yello…. Hang on, hang on, let’s have a bit of Wyndham Lewis’s account of one of Marinetti’s Futurist London lectures –

Well, Marinetti brought off a Futurist Putsch about this time.

It started in Bond Street. I counter-putsched. I assembled in Greek Street a determined band of miscellaneous anti-futurists. Mr Epstein was there; Gaudier Brzeska, TE Hulme, Edward Wadsworth and a cousin of his called Wallace, who was very muscular and forcible, according to my eminent colleague, and he rolled up very silent and grim. There were about ten of us. After a hearty meal we shuffled bellicosely round to the Doré Gallery.

Marinetti had entrenched himself upon a high lecture platform, and he put down a tremendous barrage in French as we entered. Gaudier went into action at once. He was very good at the parlez-vous, in fact he was a Frenchman. He was sniping him without intermission, standing up in his place in the audience all the while. The remainder of our party mantained a confused uproar.

Blasting and Bombadiering

Sounds quite fun doesn’t it? Anyway, as I was saying, Blast and Vorticism wasn’t exactly just anglicised Futurism, spag bol with hard edges as it were; Aubrey Beardsely’s masterly control of line and The Yellow Book’s incandescent cultural ECT provided recent examples of successful innovation for them to use. Ok so Lewis & Co upped the voltage a bit, and took a hammer to the decadent line (poetic and artistic) but there were precedents in this country.

Cork was very good on Lewis’ remarkable A Battery Shelled (one of his war paintings) –

A Battery Shelled - Wyndham Lewis


There’s a futility about the mechanised figures at the centre, belabouring the hard icy contours, that takes the physically abstract into the realm of the metaphysical – rather like Blake’s representations of the divine mechanics of the soul and the spiritual universe, but without the divine. The picture was completed after the end of the war and the formal and conceptual framing device of the three more natural figures to the left, looking on at the picture, down, back and away, reflects this. They are apparently unemotional but clearly tired, emptily contemplating the recent cataclysm – temporal and spatial onlookers, like ourselves, but also inescapably part of the scene. This produces a redoubling of feeling and insight; an emotional identification with the figures that connects us not just with the mysterious and ritualistic events portrayed but with the strange and terrible aesthetic of the world in which they take place, so that even the pathetic (in the sense of productive of pathos) mechanised figures at the centre produce a feeling of recognition.  It is a picture that does not judge, but explores its subject through strange forms of melancholy; its rhythms are peculiarly graceful, despite the hardness of the vision. It almost feels, as some of Wyndham Lewis’s paintings and fictions can, like some sort of intensely worked science fiction. You’ll find it hanging in the Imperial War Museum; go and see it: it is, as I say, remarkable.

Similarly melancholy, it’s always seemed to me, is Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill – the mournful ‘facial’ expression of the figure always reminding me slightly of Caliban’s recognition of his partial humanity, a humanity that is aware only of its own confinement, and can give him only pain: Epstein’s Caliban being the offspring not of Sycorax, but of the Mechanical Age and the Theory of Labour. Richard Cork spent some fruitful time on this as well. Here is a reproduction of it in all its original glory –



It was later dismembered by Epstein, so only the torso remains. You can see it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Incidentally, in its original form many critics apparently refused to allow it the status of art, containing as it did a real rock drill. This sort of thing forces me rather reluctantly to wonder whether my similarly dismissive reaction to an awful lot of contemporary conceptual art is as misguided. Such doubts can seem irritatingly irresolvable and also undermine a good deal of the fun to be gained from a stance of sanguine contempt about such areas of modern life, but I suppose they are useful in themselves and conducive to (spits grimly) an open mind. Hey, more importantly – the robot army in Star Wars, Attack of the Clones is a well bad rip off Epstein’s Rock Drill.

No review of Vorticism would be complete without a look at the tragically early demise of Gaudier-Brzeska. In some ways his death in the trenches of France is an embodiment of the death of Vorticism, and perhaps the hardest forms of Modernism in general. The youthful energy that had produced so much change suffered a real and symbolic loss. The pure bolt of electric pink energy that produced the first Blast, which also allowed Gaudier to rush about the trenches apparently careless of his own existence, became something more sombre by the second, with its obituary of the young artist.

Gaudier is probably most famous for his hieratic head of Ezra Pound. My personal favourite is a small crouching faun in the Tate Britain, which seems to achieve the perfect embodiment of its subject. Like Lewis, he seemed able to give his abstract style an emotional strength; the play with form seems to have a point to it, serving and illuminating its subject rather than just using it as an excuse for stylistic experimentation.

Cork rather skipped over the considerable literary value of Blast, the opening series of Blasts and Blesses are still brilliantly invigorating and entertaining. Get a copy or go to the facsimiles to get the full force of it, but some idea of the effect can be gained through quotation –

Quack ENGLISH drug for stupidity and sleepiness.
Arch enemy of REAL, conventionalizing like
gunshot, freezing supple
REAL in ferocious chemistry
of laughter

He attacks Mother Nature for a small fee.
Hourly he ploughs heads for sixpence,
Scours chins and lips for threepence.
He makes systematic mercenary war on this
He trims aimless and retrograde growths
correcting the grotesque anachronisms
of our physique.

The first issue also contains Wyndham Lewis’s ‘unperformable’ play Enemy of the Stars, a proto-Beckettian portrayal of two automated solitary psyches at war in the glittering void. It’s really good, and not known anywhere near as much as it should be, even among his fans.

Gradually the lecture drew to an end – a relief; for one horrified moment when I looked at the paper that had been placed in front of me I thought it was going to last two hours or so, which would have led to the undignified spectacle of me bolting for the exit, rattling desperately at the door, before hurling myself out of the now opaque window.

There remained the phenomenon of Just Time for a Few Questions to be got through. Again, something laudable in theory, but in practice somewhat unwelcome. (At universities of course the event is usually disposed of, it being generally accepted that everyone, lecturer included, wants to get the hell out of there as quickly as is decently possible). The usual uncomfortable silence supervened the offer, which felt as always rather more like a request or  demand, a threat even, causing the Collective Responsibility to shift uneasily on its seat and look about warily.

In my particular case the addition was even more unwelcome, the Beatific Cushion having resolved itself into something more material, that is, a pressing need to use the toilet (this transformation of the eschatological into the scatological, as always, entailing not just the loss of a syllable, but an entire vision of serenity).

A man with a rubicund face and a booming voice gamely asked the lecturer to identify someone or other in a painting  shown earlier causing an old woman behind me to say primly ‘He did, he did’ (and indeed he had); this at a level not intended to be heard by the lecturer, as that would have entailed bawling, but sufficient to show those around her that she at least had been paying attention even if others weren’t so considerate. The desire to Please Teacher remains very strong in some people throughout life and in fact the lecture had been punctuated by small outbursts from this woman as she indicated that she had ‘got’ some more or less obvious reference (‘Yes, Virginia Woolf, that’s right’) or showed her amusement at some bland bit of humour by tittering appreciatively. She reminded me of those people who laugh knowingly seconds before a subtitle comes up in a foreign film to indicate to everyone they understand the original language. (Do you have German? someone once asked me. No, but I have a desire to wring your scrawny neck for you, was how I should have replied)

So incessant was her semi-audible and obsequious commentary in fact that I started feeling rather prim myself, such behaviour being contagious and the wonderful tolerance occasioned by my precautionary two glasses of strong ale in the Euston Flyer perhaps having begun to wear off.

(Incidentally, I wonder if the Euston Flyer is or was the place referred to in a memorable verse of The Sick Bed of Cuchulain by The Pogues –

In the Euston Tavern, you screamed it was your shout,
But they wouldn’t give you service, so you kicked the windows out,
They took you out into the street, kicked you in the brains,
So you walked back in through a bolted door and did it all again.

Fortunately, no such festivities were afoot when I was in there, although I did take what I deemed to be the prudent course of not screaming my order at the barmaid.)

Then, to my alarm, the foreign girl sitting next to me put her hand up and started asked a question, during which I alternated between staring alertly at my foot and screwing my face up at the ceiling. The question itself was rather enigmatically put, obstacles to comprehension being a certain understandable clumsiness with the English language and also perhaps the extremely abstract nature of the problem being put forward. The lecturer manfully dealt with the conundrum by saying ‘Good point, ah, question’ before proceeding to answer it more or less at random.

I’m afraid I can’t remember the good points ah questions, because by this stage I was concentrating on not thinking about my bladder.

I vaguely remember an American chap earnestly enquiring about something that seemed to me completely irrelevant, not worthy of consideration by anyone in full possession of their faculties, and then to my considerable relief, that was that.

This is perhaps the place to mention that Wyndham Lewis has a cd out – yes, you did hear me correctly – called The Enemy Speaks. And so he does, but not very clearly; his reputation as an appalling public speaker it seems was thoroughly deserved. It also contains some more or less indistinct readings of his poetry.

There’s also a new book of his essay The Role of Line in Art, with six or so sketches I think. Unfortunately it’s a limited edition of about 100 and is £100 as well, so it’s probably going to be a bit hard to get hold of.

Later this year there is to be an exhibition of Wyndham Lewis’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery; this follows excellent exhibitions at the Courtauld, the Hayward and also at Olympia Exhibition Centre.

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