Article Index


Mark Antliff and Scott W. Klein, eds.
Vorticism: New Perspectives.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 286 pages + 16 plates.

review by Reka Mihalka







vorticismMark Antliff and Scott W. Klein recognize in their introduction to Vorticism: New Perspectives that initially Vorticism did not attract as much scholarly
attention as could have been anticipated. The editors ascribe this fact to two main prejudices, namely the political “untouchability” of the movement’s leaders and the general suspicion that the whole affair was nothing but pseudo-Cubism or -Futurism. Quite fittingly to scholars studying the work of anarchist and revolutionary Vorticists, then, this book’s editors challenge these doctrines and open up as-yet uncharted territories of Vorticism for the academic community, showing alternative interpretations of its achievements. While Wyndham Lewis and painting are indubitably at the forefront of this book, the contributors laid heavy emphasis on new aspects, inviting interdisciplinary attention. Students of gender, print culture, drama, photography, woodcuts, rhetoric, sculpture, and other subjects will therefore find the book worthy of attention.

Fredric Jameson’s preambular essay surveys a number of Wyndham Lewis’s works to trace the struggle of two opposing principles (whether they be called those of representation and decoration, figuration and abstraction, or ultimately the round and the square), and analyzes the Timon of Athens series in this respect. The subsequent Part I outlines the European context of vorticism. First, Rebecca Beasley maps Vorticism’s few Russian connections meticulously and then tracks how and why the mere concept of Russian art gained significance for Lewis and Blast as an art representative of a national character, even though there was little artistic affinity between the Russian and English avant-garde. Second, Andrzej Gasiorek analyzes Hulme’s theoretical considerations about abstraction and primitivism with regard to their applicability to Epstein and Lewis’s practice. Third, Scott W. Klein tackles the ambivalent relation of Vorticism to German art and national identity: the parallel rejection of and alignment with German thought and culture, which is “partly aesthetic, partly nationalist, always paradoxical.” (80)

Part II deals with “Machine Aesthetics, Primitivism, Cultural Politics.” Jonathan Black’s essay outlines the history of Edward Wadsworth’s woodcuts of industrial Yorkshire towns with valuable details about the artist’s private life. Mark Antliff’s following essay recontextualizes Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s views on Vorticist sculpture in the contemporary discourse on anarchism, primitivism, and Hellenism as exemplified by Edmund Gosse and Richard Aldington. In a pioneer study, Miranda Hickman amends the long-established picture of the masculine Vorticism with accounts of two female artists, Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders.

Part III concentrates on the American context of Vorticism. Allan Antliff recounts how the American painter Man Ray’s turned to anarchism and abstraction after he attended John Weichsel’s art lectures and read Ezra Pound’s articles in The New Freewoman (and later The Egoist) and how Duchamp’s radical modernism urged him forward to Dada. Anne McCauley investigates the cooperation of Alvin Langdon Coburn and Ezra Pound on the Vortographs in the context of Coburn’s earlier experimentation with multiple exposures on the same plate of the same subject in different states. These earlier, fascinating and eerie photos were meant to suggest premonition and spiritual connections fitting the personality of the sitter, for illustrations of a text on the supernatural (by Maurice Maeterlinck) or cubist associations (for Pound). Achieving a kind of Vorticist geometric abstraction with the use of crystals, Coburn thus also managed to recreate a sense of Pound’s artistic ambition in their Vortographs. Vivien Greene turns next to John Quinn and reexamines the collector’s interactions with Vorticism. By looking into the financial history of the New York exhibition, Greene outlines Quinn’s collecting principles, providing ample archival evidence.

Part IV focuses more closely on Wyndham Lewis. In the first chapter, Paul Edwards attempts to reconstruct the rough chronology of the creation of Blast, carefully considering the influence of the printer Leveridge, the awakening of the Vorticist identity, and the inner contradictions of the manifestoes. Edwards ultimately sees the publication as a “shifting” platform (200) that failed to attain the revolutionary aesthetic goals of the group and thus lead to Lewis’s disillusionment. Martin Puchner considers Lewis’s Enemy of the Stars from multiple angles: as a closet drama, as an “extension of [the] practice of manifesto writing” (227), as a drama of ideas, and as an example of world construction that outlines a(n alternative?) probable world. The final chapter is Douglas Mao’s; it offers a nuanced understanding of the intricate connections of celebrity, anonymity, the media, and violence in Lewis’s life and art.

Besides being insightful and thought-provoking, Vorticism: New Perspectives is also highly user-friendly. The sixteen beautifully printed plates enable the reader to follow the lucid argumentation of the authors with ease. The editors also supplied the volume with an index (this practice should be much more widespread!), which helps us retrace the parallel discussions of common topics. Standing at these discursive intersections, one can hear the echoes of the conference for which these papers were originally written. The complementary or even rival interpretations of a few aspects of Vorticism is one of the highlights of the book. For example, the tension of Kandinsky’s dual ties to Russian and German culture is encoded in Rebecca Beasley and Scott W. Klein’s chapters. The virtually infinite interpretive field of Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd is discussed in turn by Fredric Jameson (as a stage in the historic struggle between the round and the square), Andrzej Gasiorek (as the revolt of individuality against the machine-like city), and Douglas Mao (as an anachronistic and cryptic view of misplaced violence in the city, considering the painting from the perspective of media coverage and reportage). Enemy of the Stars, the most frequently studied literary work in the volume is analyzed from multiple perspectives, too, including typography (Paul Edwards), genre (Martin Puchner), Expressionism (Andrzej Gasiorek), or even as a literary parallel for The Crowd (Douglas Mao). This play, which was performed for the first time in Bath, UK on 24 July 2014, is evidence of the editor’s intention “to nurture the kind of cross-fertilization between the disciplines of art history and literary studies that needs to take place if we are fully to grasp the import of this pivotal avant-garde movement.” (4)

Even though the volume emphasizes the interconnectedness of Vorticism (focusing on its diverse cultural contexts), one particular topic seems to be underrepresented: the fiction and poetry that became (correctly or incorrectly) associated with Vorticism. Ezra Pound the poet is nowhere to be found, even though Ezra Pound the impresario, Ezra Pound the journalist, and Ezra Pound the ideologist do surface intermittently in the discussions. Similarly, Lewis’s Tarr is only fleetingly mentioned.

Nevertheless, Vorticism: New Perspectives manages to reflect the same kind of peacefully coexistent heterogeneity that Vorticism itself incorporated. Just as each participating artist or theoretician had a different concept what the movement should consist of, the multitude of perspectives evidenced in this book recognize the plurality of valid interpretations. Varietas delectat, indeed.