Vorticism: the problematic British art movement

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed an explosion of new artistic and literary movements across Europe. Some have evolved organically, only receiving labels from critics and historians once disbanded, while others have defined themselves forcefully, issuing manifestos and cutting ties with earlier ideas and ways of working. British Vorticism falls into the latter category, but is perhaps one of the lesser-known movements of the time.

Started in the months before 1914 by a group of artists and writers interested in machinery and movement, Vorticists wanted to lift British culture out of Victorian complacency and stagnation by using an aggressive and sharp artistic language. Poet Ezra Pound suggested the name, likening a vortex to a place of maximum energy – an apt metaphor for this band seeking to traverse the past into the future. Despite the momentum with which it started, the band lasted just over a year. Its impacts, however, still haunt us today.

Wyndham Lewis was the spearhead of Vorticism. He wrote a manifesto in an issue of his own magazine called Blast: Examining the Great English Vortex. The other band members signed the manifesto, all condemning Britain’s cultural and political insularity and what they saw as modest and outdated values. In their work, the Vorticists explored modern technology, the aesthetics of machinery, warfare, landscapes transformed by industry, and the artistic products of foreign cultures. Vorticism also encompassed a remarkable diversity of art forms, from painting and literature to photography, theater, criticism and sculpture.

Christopher S. Washington