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We only want the world to live; and to feel its crude energy flowing through us.

The above line is an extract from the poem, Long Live the Vortex!, written by Wyndham Lewis and published in Blast, the short-lived publication he founded in 1914. The ‘we’ he refers to is most likely himself and the group of people he called his ‘men of 1914’, people like Ezra Pound, James Joyce, TS Elliot, Stephen Spender, GK Chesterton, Naomi Mitchison and Rebecca West, in short, the intelligentsia of the day.

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1884 – 1957) was born in the United States and came to England with his mother while he was a child. She recognised his talent for drawing while he was still young, and she provided him with drawing lessons and encouragement. The time of Lewis’s arrival in England was metaphorical, ie, when the world was shifting from an overly embellished Victorian age to a streamlined place, defined by technology and in which every vestige of ornamentation would have to justify its existence or be obliterated. But what, exactly, was vorticism?

Vorticism is derived from the word vortex, defined in the Oxford English dictionary as a mass of whirling fluid, especially a whirlpool or whirlwind, any whirling motion or mass, and a system, occupation, pursuit, etc, viewed as swallowing up or engrossing those who approach it.

Lewis saw vorticism as a cultural movement, one that subjects were going to be drawn into, possibly against their will. If we take Long Live the Vortex! as the vorticist ‘manifesto’, it is apparent that vorticism was riven with contradictions. Throughout the poem, he stresses the importance of the individual, while anticipating a mass movement in art and culture. One strange facet of vorticism was the way Lewis claimed that it elided time. He writes:

Blast will be popular, especially. It will not appeal to any particular class, but to the fundamental and popular instincts in every class and description of people. To the individual: the moment a man feels or realises himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time. Blast is created for this timeless, fundamental artist that is in everybody.

The ideals of Lewis were not to be realised, vorticism proving too esoteric for the ‘ordinary’ person. Neither Blast nor vorticism survived the Great War. However, a number of vorticist paintings survive so that we can appraise the movement. David Bomberg painted The Mud Bath in 1914. At first sight the subject appears to be purely abstract but as you gaze and gaze at the painting, human figures of blue and white appear from the background of red and yellow geometrical forms. These anthropomorphic figures seem to be rotating around a dark-brown shaft to the centre-left of the image, the intervals between the figures being calculated to give a sense of jerky movement. In spite of this rotating sensation, there are no curves visible in this painting, each form being constructed with straight lines and angles.

A sense of spontaneous movement is not present in ‘Mud Bath’ . We are drawn into the painting with the figures, rotating with them about its dark, centrifugal heart – and this is the essence of vorticism. To recount the phrase of Wyndham Lewis:

….to feel its crude energy flowing through us.

The subjects of vorticism were passive rather than active. Vorticism was something that happened to one, not a movement that one could choose to get involved with. It did not have the overtones of revolution that say, futurism did, and it was this sense of revolution that made futurism so dynamic. Vorticism runs counter to all of the philosophies of self-help that abound today. It is certainly so that things happen to us that we cannot control, but this is not the message that we want to hear. I believe that this is why vorticism did not have the longevity of futurism. But we still do have a wonderful legacy of drawings and paintings from Wyndham Lewis, and the ‘failure’ of vorticism does not mean that these should be ignored.

About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, http://www.maryphelan.info/ and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. http://maryphelan.blogspot.com/ Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software. http://hubpages.com/hub/Draw-Like-Lichtenstein-Using-Computer-Graphic-Software