Greeting visitors just inside the entrance to the Nasher Museum of Art’s recent exhibition on Vorticism—a short-lived, early twentieth-century art movement—is a metal sculpture of a human torso with something resembling a fetus inside, topped by the head of a bird that appears to be wearing an elongated helmet from a suit of armor. Could that really be right?
Mark Antliff walks up to the torso and gives it a long, critical look. He clears his throat. “The first thing you do is you look the work of art and you contemplate it,” he says. “You look at the title, then you read the wall label, and then you understand the whole context for the creation of this movement.”
Vorticism was profoundly influenced by World War I, says Antliff, who is co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of art history. In 1913, he says, Jacob Epstein first conceived of the sculpture titled The Rock Drill as a nine-foot tall plaster-cast figure seated on a piece of industrial machinery. He intended to show a new sensibility emerging out of the machine age. “It’s a symbol of the notion of the emergence of a new man out of the mechanical world of the machine which was fundamental to the Vorticist sensibility.”
But as the war ground on and casualties mounted on a massive scale, Epstein reconfigured his work. He cast it in gun metal, lopped it off at the torso, and cut off an arm, taking a symbol of power and making it impotent and crippled.
Antliff points to the left. “You can see an arm here. You can see a chest, ribcage, a head. But it’s been transmogrified. It’s been transformed into something that’s mechanomorphic, so it has a quality of the uncanny to it. It’s slightly disturbing inasmuch as it’s humanoid but not human.”
Antliff has been fascinated by the movement for his entire career, but this is his first attempt to bring Vorticist works together. In fact, it’s the first attempt by anyone at all in nearly a century—there hasn’t been an exhibition devoted to Vorticism in the U.S. since 1917, when the artists were still active.
Paintings, sculpture, woodcuts, and photographs by members of the group were scattered throughout museums and private collections, mostly in Great Britain and the U.S., and it took Antliff and Vivien Greene, curator of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, about three and a half years to track the works down and assemble them. “It was the equivalent of writing a book and running a small corporation combined,” Antliff says.
The Nasher exhibition, "The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-1918," groups works as they were displayed in the three original Vorticist shows: The first was held in 1915 at the Dorè Gallery in London; the next, at the Penguin Club in New York in 1917; and the third, a display of abstract photography, was held at the London Camera Club, also in 1917. (The Nasher exhibition will travel to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and to the Tate Britain in London in 2011.)
Antliff steps away from The Rock Drill and walks to the left, toward a three-foot-tall statue that looks as if it was inspired by the heads from Easter Island or a totem pole. The wall panel identifies it as the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound.
Pound, who was an intellectual inspiration for the Vorticist movement, commissioned the work. Antliff notes that the piece, sculpted by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, was a direct challenge to the classical tradition, which encouraged representations of ideal beauty in the human form. Gaudier-Brzeska carved the head out of Pentelic marble, the same stone used in the Elgin Marbles, and he did it by hand, which was unusual for the time. Gaudier-Brzeska, killed while fighting in the trenches a year after the work appeared, was interested in showing the power of Pound’s thought, but also something else.
“Here, he gives him a huge forehead as a sign of his cerebral powers, but let’s walk around the sculpture, okay?” Antliff says. He leads the way, talking all the while.
“He also represented Pound as a phallus. So, the notion of sexual fertility and intellectual fertility is one and the same,” he says. “This would have been seen as a very naughty gesture within the culture of the day.” (Pound wanted the sculpture placed on his tombstone when he died, Antliff says, but does not elaborate.)
In addition to emphasizing the machine age and rejection of classicism, Vorticism embodied a cosmopolitan and international movement, which in the months leading to World War I was nothing if not controversial. David Bomberg, a British painter descended from Eastern European Jews, who considered himself a Cubist but who was much admired by the Vorticists, was responsible for an abstract painting on the gallery’s far wall, The Mud Bath. Antliff explains that it is based on Bomberg’s observations of a public bathhouse in London’s East End, which was home to a number of ethnic groups, including Jewish immigrants.
When it was exhibited, Bomberg appended Union Jacks to the frame. “In a sense, during a period of ethnic prejudice, he’s saying, ‘Yes, this is a foreign culture, this is the East End of London, this is a cosmopolitan Jewish community, but we’re British, too,’ ” Antliff says. “ ‘This mode of art and this kind of subject matter is part of what modern Britain is all about.’ ”
For the next half-hour, Antliff expounds on abstract woodcut prints by Edward Wadsworth and a collage by Helen Saunders, one of only a few female members of the group. Standing in front of Island of Laputa, he leans forward so that his nose is only an inch away from the surface of the work, all the while pointing out the subtle differences in texture. The piece is based on a story from Gulliver’s Travels, and this leads naturally to a short lecture on Jonathan Swift, which in turn leads to a discussion of the Vorticists’ literary bent.
Artist and writer Wyndham Lewis, whom many consider to be the movement’s leader, is represented by a number of works in the exhibition, and Antliff points out a painting that is ostensibly about the crowds gathering in London in support of the war. But in the exhibition, Antliff has included, in addition to artworks, selections from the movement’s literary journal, Blast, which Lewis edited. There were only two editions published, but they contained selections from Pound and some early works by T.S. Eliot.
Antliff begins to read the text. “You can see here, ‘Blast is created for this timeless, fundamental artist that exists in everybody….’ So they’re saying that it’s a celebration of the notion of the individual.” Antliff continues reading. “ ‘It will not appeal to any particular class but to the fundamental and popular instincts of every class and description of people.’ So it’s this cosmopolitanism, modern sensibility, and quotidian identification with the common people that is the source of this new aesthetic.”
Antliff begins walking around the gallery more quickly now, pointing out more works by Wyndham Lewis and holding forth on Vorticist photography. It’s been nearly an hour and a half, and he’s getting tired.
“Some of the ideas are hard to grasp,” he says, now back in front of the copy of Blast, “but you’re meant to read this and then go and look at the work and think about what’s implied in it.”