Art that goes back to the futurist

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The Vorticists may have only been active for a short period of time, but their influence and importance still burn bright, says Adrian Hamilton

The British don't go in much for self-proclaimed movements, particularly in the arts. They are more comfortable with the idea of the singular artist or groups of friends gathered together in bonhomie and shared views.

Not for us the manifestos of the Continental 'isms', with their endless explanations, violent denunciations and exclusive societies.

The one exception are the 'Vorticists', the group banded around Wyndham Lewis which exploded on the London scene with a full manifesto and magazine just before the First World War, only to become all-too-quickly subsumed by that terrible conflict and to be forgotten once it was over.

Was this a small flash on the margins of European art, or a brave and distinct British contribution to the modernist revolution that Cubism was wreaking through the art world? The Tate Gallery, together with the Nasher Museum of Art in Duke University in the US and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, would argue its distinctive merits. Not only did the Vorticists form an important movement in British terms, they also served as a significant bridge between the avant-garde movements of Paris and Europe and the US. Their membership was drawn from both sides of the Atlantic, their aims were truly radical and their achievements considerable in their brief period of vitality.

The evidence is laid out in an exhibition which has already been to the US and mainland Europe, and has now completed its journey at Tate Britain in London, where it has been given a spacious airing and the addition of several discoveries.

Does it prove their importance as a movement and their worth as artists? The answer to the former, given their circumstances and the paucity of the works that have survived, is a qualified yes. The answer to the question of their continued relevance as artists should also be most definitely in the affirmative. Viewed together with enough space to make their mark, the paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints gathered here have an energy of youth and commitment of pioneering that is totally convincing, even today.

The problem of judging them in historical terms is both the brevity of the group's existence and the extent to which their works, particularly the bigger canvases, were destroyed by accident or by war damage. All too few of the major paintings of Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth or David Bomberg survive, although they certainly painted them as we know from contemporary photographs.

The exhibition tries to overcome both the problem of time and numbers by attempting to recreate the exhibitions and the publications through which they sought to project their views – its beginnings with the Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition and the Rebel Art Centre and the publication of its manifesto in Blast in July 1914 (a wonderful concoction of capital letters, high ideals, gross insults and fine woodcuts well worth buying in reproduction in the Tate bookstall). A year later came the First Vorticist Exhibition at the Dore Galleries in 1915 and the publication of the second, wartime Blast in the same year. The final showing of the group came in the US in 1917 at the Penguin Club in New York, arranged under difficult circumstances thanks to the poet Ezra Pound, an original member of the group, and the New York patron, John Quinn, an avid collector whose holdings disappeared after his death (items still turn up occasionally in obscure places). To end, the exhibition has a fascinating room of so-called "Vortographs" – photographs taken with a triangle of mirrors before the lens to break up the picture into Vorticist-type planes by the American Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The term Vorticism was coined by Ezra Pound - but what did it really mean? To quote Wyndham Lewis's explanation: "You think at once of a whirpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated, and there at the point of concentration is the Vorticist." In graphic terms, this meant a near abstraction of form and fierce geometric planes as the groups sought to capture the energy and mechanical nature of modern life.

In good avant-garde style, its members knew exactly what they were against, which was the figurative art and soft colour of the impressionists and post-impressionist, and in particular Roger Fry with whom Wyndham Lewis had a dramatic falling out (partly because he suspected him of cheating him out of a commission). Wyndham Lewis, a monster if ever there was one, then had an equally dramatic row with Christopher Nevinson over the latter's refusal to desert Futurism in favour of Vorticism.

How to distinguish themselves from Italian Futurism and Cubism was indeed a constant theoretical problem for the Vorticists, who spent much time and a great many words trying to explain the difference. "In the end they were all part of the same thing," argues Chris Stephens, the curator of the London leg of the exhibition's journey. "If there is a real difference with Futurism it is that the Italians kept to a narrative while the Vorticists were more concentrated on the form." In pushing themselves nearer to total abstraction, Wyndham Lewis and his cohorts were actually in the vanguard of not just British but all of European and American art at their time.

Arguably the highlight of the early part of the exhibition are not the paintings or drawings (although Wyndham Lewis' prints illustrating Timon of Athens are breathtaking) but the sculptures of the young French member of the group, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. His loss on the Western Front in 1915 was a tragedy for for art. His works here, small as well as big, show a talent that would have only grown with time. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, all mind and nose, is well-known, but the earlier Red Stone Dancer, a fierce embodiment of tension and energy, shows just why he joined the movement and where he might have gone.

Another masterpiece on display is Wyndham Lewis' Workshop, a brilliant play of squared lines and soft colours that shows, behind all the egotism, what a powerful and innovative artist he was. The chief delight for me, however, is the work of Dorothy Shakespear and Helen Saunders. Women were not powerful in the group, but where they had very little place in most of the modernist movements of Europe, they were surprisingly well represented among the Vorticists (two of the original signatories were women, as were four of the exhibitors in the Dore Gallery). There's a tendency to dismiss them as girlfriends and hangers on, but they were much more than that. Both Shakespear and Saunders have a confidence of composition and a dramatic use of colour that is entirely original.

Vorticism, like so much else, didn't survive the war. It was partly bad timing. Rising casualties made its celebration of the machine age seem not just out of place but wrong-headed. You can see in Wyndham Lewis' The Crowd, a relatively large canvas painted early on during the war, what difficulty the Vorticists had in applying their art to the bigger issues of the world. The symbols are obvious, the energy is absent.

Had war not broken out, it might all have been different. But Britain's only effort at creating an avant-garde movement vanished from the scene when it did, although most of its members went on working in their own ways.

Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, Tate Britain ( www.tate.org.uk), 14 June-4 September

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