The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, Tate Britain, London

The Tate's scrupulously curated show illustrates the impact on British art of the short-lived Vorticist movement, abruptly ended by a shot in Sarajevo

On 12 June 1914, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, father of Italian Futurism, stood in front of a London audience and declaimed from the Manifesto he had written six years before. He was accompanied, eccentrically, by the painter C R W Nevinson on drums. Suddenly, there was jeering.

A claque of local artists, outraged that an Italian should lecture them on what Marinetti dubbed "English Vital Art", had decided that enough was enough. How dare this organ-grinder criticise the "passéism" of Englishness? "England practically invented this civilisation that Signor Marinetti has come to preach to us about," spluttered the claque's leader, Wyndham Lewis. Within a week, Lewis had published a riposte. Its title – Blast – was meant to blow Marinetti out of the water, although it sounded like something Terry-Thomas might have said if pipped at the post by an Eyetie.

Wyndham Lewis's lurid pink-covered manifesto announced the arrival of the Vorticists, often described as one of the few genuinely avant-garde movements in 20th-century English art. That is certainly the view of a new show, called The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, at Tate Britain. But how revolutionary were they?

In local terms, of course, the answer is: very revolutionary indeed. It didn't take much to earn that distinction in London in 1914. Marinetti was only telling the truth when he described pre-war English art as passé. About the most exciting thing to have happened to it in living memory had been Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibition four years before. So awestruck had Virginia Woolf been by this that she wrote, "On or about December 1910 human character changed." What she meant was British character. By 1910, Post-Impressionism would have been old hat in Paris, where Analytic Cubism was just kicking off. Of the four stars of Fry's show – Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse – all but the last were dead by the time it opened.

Another flaw in the view of the Vorticists as players in an international avant-garde is that little of what they did was new. Their adulation of violence, evoked by the word Blast, drew strongly on the Futurism of the hated Marinetti; the multifocus Vortographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn was a response to Cubism. A captious critic might point out, too, that few of the major English Vorticists were actually English. Coburn and Jacob Epstein were both American, as was the group's laureate, Ezra Pound and, by paternity, Lewis himself. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was French. In spite of this, Blast blimpishly declared the Vorticists' soft-Cubist style to come not from a Spanish artist working in Paris but from the "mechanical inventiveness" of the English. It was a very English thing to say.

Whether Vorticism would have overcome this insularity to form a truly international movement, we will never know. Its timing was less than perfect. In the 10 days between Lewis finishing his manifesto and John Lane publishing it at half-a-crown, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo. Six weeks later, the world was at war and the last thing anybody wanted was a large, pink magazine called Blast. There was to be only one more issue, a year later, in July 1915, and only two Vorticist exhibitions – in London, also in 1915, and at the Penguin Club in New York, in January 1917. After that, the name fell into disuse and the various ex-Vorticists went their several ways.

And yet what the Tate's scrupulously curated show reminds us is just how exciting the year from June 1914 must have been for English art. Nearly 50 years after the event, William Roberts painted his Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel as if he were working from life. For Roberts, as for David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth and many other Vorticists, the fabled summer before the Great War brought a moment of madcap energy that they were never really to recapture.

In opening with Blast and ending with a wall of Wadsworth's wonderful woodcuts, The Vorticists shows how this energy expressed itself in a style that was graphic in more senses than one. Wyndham Lewis's manifesto was, if anything, more important for how it looked than for what it said. With its blocky sans-serif type and concrete-verse lists of the Blasted and the Blessed (the latter, unexpectedly, including His Holiness the Pope), Blast is everywhere in this show: in the abstracts of Helen Saunders and Dorothy Shakespear, in the letter-men of Bomberg's The Mud Bath and in Lewis's own The Crowd. It took another 20 years for British art to be this modern again. That modernism, too, would be ended by war, and by the jingoism that comes with it.

To 4 Sep (020-7887 8888)

Next Week:

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