Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

IX · CUBISM IN ENGLAND AND AMERICA

In both England and America, the assimilation of Cubism had to be accomplished in two stages. The first stage involved a sudden exposure of the Cubist viewpoint to artists and a public who were, for the most part, unaware of the innovations that had revolutionized the making and experiencing of art on the Continent; the second stage required a less ardent, more sustained consideration of the new problems posed by the Cubist world. In both countries, the introduction of Cubism was made at about the same time and with a comparably shocking abruptness -- in England through the Vorticist movement of 1914, in America through the Armory Show of 1913, which exhibited to an unprepared public the extreme avant-garde art of Europe and -- America.

The Vorticist movement, led by the writer-artist Wyndham Lewis ( 1884- 1957), exploded upon the English public in 1914 with the vociferous modernity that characterized the outburst of Futurism in Italy some four years earlier. Vorticism, as shouted through the manifestoes of its literary vehicle, Blast, was belligerently in favor of that energy and mechanization which the Futurists venerated; but, in order to assert its independence from the Italians, it criticized them for offering only a new form of Impressionism, for showing machines as moving blurs rather than as lucidly angular, cold, and impersonal objects. The Vorticists' means of exalting the machine world depended, like the Futurists', upon Cubism, the style that appeared to obliterate completely the many vestiges of nineteenth-century realism that survived the year 1900.

Like most of the "isms" that erupted around 1910, Vorticism was as intense as it was short-lived, producing its most radical verbal and pictorial statements within a few years. A typical example of this heated moment of English modernism can be seen in one of Lewis' illustrations to a 1914 folio edition of Shakespeare Timon of Athens. Ironically perpetuating the traditional penchant of English artists for literary illustration, Lewis attacks his theme with an antitraditional torrent of spiky Cubist planes whose dashing, metallic edges culminate in the so-called "vortex" of the upper left-hand corner. And often, in the same series of illustrations, Lewis even moved from Cubism to totally abstract patterns of jagged, dynamic planes.

The aggressive iconoclasm and rather callow flavor of the Vorticist movement could hardly be more alien to England's most distinguished Cubist, Ben Nicholson (b. 1894), who was born a decade too late to participate in the first fervors of modernism. Working at a less crucial historical moment, Nicholson slowly and patiently considered the premises of Cubism. Like Villon and Feininger, he offers a cautious, subtle art of refinement within a narrow and perfected range rather than an impetuous art that risks

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