LINED UP NEATLY in the first gallery, the sepia-soaked portraits of Vorticism's leading lights--Wyndham Lewis in a suit, Edward Wads worth in a bow tie--hardly betray their subjects' defiance of post-Edwardian propriety. Only Ezra Pound in a broad-collared cloak--bearing some Napoleon III stubble, a shock of unkempt hair, and the glazed expression of a poet--looks the part of bad boy. Of course, Vorticism's erratic boys' club was not only male, and "The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-1918"--curated by Mark Antliff and Vivien Greene, and traveling here from the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina--goes a long way in underscoring the contributions of female artists to its efforts. Yet the aggressive, machinist affinities of its most infamous works remind us that virility was the glue that most often bound the movement's disparate components. Launched as an Anglo-American venture in London between 1913 and 1914, Vorticism flourished under the direction of Pound and Lewis until 1918, by which time World War I had dispersed its energy and claimed some of its notable practitioners. Owing to the peaks of the movement's achievement--characterized by a hard-edge figuration derived from Cubism and Futurism--its members constituted Britain's first true avant-garde, who used the mechanized energies of the war to propel England out of its genteel introversion.
Perched in a corner of the exhibition's first room is perhaps the epitome of such aesthetics: a reconstruction of Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill, 1913-15. Atop a jet-black tripod, a white body, more machine than human, holds a piece of attenuated machinery, seeming to presage the imminent violence of the Great War. It is a statement the artist--not a Vorticist but a close associate--would redact after recoiling from the war's horrors. The subsequent room contains Epstein's bronze Torso in Metal from "The Rock Drill," 1913-14, which he extracted from the original Rock Drill in 1916 and cast in bronze. Cut in half and with its arms partly amputated, Epstein's torso has become, in a sense, a victim of the previous sculpture's metaphoric violence. Such a shift speaks chillingly of Europe's recent carnage but also sheds some light on the contradictions that haunted Vorticism from the start: its elegies to mechanized aggression taking turns with more measured approaches to unadorned form.
Vorticism's belligerent self-stylization was cast in the image of F. T Marinetti's Futurists, from whom the movement drew many of its basic aesthetic ideas, but against which it aimed to distinguish its particular ethos. Literary, visual, and abidingly iconoclastic, the Vorticists aped many of the Futurists' performative, counterculrural antics, holding their own "Blast Dinners" and "Vorticist Evenings" and publishing the journal Blast in emulation of Futurist typographic experimentation. The difficulties in evoking such wide-ranging dimensions are multiple. Admirably, the curators here have shaped their exhibition around objects from three fundamental events: London's 1915 Dore Gallery show, the 1917 Penguin Club exhibition in New York, and the February 1917 Camera Club exhibition of so-called Vortographs in London. Complementing these objects are key canvases, woodcuts, and watercolors, as well as select printed material, from Pound's monograph on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to issues of Blast opened up to Lewis's fiery editorials. …