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The Vorticists

Sarah Strang

Manifesto for a Modern World
Tate Britain
Until 4 September

Ezra Pound's poem 'A Virginal' (below), displayed within this exhibition, provides a useful allegorical tool for understanding this precise and exquisite retrospective, an extensive and careful presentation of sculpture, paintings, drawing, art journals and documentation. Its focus is a short energetic moment that stemmed from the Futurist period, beginning in 1914 and ending rapidly with the demise of World War I in 1917.

Life and death reign throughout The Vorticists. The images depict a garrulous kind of beauty and punctured horror, energized by a rebellious response to the hierarchy of the Cubist movement and to the dictatorial warmongering of the period. Maternal tenderness appears alongside religious curiosity and technological advancements in warfare and the resulting violence. 'The Virginal' neatly describes the polemical attitudes of the Vorticists, using a description of the forceful nature of male desire amidst dramatic changes in season, 'Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches,/As winter's wound with her sleight hand she staunches…'

This first ever Vorticist survey gathers work from the Doré Gallery in London in 1915 and the Penguin Club in New York in 1917, and includes Helen Saunders, Wyndham Lewis, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It presents a dogged and sparingly clear vision of the entrails of life and war, creation and destruction. The exhilarating momentum of the movement is emphasised by a multifarious cultural attack of energetic judgments, poems and manifestos, which were gathered in the journal Blast, produced in two editions only, which 'blasted' and 'blessed,' aspects of European and US culture. Christopher Richard Nevinson wrote, 'Blast sets out to be an avenue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the public in no other way'.

The exhibition begins with a forewarning, a majestic sculpture, The Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein: a humanoid sits atop a rock drill, flesh blending into the matt blackness of progress. Study for The Rock Drill, Venus and Doves (Charcoal on paper) is a preparation for three sculptures by Epstein, revealing themes of masculine power and feminine sexuality and procreation, which are incisively revealed in other drawings and sculptures such as  Untitled (Birth) (Crayon on paper)  and Female Figure in Flenite.

The Vision of Ezekiel by David Bomberg reveals the moment where God guided the prophet to a valley of dry bones and commanded him to speak: 'There was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together.' Mechanical shapes of peachy human flesh extend from the canvas appearing like counterparts of a weapon emerging from the depths of a white void.
The slow agony of trench warfare and a creeping sense of death provides a cutting contrast to scenes reminiscent of the powerful resurrection of Christ in painting and drawings titled Returning to the Trenches, by ­ Nevinson. Tin hats and bayonets angled downwards towards the slope of death the soldiers appear not in human form but like a heaving train of pain and exhaustion in muddied and bloodied blue paint.

The Vorticists encapsulate pain, beauty, death and power, a dark sense of sexuality within a framework of technological revolution offering a dangerous sense of freedom. Song of Songs 1:5 describes such sensual female imagery and masculine power, 'Dark am I, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon.' Reflecting on this passage within the context of the Vorticist movement, we are offered a powerful reminder of the glorious and changing nature of church, the splendor that such possibilities offer and the work, battles and toil that this may require.  Fleeting moments of intimacy, desire and pain depicted throughout the exhibition are firmly rooted in the truth and hope of our being in creation, described in Psalm 139:13, 'For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.'

Sarah Strang

A Virginal

No, no! Go from me. I have left her lately.
I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness,   
For my surrounding air hath a new lightness;
Slight are her arms, yet they have bound me straitly   
And left me cloaked as with a gauze of æther;   
As with sweet leaves; as with subtle clearness.   
Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness
To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.   
No, no! Go from me. I have still the flavour,   
Soft as spring wind that's come from birchen bowers.   
Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches,
As winter's wound with her sleight hand she staunches,   
Hath of the trees a likeness of the savour:
As white their bark, so white this lady's hours.

Ezra Pound