“We worked separately, we found an underlying agreement, we decided to stand together.”
– Ezra Pound on the Vorticists
HERE I intend to examine Ezra Pound’s close association with the Vorticists during the second decade of the twentieth century, a group which began life as an artistic tendency within the existing Cubist movement, but which was also influenced to some extent by Italian Futurism.
Pound’s own interest in artistic matters was vigorously expressed in Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, which was eventually published in 1980 as a diverse and opinionated collection of valuable perceptions and insightful criticisms that had been written throughout his life as a poet and critic. However, according to Reed Way Dasenbrock:
It is only a slight overstatement to say that Pound was not interested in the visual arts in themselves; to put it more accurately, he was not interested in them for themselves. What attracted Pound to the visual arts was their social and public nature, particularly in contrast to the far more private and interior world of poetry. Painting and sculpture were made to be seen, seen primarily in public spaces, and Pound was always very interested in the public-ity of art and sculpture.
Cubism, perhaps unsurprisingly, is now regarded as one of the earliest examples of Modern Art and later went on to give birth not only to the Vorticists themselves, but also to the Futurists and Constructivists, too. It is important to remember that such tendencies did not merely represent the artistic predilections of their leading characters, but also incorporated within their more general cultural vision a degree of propaganda and the written word. Nevertheless, in order to ascertain the right context we shall begin with a brief tour through the European artistic underground immediately prior to the First World War.
The main Cubist protagonists were artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). Moving in similar circles, meanwhile, were personalities such as the philosopher-mystic, Max Jacob (1876-1944), the French writer and poet Guillaume Appollinaire (1880-1918), the art critic André Salmon (1881-1969) and well-known literary lesbian Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Picasso and Jacob lived together in the former’s dilapidated studio, which, due to the fact that it was so thoroughly dirty and located at the top of a hill in Montmartre, near Paris, became known as the Bateau Lavoir (or ‘floating laundry’). As Picasso’s creative notoriety increased, the premises functioned as a filth-ridden beacon for French outsiders of all kinds and was soon attracting an odd rabble of bohemian poets and artists.
In the early days Picasso was known chiefly for his 1905 work, Harem Scene, a conté crayon drawing which basically amounts to a poorly-executed assortment of preening concubines standing alongside their more muscular and sexually ambiguous companion. In 1907 he also produced two pencil sketches, each of them entitled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Influenced by Paul Cézanne, both images – now considered to be among the first Cubist artworks – were crudely drawn and indicative of the fin de siècle decadence that had preceded them. But Picasso’s nefarious reputation was always going to be enhanced by the adverse reaction of his critics and it was only the more loyal supporters like Gertrude Stein who really believed that the only reason Picasso’s work seemed so ugly was because it was new. In reality, of course, it was both ugly and new. The aforementioned Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example, was said to incorporate more a sense of aggression than aesthetics.
Another Cubist, Georges Braque, was highly impressed when he first set eyes on the Demoiselles d’Avignon in Picasso’s studio and, as a result, set out to completely re-think and transform his own artistic style. Braque’s Nude (1907-8), for example, has many of the angular features for which the Cubists became renowned. It also ‘marks the beginning of Cubism in a way that Piccaso’s picture does not.'
Picasso had inspired Braque to effectively reduce his entire style to a series of blocks and cubes, something that became more apparent in 1908 with his characteristic Houses at L’Estaque and Landscape at L’Estaque works. Between 1909 and 1910, Piccaso himself went on to emulate Braque with Cubist productions such as Seated Nude and Girl with Mandolin. Now that a recognisable artistic current had emerged, the Cubists sought to define their movement in the wake of a June 1911 exhibition at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Brussels, producing a series of pamphlets and articles. According to J.M. Nash:
The explanations were various but there was general agreement on one thing: that the Cubists were realists; they did not want to paint representational pictures, but believed that traditional methods of representation were false.
Given that Ezra Pound and his allies later sought to define precisely what was meant by the term ‘Vorticism’, as we shall see in due course, it is perhaps worth examining the words of the leading critic and spokesperson, Olivier-Hourcade, to see what he had to say about the aims and objectives of their artistic forebears:
The ruling preoccupation of the [Cubist] artists is with cutting into the essential TRUTH of the thing they wish to represent, and not merely the external and passing aspect of this truth […] All their works should carry, as their motto, a phrase of Remé de Gourmont’s: ‘Everything that I think is real. The only reality is thought. The outside is relative. Everything is transitory except thought.'
Olivier-Hourcade even employed the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) – unlikely bedfellows at the best of times – to support his view, arguing that there is a clear distinction between that which appears and that which is. In other words, the Cubists believed that intelligence always comes between the artist and his work:
The painter, when he has to draw a round cup, knows very well that the opening of a cup is a circle. When he draws an ellipse, therefore, he is not sincere, he is making a concession to the lies of optics and perspective, he is telling a deliberate lie.
In 1912, on the other hand, another theoretical definition of Cubism appeared in a book published by two painters, Albert Gleizes (1881-1953) and Jean Metzinger (1883-1956). In agreement with Hourcade’s own critique of the movement, the text itself – Du “Cubisme” – suggested that for the artist the visible world only becomes real through the utilisation of thought. However, contrary to Hourcade’s belief that reality amounted to some kind of eternal truth revealed by the senses (‘the thing-in-itself’), Gleizes and Metzinger stated that
An object has not one absolute form, it has several; it has as many as there are planes in the domain of meaning […] To the yes of most people the external world is amorphous. To discern a form is to verify it against a pre-existing idea, an act that no one, save the man we call an artist, can accomplish without external assistance.
The artist, therefore, is said to impose his own distinct world-view upon the rest of humanity and this, according to the authors, is why the masses are unable to appreciate those works which do not seem to accord with established artistic standards. Picasso agreed that there was no eternal truth and that truth itself was something that was simply forced upon the weak by those who were more dominant. There is, at least, some convergence of opinion between the Cubists and the antagonistic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who had previously argued that art is something in which ‘lying is sanctified and the will to deception has good conscience on its side…'
One Cubist who was heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s work was the eccentric French writer, Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), who was an associate of the Picasso group. Jarry produced a 1902 novel entitled Le Surmâle (The Supermale), in which a character similar to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was reborn amid a heady cocktail of pornography, outrageous comedy and science fiction. More importantly, however, the manifestation of Cubism in written form would not have gone unnoticed by Ezra Pound and perhaps inspired – to some extent – his later excursions into textual Vorticism.
With a cursory nod at those who had preceded them, the grand finale to Gleizes and Matzinger’s Du “Cubisme” sets out to create a bridge between Nietzsche and the Surrealists, ‘twixt philosophy and art:
For the partial liberties conquered by Courbet, Manet, Cézanne and the Impressionists, Cubism substitutes an indefinite liberty. Henceforth, objective knowledge at last regarded as chimerical, and all that the crowd understands by natural form proven to be convention, the painter will know no other laws than those of Taste… [In the depths of science] one finds nothing but love and desire. A realist, [the artist] will fashion the real in the image of his mind, for there is only one truth, ours, when we impose it on everyone. And it is the faith in Beauty which provides the necessary strength.
As E. H. Gombrich tells us in The Story of Art, his world-famous study of the history of the visual, the Cubists themselves merely
continued where Cézanne had left off. Henceforward an increasing number of artists took it for granted that what matters in art is to find new solutions for what are called problems of ‘form’. To these artists, then, ‘form’ always comes first and the ‘subject’ second.
Another artistic development that was contemporary with Ezra Pound, was Futurism. The American later became known for his endorsement of Modernism and it is fair to say that Modernism itself was deeply influenced by the rise of Futurism. The movement began in Italy and was launched by way of a February 1909 declaration of principles – entitled Founding and First Manifesto of Futurism – on the front page of the Parisian newspaper, Le Figaro, with hundreds of copies of the document being sent out to leading cultural and intellectual figures throughout Italy. The leader of this new current was one Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), a man who had once moved in Symbolist circles and written a play (Le Roi Bombance) that was inspired by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896). After the death of his parents Marinetti had inherited a huge fortune and first settled in Milan, where he issued a periodical called Poesia. But the Italian knew that if he was to make a significant impact upon the artistic and cultural underground in Europe, that he would eventually have to relocate to France. The Futurist Manifesto, meanwhile, contained eleven controversial points that openly incited violence and destruction against various forms of tradition:
The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt. We wish to exalt too aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, running, the perilous leap, the cuff, the blow.
It was suggested that the aesthetics of beauty are best expressed through war and struggle, themes that would later be championed – at least in spirit – by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) and his Italian Blackshirts. The racing car, for Marinetti, became the symbol of the Futurist movement’s determination to eradicate the past and embrace Europe’s emerging technological future with a brave and happy heart. For Pound, however, Futurism was little more than a kind of accelerated Impressionism that must itself be overcome and he later described Marinetti as “a corpse”. Pound believed that Futurism merely occupied the surface, like paint spread across a canvas, whilst his own interpretation of art was that it should be far more intensive and engaging. He also detested Futurism’s rejection of the past:
The futurists are evidently ignorant of tradition. They have learned from their grandfathers that such and such things were done in 1850 and they conclude that 1850 was all “the past.” We do not desire to cut ourselves off from the past. We do not desire to cut ourselves off from any great art of any period, we only demand a recognition of contemporary great art, which cannot possibly be just like the great art of any other period.
Futurists sought to embrace the entire artistic spectrum and believed that the principles contained in their Manifesto could be applied to all levels of human activity. On 11th May, 1912, Marinetti issued the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, in which he proposed that the prevailing ‘I’ in literature – something he regarded as a psychological component – be destroyed and replaced by an intuitive psychology of matter. In other words, Marinetti believed in a form of wireless imagination, or liberation of words:
Futurist poets! I have taught you to hate libraries and museums, to prepare you to hate intelligence, reawakening in you divine intuitions, characteristic gift of the Latin races. Through intuition we will conquer the seemingly unconquerable hostility that separates human flesh from the metal of motors.
But the painters were the first group of artists to embrace Futurism and some of the main personalities who followed Marinetti’s lead included Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Carlo Carra (1881-1966) and Luigi Russolo (1883-1947). Together the three of them published their own Manifesto of the Futurist Painters and, before long, their ranks were swelled by Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) and Gino Severini (1883-1966) and the Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto was issued on 11th April, 1910. The Futurist ethos was based on forms of visual movement, vibration, multiplication and dynamism. Instead of using their art to portray things as they really were, the five men attempted to capture their own experiences on canvas. In reality, however, only Balla managed to successfully convey the real aesthetics of the visual movement and this he expressed this through works such as Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, Rhythm of a Violinist and Girl Running on a Balcony, all produced in 1912.
Many of these Italian painters visited Paris in order to learn from the Cubists and there is little doubt that they were influenced to a tremendous extent by Braque and various others. In February 1912 the Futurists exhibited their work at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, producing a catalogue in which they attempted to deny or downplay the fact that they had been influenced by their Cubist counterparts. The latter were even said to
worship the traditionalism of Poussin, of Ingres, of Corot, ageing and petrifying their their art with an obstinate attachment to the past […] Our object is to determine completely new laws which may deliver painting from the wavering uncertainty in which it lingers […] we have proclaimed ourselves to be the primitives of a completely renovated sensibility.
Inevitably, of course, and with Futurism following hot on the heels of Cubism, a meeting between the respective artists was inevitable. Guillaume Apollinaire, a Cubist writer, made the acquaintance of both Severini and Boccioni in 1911, recording his encounter in the pages of the Mercure de France. Apollinaire assumed that Futurist painting was based on the expression of feelings and states of mind, as well as a rejection of natural forms. He finally concluded that Futurist art ‘would seem to be above all sentimental and rather puerile.'
Apollinaire had been very hostile towards the Futurist exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, although he later defended Marinetti and Boccioni from their critics before going on to publish his own Futurist manifesto, L’Anti-tradition futuriste. But this did not bring an end to the icy relationship that continued to endure between the Cubists and the Futurists, not least as a result of the fact that the Cubists regarded their Futurist counterparts as a collection of plagiarists and imitators. This was a gross exaggeration, of course, despite the fact that Cubism had certainly had an influence on the Futurists. But there were areas in which the two artistic genres tended to merge, particularly when Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) – a Cubist painter – produced two Futurist works titled Sad Young Man on a Train and Nude Descending a Staircase. But Duchamp was also involved in Dadaist and Surrealist circles, too, so he tended to operate in several different fields.
Other Futurist exhibitions soon followed and in 1912 the collection was shown in London, Berlin, Brussels, the Hague, Amsterdam and Munich. By this time, Marinetti had already been staging Futurist evenings throughout Italy, many of which had descended into violence. Futurism had demonstrated that
Modernism, in Art, was extremism. Russolo’s art of noises, Marinetti’s typographical poems, his ‘words-in-freedom’, freely scattered across the page, Carra’s collages of newspaper cuttings that were at once incomprehensible abstract pictures and outrageous ‘free-word’ poems, Baccioni’s sculpture built of scraps of junk – these set a precedent.
But despite its inflammatory rhetoric and cultural anarchism, Futurism – both as a force of its time and a potential springboard for the rest of the twentieth century – was stopped in its tracks by the arrival of the First World War in 1914. Over the next few years, Ezra Pound became increasingly scornful towards the Cubist and Futurist tendencies which had, in part, influenced his own developing brand of literary Vorticism. Indeed, as Andrew Wilson has remarked, in association with various others, Pound
succeeded in constructing a hard and coherent modernist vision that was quite distinct from the verdant and comforting bohemianism of the Bloomsbury painters, from the ‘nature-morticism’ of the Cubists and the ‘automobilist’ empty machine-fetishism of the Italian Futurists
However, Pound will undoubtedly have recognised that Futurism had been extremely effective when it came to utilising various forms of controversial propaganda and having both the ability and the wherewithal to grab the headlines.
Meanwhile, turning the clock back a few years, Ezra Pound had arrived in London from Italy in September 1908. Three months earlier he had published a book of poems called A Lume Spento (With Tapers Quenched), which is a relatively elegant and straightforward collection of poetry when compared to the infinitely more complex verses that he went on to produce later in his career. The London art scene was a mystery to him, in many respects, although it seems fair to say that
Fashionable European movements – Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism – were appreciated if not entirely understood, and London was still a centre of literary activity.
The following year, in 1909, Pound first made the acquaintance of Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) at the Vienna Café in New Oxford Street. Initially, the latter considered his new American friend to be a rather nervous and self-conscious individual, but together these two literary and artistic giants were to become leading lights in the burgeoning Vorticist movement.
In 1910 – as Lewis attended a meeting at which Marinetti delivered a speech to the Lyceum Club for Women – Pound set off for a tour of France, Italy and the United States, where he impressed the lawyer and patron John Quinn (1870-1924) with his emerging ideas about language, poetry and the arts. By February 1911 Pound had returned to England but soon left for the Continent with the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). Towards the end of that year, Pound was producing a series of uncompromising articles and one of these, which appeared in the pages of the New Age – a Socialist journal edited by the Yorkshire intellectual, A.R. Orage (1873-1934) – provided readers with an insight into his future direction:
As to twentieth century poetry, and the poetry I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppy-cock; it will be harder and saner […] At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.
Pound was becoming more and more outspoken. When 1912 arrived he joined forces with two friends: the future English war poet Richard Aldington (1892-1962) and the American poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961). Aldington described Pound as
a small but persistent volcano in the dim levels of London literary society. London was interested and amused by him. The newspapers interviewed him at length and published his portrait.
Doolittle, or ‘H.D’ as she became known, was Pound’s former fiancée and had shown him a selection of her poetry when the three of them were visiting a small Soho restaurant called the Eiffel Tower and the American was suitably enamoured with her style and compared it to his own. What impressed Pound most about Doolittle’s poetry was the tight structure, free verse and the similarities with a Japanese poetic form known as Haiku. Indeed, Haiku itself was renowned for its ability to juxtapose two images or ideas by separating them with a type of verbal punctuation. Discussing Haiku in the pages of The Criterion many years later, Pound explained that the
hokku is the Jap’s test. If le style c’est l’homme, the writer’s blood test is his swift contraposition of objects. Most hokkus are bilateral.
He was, in fact, referring to the following lines, which were written by a Japanese naval officer:
The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:
(are like) plum blossoms.
Pound meant that whilst most hokku poetry appears to involve the use of two visual images, they are placed in such a deliberate fashion that both space and colour are utilised to the utmost. The third element, he argued, in relation to the lines shown above, concerns the way there is a progression from the plum to the ‘shadow’ of the footsteps. Pound also explained that he had once written a thirty-line Haiku poem and destroyed it because he believed that it only possessed a very secondary form of intensity. Six months later he constructed a Haiku poem that was fifteen lines in length and then, one year later, had reduced everything to just one sentence:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.
Doolittle also used another Japanese form known as Tanka, which combines verse and prose. Pound continued to retain his penchant for Japanese poetry and was even in touch with the so-called VOU group up until the late-1930s. The term VOU, like Dada, had no real meaning but was a collection of radical Japanese poets led by Katue Kitasono (1902-1978).
By the summer of 1912 Pound, Doolittle and Aldington had formed the short-lived Imagist movement, a current of Anglo-American poetry that relied on a clear linguistic outline that allowed for the manifestation of image. Not in a limited symbolic sense, but as something that went beyond formulated language. In October 1912 Pound persuaded Harriet Monroe (1860-1936) to allow Doolittle and Aldington to submit three poems each to the November 1912 and January 1913 issues of her Poetry magazine and all six had a distinctly Imagist flavour. The three core tenets of the Imagist group were as follows:
1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective.
2. to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Pound later sought to elaborate upon the group’s vision by explaining that image is created by an emotional force:
Intense emotion causes pattern to arise in the mind – if the mind is strong enough. Perhaps I should say, not pattern, but pattern-units, or units of design. (I do not say that intense emotion is the sole possible cause of such units . I say simply that they can result from it. They may also result from other sorts of energy.)
As far as Pound was concerned, an image can assume two forms. Firstly, as a subjective phenomenon that appears in the mind and which can be changed by external factors that alter the original image itself and, secondly, an objective image that is retained or kept intact within the vortex of the mind so that it emerges in its original form. Pound was talking about a form of creativity which ‘is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary applications.'
Emotion, he believed, had an ability to organise form. Not simply in terms of colour and appearance, but also in an audible sense. Poetry, then, is effectively set to music and does not – as the group’s reference to the ‘metronome’ suggests – follow a repetitive or established style. Energy that can be expressed through pure sound, therefore, as opposed to ordinary speech, gives poetry a distinct musical quality of its own. This exercise, which was later part of the Vorticist world-view, allowed the poet to be creative and thus avoid following the dictates of existing ‘units of form’ devised by others. Ironically, however, Pound still believed in an absolute rhythm that could lead to the expression of emotion through a kind of toneless phrase. But Pound makes a distinction between the ‘symbolism’ of permanent metaphor and Imagism’s metronomic use of allegory:
One can be grossly “symbolic”, for example, by using the term “cross” to mean “trial”. The symbolist’s symbols have a fixed value, like numbers in arithmetic, like 1, 2 and 7. The imagiste’s images have a variable significance, like the signs a, b and x in algebra.
According to Hugh Witemeyer, on the other hand, Pound’s attitude towards poetry was, in part, inspired by Yeats and Joyce, suggesting that
his emphasis upon the numinous significance of the image is indebted to Yeatsian symbology – in other words, to a neo-Platonic belief in the transcendental origin and visionary resonance of some of the eidolons which present themselves to the poet’s waking or dreaming mind. The image likewise has affinities with James Joyce’s concept of the secular epiphany; both are pattern-disclosing revelations which manifest themselves in the course of everyday life, hallowing the quotidian and bestowing an aura of sacredness upon the profane.
In April 1912 – as the Titanic plunged towards the depths of the Atlantic Ocean – the American had published his Ripostes of Ezra Pound, a collection of twenty-five poems that included an interpretation of the old English poem, The Seafarer. Needless to say, Pound’s controversial opinions about poetry alienated some of his supporters and from that moment on he was regularly attacked by a growing army of critics who failed to appreciate his honesty and determination to make poetry a more disciplined and prosaic art-form.
In 1913 Pound first met Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), a French-Polish sculptor who was inspired by the Indian and Assyrian sculpture of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). Gaudier-Brzeska began using the Japanese Netsuke style and soon realised that Ezra Pound shared his interest in Japanese poetry. Gaudier-Brzeska, who, like Pound, later became a Vorticist, tried to recreate this poetry in his work. This was achieved by studying an ideogram, or pictorial symbol, and then attempting to bring the image to life by applying it to his sculpture.
Writing in the February 1914 edition of The Egoist, Pound
announced that ‘primitivists’ such as Jacob Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska had rejected the ‘folly’ of democratic institutions to affirm their individual freedom from societal constraints.
Pound, like Guadier-Brzeska himself, was influenced by the anarchistic individualism of Max Stirner (1806-1856) and, after a series of lively discussions, it seems that Pound was gradually warming towards Anarchism in general. Also in 1914, Gaudier-Brzeska produced his Hieractic Head of Ezra Pound, a four-foot sculpture that combined a bust of Pound himself with an erect penis. This unexpected display of phallic imagery – representing mental and sexual virility – could only be viewed from the rear of the figure and was designed to infer that spirit cannot be separated from flesh. Again, this is influenced by the anarcho-individualism of Max Stirner and his dictum that ‘I alone am corporeal'.
The link with Vorticism relates to the fact that Gaudier-Brzeska was renowned for deliberately rejecting the smooth marble effect of the Greek sculptors and, instead, leaving rough chisel marks on his stone carvings in order to retain the earthiness and authenticity of the natural materials used. This approach accorded with Pound’s view that art should never be based on likeness or mimicry.
Many believe that Pound’s close friendship with the sculptor – and particularly in light of the latter’s untimely death on the battlefield in 1915 – gradually shaped the American’s fierce opposition towards Western democracy, liberalism and Jewish high finance.
In 1914 Pound’s anthology, Des Imagistes, was published in both England and America and the work featured material by Aldington, Doolittle, James Joyce (1882-1941), Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939), Amy Lowell (1874-1925), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), Allen Upward (1863-1926), Skipwith Cannell (1887-1957), F.S. Flint (1885-1960) and John Cournos (1881-1966). It has been said that Pound repeatedly employed the words ‘Imagistes’ and ‘Imagisme’ in order to recreate the kind of evocative Parisian atmosphere that was more commonly associated with Cubism. One of the key aspects that the Imagists did share with the Cubists, on the other hand, was a tendency to employ juxtaposition in order to isolate an image and reveal its true character.
However, the Imagists themselves always remained a very small and exclusive group and, unlike the Cubists, did not really manage to exert any considerable impact upon the artistic milieu in general. This seems particularly unfortunate when one considers that Modernism in general, as a new cultural and artistic force to be reckoned with, was attracting a great deal of attention at the same time and, beneath the auspices of “Post-Impressionism”, a famous 1910 show in London exhibited works by Picasso and Matisse. Amy Lowell, meanwhile, who arrived in London in 1914 behind the wheel of her flashy Pierce-Arrow motor car with the intention of joining the Imagists, was shocked to discover that it had already been superseded and that it was now going under the name of Vorticism. Lowell, undeterred, nevertheless staged a celebratory dinner party to mark the appearance of one of her poems in the pages of Des Imagistes. But things did not turn out quite as she had planned:
The dinner was a disaster, Pound satirizing Lowell’s determined efforts to get to the secret of the Imagist doctrine by disappearing into the kitchen when she asked the question and returning with a large galvanized tub, challenging her to display her own whiteness by bathing, an allusion to the final line in her poem, “In A Garden” from Des Imagistes: ‘Night and the water, and you in your whiteness, bathing'.
Pound never rejected Imagism completely, as his later work, Lustra (1916), demonstrates and the volume contains strong elements of traditional satire. But 1914, which represented the climax of the brief Imagist period, was also the year when Vorticism first became an independent artistic and literary phenomenon in its own right. Wyndham Lewis, who, apart from Pound himself, was poised to become the main driving force behind the Vorticist movement, had previously been involved with the Omega Workshops. The company had initially been formed by members of the Bloomsbury Group (or Bloomsbury Set), an association of intellectuals, artists and philosophers who held regular meetings in the heart of London. Among its more prominent members were famous characters such as Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), E.M. Forster (1879-1970) and Lytton Strachey (1880-1932). The group’s liberal, pacifist, feminist and homosexual proclivities certainly failed to strike a chord with men like Pound and Lewis, but any vague notion that the Vorticists had a semi-political agenda which was designed to counteract that of the Bloomsbury Group only became apparent later on during a conversation Lewis had with the Prime Minister of the day, Herbert Asquith (1852-1928):
He smelled politics beneath this revolutionary artistic technique […] That it should be suspected that an infernal machine was hidden in the midst of the light-hearted mockery of my propaganda was to me fantastic. I was cross-questioned at length about my principles. I remember especially that he asked me ‘whether I was in touch with people with similar views in other countries’. Yes, I admitted, I had corresponded with continental painters, critics and men of letters. […] It obviously gave him food for thought. Here was a movement making itself beneath the harmless trappings of the fine arts, and camouflaged as a fashionable stunt of the studios, but with wide ramifications in all countries, and with unavowed political objectives.
When, in 1913, Lewis had first joined the Omega Workshops – based in Fitzroy Square – it was a studio that intended to transform the spirit and philosophy of the Bloomsbury Group into a practical and creative reality. The company had been established by Roger Fry (1866-1934), a critic and former curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art who was firmly of the opinion that the perceived incompatibility between the decorative and fine arts could finally be reconciled. Fry and his co-directors, Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), set out to design innovative furniture and textiles, whilst the overall artistic vision was Post-Impressionist with a dash of Cubism thrown in for good measure. Lewis contributed to the project by decorating the dining room of Lady Kathleen, Countess of Drogheda, at her mansion in London’s Belgravia. But Fry and Lewis eventually fell out after the former was discovered to have misappropriated a commission to design a room for the Daily Mail’s ‘Ideal Home Exhibition’ in Autumn 1913. The event organisers had originally asked to use his nine-foot Karmesse painting, which Lewis had produced just the previous year, but Fry had deliberately arranged for the Omega decorations to be prepared by himself and his closest associates and Lewis was never informed. But Lewis was also opposed to Fry’s socio-political views and, after sending out a condemnatory letter about Fry to his friends and supporters, resigned alongside other disgruntled elements such as Frederick Etchells (1886-1973) and Cuthbert Hamilton (1885-1959).
Lewis – who, along with his lover and patron, Kate Lechmere – then established the Rebel Art Centre at 38 Great Ormand Street and the project became a direct rival of the Omega Workshops. Apart from founding members like Etchells, Hamilton and Wadsworth, artists such as Helen Saunders (1885-1963), Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939), Lawrence Atkinson (1873-1931), William Roberts (1895-1980) and the photographer Malcolm Arbuthnot (1877-1967) joined the project shortly afterwards. According to Lewis, the Rebel Art Centre set out
by public discussion, lectures and gatherings of people, [to] familiarise those who are interested with the ideas of the great modern revolution.
On 7th June, 1914, the Observer newspaper, as well as the Times and Daily Mail shortly afterwards, published the Vital English Art: Futurist Manifesto, which had been written by Marinetti and Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946). The contact address was that of the Rebel Art Centre although, on 13th June, a riposte was issued by Lewis. This appeared as an advertisement in The Spectator magazine, announcing
The Manifesto of the Vorticists. The English parallel movement to Cubism and Expressionism. Imagism in poetry. Death blow to Impressionism and Futurism and all the refuse of naif science.
This was the first occasion that the term ‘Vorticist’ had appeared in print, although Pound – after stumbling across a copy of Allen Upward’s The New World and a scientific explanation relating to the manner in which organic life on earth follows the vortical motion of the planets – had made reference to “The Vortex” in a private letter the previous year. Furthermore, Lewis had used a vortex motif in his Timon and Creation drawings of 1912 and Pound had used a similar term in Plotinus, one of the poems he had included as part of his 1908 A Lume Spento collection:
As one that would draw through the node of things,
Back-sweeping to the vortex of the cone.
. . .
I was an atom on creation’s throne…
This, despite the fact that the term ‘vortex’ is more commonly associated with the formation of the four elements in the Pre-Socratic philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. Pound also believed that
At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.
In a letter to his patron, John Quinn, Pound explained that the concept bore a vital energy that the Imagists had earlier lacked and that it was
not merely knowledge of technique, or skill, it is intelligence and knowledge of life, of the whole of it, beauty, heaven, hell, sarcasm, every kind of whirlwind of force and emotion. Vortex. That is the right word, if I did find it myself.
Nevertheless, the Vorticist Manifesto’s open attack on Futurism in the pages of The Spectator was an attempt to overshadow the achievements of Marinetti and Vorticism itself and it
stood for a coherent set of stylistic and critical principles, expressed through the medium of mechanical reproduction.
Meanwhile, scheduled for publication on 20th June, the first issue of Blast magazine – printed by a small firm in Harlesden called Leveridge and Company – eventually appeared on 2nd July, 1914, just four days after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and became the tragically inadvertent catalyst for the First World War that erupted the following month. Lewis – who took on the role of editor – arranged for the début edition to appear in the traditional folio style with the front cover in bright pink, something Pound described as the ‘great MAGENTA cover’d opusculus'.
The cover may have been inspired by the vaguely similar design that Ardengo Soffici (1879-1964), later a high-ranking member of the Italian fascist party, had submitted to the Lacerba group’s Manifesti del Futurismo earlier the same year.
Blast, which was paid for with a £100 loan from Kate Lechmere and originally priced at 2/6, is still highly prized as a seminal text of the emerging Modernist genre and as a literary magazine with a distinctly English flavour it was designed to showcase some of the latest works from the leading Cubists, Futurists and Imagists of the day, with Pound happily providing the accompanying poetry. The bitterness and pessimism that characterises the first of these poems, entitled “Salutation the Third”, seems rather surprising when you consider that Pound himself was only twenty-nine years old. The following sentiments already demonstrate that Pound had a bone to pick with the controlled media:
Let us deride the smugness of “The Times”:
So much the gagged reviewers,
It will pay them when the worms are wriggling in their vitals;
These were they who objected to newness,
HERE are their TOMB-STONES.
He also understood the despicable motives of those who had sold their journalistic souls to the devils behind the scenes:
Come, let us on with the new deal,
Let us be done with Jews and Jobbery,
Let us spit upon those who fawn on the Jews for their money,
Let us out to the pastures.
These were the same vested interests, of course, who later ensured that Pound was locked up in a mental hospital and the following lines contain a tragic irony:
Perhaps I will die at thirty,
Perhaps you will have the pleasure of defiling my pauper’s grave,
I wish you JOY, I proffer you ALL my assistance.
It has been your HABIT for long to do away with true poets,
You either drive them mad, or else you blink at their suicides,
Or else you condone their drugs, and talk of insanity and genius,
BUT I will not go mad to please you.
His other poetic submissions discuss human nature (“Meditatio”), dogmatism (“Come My Cantilations”), female materialism (“Women Before a Shop”), art (“L’Art”), Chinese misadventures (“Epitaphs”) and, more bizarrely, the face of G.K. Chesterton (“The New Cake of Soap”). Pound’s final poem, “Pastoral”, is an amusing tale of a man who studies the beautiful hands of a woman but makes it absolutely clear that he does not want things to go any further:
The bareness of her delicate
Hands and fingers does not
In the least embarrass me,
BUT God forbid that I should gain further acquaintance,
For her laughter frightens even the street hawker
And the alley cat dies of a migraine.
One poem, “Fratres Minores”, appeared with the first two lines and the final section completely blacked out. This was the result of a continuing furore over the poem’s choice use of language, including a controversial reference to testicles.
Aside from Lewis, the other contributors included artists such as Gaudier-Brzeska, Epstein, Spencer Gore (1878-1914) and Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949), and the feminist writer Rebecca West (1892-1983). Ford Madox Hueffer (aka Ford Madox Ford), this time using his real name, also donated a short extract from one of his forthcoming novels. The piece seemed rather out of place among the more incendiary contents of Blast, however, and
Ford’s experience with the Vorticists seems to be summed up by the occasion when, while he was lecturing in a frock coat at the Rebel Art Centre, Lewis’s abstract canvas Plan of War toppled onto Ford’s head and momentarily perched there, harmlessly but ridiculously.
But overall, the diverse intellectual and artistic spirit that led to the arrival of Vorticism and the appearance of Blast magazine
cast the movement’s participants in different and confusing configurations. This ‘confluence of energy’ as Ezra Pound, the group’s literary promoter, metaphorically described the process, crystallized as the Vortex, the visual and literary image representing a still, focal point of intellectual force.
The opening forty-three pages of Blast magazine – crudely emblazoned with stark capital letters of varying sizes – contained three Vorticist manifestos, which were co-written by Lewis and Pound. The first of these, “Long Live the Vortex”, was written by Pound alone and immediately set out to explain that the Vorticists were not out to subject people to their own artistic world-view or to remove their individuality:
We want to leave Nature and Men alone.
We do not want to make people wear Futurist patches, or fuss men to take to pink and sky-blue trousers.
We are not their wives and tailors.
The only way humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously.
But Pound did state very clearly that he wanted Blast magazine to function as the first port of call for any member of the public who wished to learn more about art in general. But he did make a distinction between the liberal and socialist efforts to make art more readily accessible to the working classes and the view of the Vorticists that
Popular art does not mean the art of the poor people, as it is usually supposed to. It means the art of the individuals.
The artist, therefore, must remain above the crowd and Pound was hinting at a more elitist approach to art. Not the self-appointed elitism of the prevailing artistic establishment, of course, but one encouraging individual creativity and freedom of expression. The sentiments were, naturally, very anti-bourgeois in their attitude to those at the cultural helm and Pound revealed his desire to:
make the rich of the community shed their education skin, to destroy politeness, standardization and academic, that is civilized, vision, is the task we have set ourselves.
But to a certain extent Pound’s neo-Futurist tendencies – although he would have strongly denied the fact – still remained, as he took a calculated swipe at the likes of William Morris (1834-1896), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late-Victorian period:
We want to make England not a popular art, not a revival of lost folk art, or a romantic fostering of such unactual conditions, but to make individuals, wherever found.
The Vorticists were determined to reject all forms of sentimentality and romanticism, favouring an uncompromising combination of sheer energy and power. They may have criticised the Futurists, but the Vorticist ideal was also based on a glorification of the mechanical. On the other hand, their Italian counterparts also came in for a well-deserved dose of Poundian venom:
AUTOMOBILISM (Marinettism) bores us. We don’t want to go about making a hullo-bulloo about motor cars, anymore than about knives and forks, elephants or gas-pipes.
Pound’s short statement was followed by the inappropriately-named “Manifesto – I”, which, given that it is actually considered to be the second manifesto in the magazine, can make things rather confusing. But it was less an actual declaration of intent than a list of statements and ideas. It began by outlining ten key points:
1. Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves.
2. We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.
3. We discharge ourselves on both sides.
4. We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours.
5. Mercenaries were always the best troops.
6. We are primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World.
7. Our Cause is NO-MAN’S.
8. We set Humour at Humour’s throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.
9. We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy.
10. We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.
The remainder of “Manifesto – I” was arranged beneath two headings, “Blast” and “Bless”. Those topics which are blasted include the English weather, sport and humour, the Victorian period 1837 to 1900, the Post Office, the Bishop of London and Edward Elgar. Subjects which are blessed include hairdressers, Shakespeare, Swift, Joyce, boxers, the British grin, English shipping and seafarers. But whilst this may seem rather vague and confusing, Karin Orchard explains that
if one looks closely at the two lists, the general orientation of the Vorticists becomes clear. England is damned for its mild climate, which produces only weaklings and waverers. Nordic blizzards build character. This desire for a bracing climate is of course easily transformed into cultural terms, and serves as a metaphor for the cultural situation of the island. England is praised for its harbours, ships and seamen, which maintain connections with other countries and so guarantee a certain internationalism. The ocean is seen as a ‘vast planetary abstraction’. The mechanisms and equipment of the harbours, especially the technically advanced apparatus, serve to distinguish Britain from other countries.
Similarly, whilst humour is condemned as a “Quack English drug for stupidity and sleepiness”, it is praised for its ability to lampoon foreigners. This dualistic theme continues throughout the second Blast manifesto.
The third manifesto, on the other hand, entitled “Manifesto – II”, is rather different and adopts a more serious and measured tone. The tendency of the Vorticist leaders to celebrate the global supremacy of the British Empire is demonstrated by the following extract:
The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius, – its appearance and its spirit.
Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else.
In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art.
However, prior to the First World War many people in Great Britain were concerned that the country was beginning to lose ground to its German and American rivals and this may have resulted in the decision by Pound and Lewis to re-state the perceived achievements of imperial supremacy. Coupled with the decline of British power, of course, the country had seen a rise in the number of protest movements that seemed determined to resolve those issues pertaining to economic unrest, female liberation and the Irish question. But the Vorticists were also keen to present themselves as the quintessentially English wing of a wider avant-garde, even though Pound himself was an American, Lewis had been born in Canada to an American father and Scots-Irish mother and several other Blast contributors were either French, German, Jewish or had little or no British ancestry at all. “Manifesto – II” was signed by no less than eleven Vorticist artists and writers: Pound, Lewis, Roberts, Wadsworth, Gaudier-Brzeska, Dismorr, Hamilton, Aldington, Saunders, Arbuthnot and Atkinson.
The first issue of Blast also included a short Nietzschean psychodrama (“Enemy of the Stars”) and several other vortices and notes by Lewis, Wadsworth’s translation of Wassily Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art”, West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony”, a tribute to Spencer Gore – who had died immediately prior to the magazine’s publication – several poems by Pound, and two articles concerning the meaning of the Vortex written by both Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska. In 1934, however, Pound was forced to admit that
Even in this vicinage I don’t know that we understood Gaudier’s “Vortex”. I mean we, a few of us, saw that it was a damn fine piece of writing, tremendously condensed. But if he had then heard of Frobenius, he was the only man in London who had, and, as nearly as I remember, he had forgotten the names of the authors of whatever he had read about art’s archaeology.
Pound also quoted a poem by Hilda Doolittle, which he believed to be a perfect example of Vorticist poetry:
Whirl up, sea –
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks…
What impressed Pound most of all about Doolittle’s style, was that instead of simply describing waves as pine trees or portraying a sea-lashed coastline in the most literal and basic terms, her images were juxtaposed with one another and she completely disregards all forms of poetic mimicry.
Although the work of David Blomberg (1890-1957) had been featured alongside that of the Camden Town Group and London Group in 1913 and 1914 respectively, Blomberg himself tended to keep his distance from the other Vorticist artists and the first truly Vorticist exhibition took place at the Doré Galleries at 35 New Bond Street on 10th June, 1915, and featured work by Etchells, Dismorr, Gaudier-Brzeska, Wadsworth, Roberts, Saunders and Lewis. An example of the immense admiration that Pound had for Lewis became apparent shortly afterwards, when he suggested in a letter to John Quinn that the exhibition should have featured
40 things by Lewis and 30 by all the other contributors. Most of whom have simply built on one or another corner of his work, and done things “which he hadn’t happened to do.”
The second issue of Blast had been scheduled for October, 1914, but was eventually postponed until July, 1915, due to the outbreak of the First World War two months earlier. This time the magazine was billed as a “war number” and the cover featured a woodcut (Before Antwerp) by Lewis which depicted three robotic-looking soldiers together with their equally angular rifles. Once again, the “Blast” and “Bless” sections were included in the contents, but they were confined to just two pages and the surreal capitalisation that had so characterised the first issue had now been transformed into a more standardised textual format. Meanwhile, Henri Guadier-Brzeska’s “Vortex Gaudier-Brzeska” – which had been written on the front line at the very heart of the European inferno – was followed by an obituary of his death. He had been killed near Neuville-Saint-Vaast on 5th June, but his words epitomise the artistic character that he had always managed to retain in the face of such adversity:
I have made an experiment. Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a mauser rifle. Its heavy unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful IMAGE of brutality.
I was in doubt for a long time whether it pleased or displeased me.
I found that I did not like it.
I broke the butt off and with my knife I carved in it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred.
The sensitive nature of the Frenchman was always very much at odds with that of the other Vorticists and Ezra Pound later produced a fine tribute to his dear friend, which was first published in 1916. As Timothy Materer notes:
Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir is in part responsible for the distracting question of whether Gaudier was actually a Vorticist. Pound’s claims for Gaudier’s Vorticism were so aggressive that his book at first did as much harm as good for the understanding of Gaudier’s art.
However, few people would have understood the workings of Gaudier-Brzeska’s mind better than Ezra Pound and after his death Pound became executor of his works.
T.S. Eliot also had several poems published in the second issue of Blast and one of them, “The Game of Chess”, was typically Vorticist in style:
Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens,
Striking the board, falling in strong ‘L’s of colour
Reaching and striking in angles
holding lines in one colour.
There were also various artistic contributions from the Ukrainian painter, Jacob Kramer (1892-1962), as well as Nevinson, Dismorr and Saunders. Other illustrations came from Pound’s future wife, Dorothy Shakespear (1886-1973).
Unfortunately for the Vorticists, however, the interruption of the First World War had redirected the artistic energy of many young artists and Blast never made it to a third issue. The cultural revolution had been somewhat overshadowed by the rival capitalist aspirations of Britain and Germany, although, perhaps ironically, Wadsworth’s “dazzle” camouflage – a clever blend of flamboyant Vorticism and basic militaristic necessity – found itself emblazoned upon the sides of British warships and apparently rendered them invisible to enemy submarines. Given the fascistic sympathies of men like Pound and Lewis that emerged several years later, the Jewish intellectual, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), wrote that
The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing, war.
But whilst the war – which had been inspired by imperialist greed and certainly not by Vorticist aesthetics – had killed off many of the country’s young artists, it failed to defeat Modernism altogether and this was helped by John Quinn’s successful attempts – as a result of Pound’s influence – to unveil a selection of work by Lewis and others at the 1917 Penguin Club Exhibition in New York:
Pound’s efforts – not only as Lewis’s advocate, but also as unofficial curator and agent for all the Vorticists – were prodigious. He chose many of the works to be exhibited in New York and itemized his choices in a letter to Quinn shortly after the London show closed. […] Pound corresponded with Quinn almost daily in early 1916, sending cables, receiving payments, transferring them to the artists, obtaining signed receipts, and mailing them back to Quinn.
Pound – who, as an American citizen, was exempted from military service in Britain – had even collected the material from the artists themselves, organised the packing of their work into crates and dealt with the shipping company. To suggest that Pound was the driving force behind Vorticism, therefore, would be an understatement. Vivien Greene says of the relationship between Pound and Quinn, that it was ‘an alliance that provided indispensable support to the Vorticist movement during its short life.'
Even if he had been made aware of it, Pound’s innate determination and enthusiasm would have increased tenfold as a result of a negative comment made by T.S. Eliot in August, 1916:
The Vorticists are non-existent.
On the other hand, despite the success of the Penguin Club Exhibition the war had meant that art in Europe had come to a virtual standstill and the Vorticist movement was already in its death-throes. Those artists who had survived the upheavals of the Great War – apart from Atkinson and Hamilton – now poured their efforts into producing lurid images of battle and scenes of chaos and destruction in a more traditional and representational style. In February 1919, Lewis also had his work featured at the Goupil Gallery in Dover Street. According to Pound, who discussed the exhibition in The New Age on 20th February, 1919, the work included
fragmentary drawings like the detail of mechanisms of the camouflaged gun, a mere study; there are intermediary states, and there are fully finished works like the drawings of gun-pits; works which can be submitted to all the criteria.
Wadsworth, meanwhile, held his own exhibition at the Adelphi Gallery the following month.
Elsewhere, in March 1919, less than four months after the war had finally lumbered to an end, Pound discussed the state of his waning artistic current in the pages of The Little Review. The publication was disseminated by Pound, Lewis and T.S. Eliot and, in a piece entitled “The Death of Vorticism”, Pound wrote sarcastically that
vorticism has been reported dead by numerous half-caste reporters of Kieff, by numerous old ladies, by numberous parasites who having done their best to prevent the emergence of inventions later find it profitable to make copy out of the same, etc., etc.
Pound was understandably aggrieved that, quite predictably, the opportunistic vultures had begun to circle and that others had attempted to appropriate the Vorticist style for themselves. But he was also eager to point out that Vorticism had managed not merely to exert an impact on the art that had preceded the war years, but also on the latest artistic contributions that had only just started to appear:
I shall not go into detail of the vorticist improvement of the earlier impressionist systems; suffice it that in dealing with actual modernity the new art has proved its contentions, and that where actual knowledge of how the human eye is affected by colours and patterns in relation, where there is some standard of judgement other than that of half educated dilettanti, vorticist hard-headedness has made good.
Pound also made reference to the fact that Lewis and Roberts – both leading Vorticists – were now, perhaps ironically, producing impressive war art for the Government. But Pound’s optimism about the survival of Vorticism was not greeted with universal acclaim:
The mechanical barbarity of the war far exceeded all the worst fears of the Vorticists. Faced with the reality of the war, in which some of them fought, they saw that the world had changed in a basic way. In 1920 Wyndham Lewis declared Vorticism officially dead.
That same year, the Vorticist swansong had taken place at the Exhibition of Group X in the Mansard Gallery, London, where Frank Dobson (1888-1963), Charles Isaac Ginner (1878-1952), Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), Wadsworth, Hamilton, Etchells, Dismorr, Roberts and Lewis each displayed their wares as a collective group for the very last time.
Whilst Vorticism was a central theme in Pound’s earlier poetry, it inevitably had a big influence on his most famous achievement, The Cantos. This 120-section poem, a huge and unfinished collection of his finest work, was produced between 1915 and 1962. Pound eventually rejected the material that he had composed between 1915 and 1922, but after that it was clear that he had not abandoned the Vorticist style:
Borrowing initially from Browning, who believed that a work must forego narrative continuity to present the fragmented consciousness of the modern mind, Pound also draws from a new interest in the energy of primitivism seen in Nietzsche, Hulme, Sir James Frazer and Picasso, plus Wyndham Lewis and Gaudier-Brzeska. Pound applies these approaches to his own form, cutting from scene to thought and back again without connections, although within an overall epic structure borrowed from Dante. Vorticism’s interest in primitive abstractions and vitality added to Pound’s understanding of the value of geometric art.
Pound, therefore, successfully managed to incorporate the visual qualities of the Vorticist ethos into his poetry. Ira B. Nadel, on the other hand, who once questioned whether there was actually such a thing as a distinctly Poundian aesthetic, arrived at the conclusion that
It begins with the need to know well selected great works of world literature, through knowledge of a limited number of outstanding texts. Next would be a commitment to write concisely and concretely, resisting the idea of poetry as an abstraction, preferring the terms of technical language found in mathematics or physics.
As the politically-correct propagandists of today are so fond of pointing out, the spirit of Vorticism was eventually redirected – at least in the case of Pound and Lewis, its two main protagonists – towards the burgeoning Italian Fascist and German National-Socialist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. According to Timothy Materer:
The Vorticists dreamed of building a new world, but they were forced to squander their energy demolishing the old. Their efforts began diverging when they could not find a positive programme to unite them. Although Eliot, Pound, and Lewis shared a commitment to order and authority, the events of the thirties subjected their political ideas to pressures that no such principle could contain.
Pound briefly sought to revive the flagging English avant-garde by creating a Vorticist renaissance at the beginning of the 1930s, when his article on “Vorticism” was translated into Italian shortly after the publication of A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930):
He wanted to transmit the Vorticist ideals into the terms of the new Italy. Economic concerns and hero worship contributed in equal doses to Pound’s celebration of Mussolini, but the hope of a reinvigorated Vorticism also had a role. What he wanted to test was whether or not Vorticism could effect political change. Earlier, in 1914, the movement had failed to initiate any social or political revolution. Now, in the mid-1930s, Vorticism seemed to colour Pound’s arguments for Fascism…
Around the same time, Wyndham Lewis wrote an important essay in which he claimed that the First World War had effectively stolen the thunder of the Vorticist movement and that
in the heat of this pioneer action we were even inclined to forget the picture altogether in favour of the frame.
Lewis went on to publish two Vorticist novels, The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927), both of which had been written between 1918 and 1926. The first is a critique of liberal democracy and state governance and the second an analysis of his opposition to the way technology undermines individuality. However, Lewis chose not to adopt the Vorticist style when he decided to paint Ezra Pound in 1939, the year in which Britain finally declared war on Hitler’s Germany. The portrait was crafted in oils
with a tight and geometrical style in a vertical format, here Pound’s more romantic persona is reflected in a languidly dreamy pose horizontally organised, perhaps echoing Whistler’s famous portrait of Carlyle, with closed eyes and a loosened tie and open shirt collar. The paint is loosely worked in the body and much of the background, an unexpected effect for the usually geometrical and precise Lewis.
Given that Pound had rapidly fallen asleep at the beginning of the sitting, however, Lewis had little choice but to depict his friend in such a relaxed and passive state. In fact Pound’s inanimate pose perfectly matches that of the folded newspaper, decorative ashtray and various other objects which are shown on a nearby table.
In 1956, meanwhile, Lewis staged a personal exhibition at the Tate Gallery, where he claimed to be the sole representative of Vorticism. Nevertheless, despite its brief popularity the proud legacy of the Vorticist movement still endures to this day and a June 2011 exhibition at the Tate featured many of the original works from that exciting artistic period. But even now, few people are able to comprehend exactly what Ezra Pound meant by his references to the Vortex and, as Donald Davie notes:
Wyndham Lewis, though in one sense the whole vorticist programme had been devised for his benefit, declared that he didn’t understand what ‘vorticism’ meant. Pound understood; and if we don’t, it’s because we haven’t looked where he told us to.
Meanwhile, although published in 1914, Blast magazine – which was faithfully reprinted in 2009 by Ginko Press – may, if circumstances had been different, have exerted a huge impact on English culture and perhaps we long-suffering denizens of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would not have had to put up with the likes of Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst and other pretentious and over-rated characters who have clawed their way towards the summit of the contemporary dung-heap that characterises the liberal-democratic age. But the magazine was still very radical for its time and, as Paul Edwards explains, Blast
released the energies that would shape modernist writings of the 1920s and beyond, as well as providing the visual arts with a model of how to command the cultural arena by shocking and confusing the public. Only its ‘material’ dimension lay unexploited and dormant until it re-emerged in the explosion of Punk Rock in the 1970s.
Despite his love for Modernism, therefore, Ezra Pound would have loathed the arrival of Modern Art and the systematic devaluing of art and culture by self-appointed mediums like the Turner Prize. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the arrival of the Great War, the Vorticists may have unleashed enough positive energy to reverse the pernicious trends being set by the likes of the Bloomsbury Group and other cultural distorters. Vorticism was, in part, a reaction to the effeminacy and homo-eroticism of the Aesthetic movement that had dominated the culture and art of the late-nineteenth century and, as a response to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and other manifestations of sexual ambiguity, Vorticism always promoted an uncomprising masculinity that was expressed in its strong figures, hard lines and rigorous geometric angles.
The Vorticists themselves proved that with enough vision and foresight, a collection of artists, writers and poets can have a significant and dynamic effect on the development of new cultural forms and the direction in which they proceed. If we are to stem the current tide, it is to be hoped that new Vorticists – and rare individuals like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis – can rise again to seize the initiative. Vorticism is not something that has been consigned to the dustbin of history, it always lives on in the hearts and minds of those who encounter it or who go on to contribute to the ever-growing Vorticist repertoire. As Miranda B. Hickman explains:
It is these traces of memory, unexpected generative moments of remembrance, that can help us understand certain otherwise inexplicable moments in the late work of the moderns, moments that seem, given that immediate conditions out of which the artists were working, to emerge from nowhere. They emerge not from nowhere, but instead from elsewhere, from memory, from the sometimes still vivid – in this case still vividly Vorticist – past.
1. Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Pound and the Visual Arts” in Ira B. Nadel (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.226.
2. J.M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism (Thames & Hudson, 1974), p.17.
3. Ibid., p.23.
4. Olivier-Hourcade quoted in Karen L. Klinefelder, The Artist, His Model, Her Image, His Gaze: Picasso’s Pursuit of the Model (University of Chicago Press, 1993), p.19.
5. Olivier-Hourcade quoted in J.M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, op.cit., p.23.
6. Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, quoted in J.M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, op.cit., p.24.
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, III:25 (Dover, 2003), p.111.
8. Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, quoted in J.M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, op.cit., p.27.
9. E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (Phaidon, 2006), p.448.
10. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Founding and First Manifesto of Futurism, Axiom 7.
11. Ezra Pound, “The Turbine” in Harriet Zinnes (Ed.), Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts (New Directions, 1980), p.152.
12. Ezra Pound, “Wyndham Lewis” in Harriet Zinnes (Ed.), Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, op.cit., pp.189-90.
13. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature in J.M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism (Thames & Hudson, 1974), p.34.
14. Quoted in J.M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, op.cit., p.43.
15. Ibid., p.40.
16. Ibid., p.44.
17. Andrew Wilson, “Rebels and Vorticists: ‘Our little Gang’” in Paul Edwards (Ed.), Blast: Vorticism 1914-1918 (Ashgate Publishing, 1980), p.24.
18. Peter Ackroyd, Ezra Pound (Thames & Hudson, 1987), p.18.
19. Ezra Pound, quoted in Peter Ackroyd, Ezra Pound, op.cit., pp.26-7.
20. Richard Aldington, quoted in Peter Ackroyd, Ezra Pound, op.cit., pp.26-7.
21. Ezra Pound, “D’Artagnan Twenty Years After” in The Criterion, July 1937.
22. Ezra Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska (New Directions, 1970), p.89.
24. Ezra Pound, quoted in Harriet Zinnes (Ed.), Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, op.cit., p.201.
25. Ezra Pound, “Affirmations: As for Imagisme” in The New Age, 28th January 1915, quoted in Selected Prose 1909-1965 (New Directions, 1973), p.374.
26. Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New Directions, 1970), p.93.
27. Ezra Pound, “Vorticism” in Harriet Zinnes (Ed.), Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, op.cit., p.201.
28. Hugh Witemeyer, “Early Poetry 1908-1920” in Ira B. Nadel (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.48.
29. Mark Antliffe, “Sculptural Nominalism / Anarchist Vortex: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dora Marsden, and Ezra Pound” in Mark Antliffe & Vivien Greene (Eds.), The Vorticists (Tate Publishing, 2010), pp.47-8.
30. Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own: The Case of the Individual Against Authority (Rebel Press, 1982), p.14.
31. Ira B. Nadel, Ezra Pound: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p.56.
32. Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (Calder & Boyars, 1967), p.51.
33. Walter Michel, Wyndham Lewis: Paintings and Drawings (University of California Press, 1971), pp.70-1.
34. Wyndham Lewis, The Spectator, 13th June, 1914, p.1015.
35. D.D. Paige, The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941 (Faber and Faber, 1951), p.65.
36. Ezra Pound, A Lume Spento and Other Early Poems (New Directions, 1965), p.56.
37. Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, Volume 1 (University of California Press, 1976), p.254.
38. D.D. Paige, The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, op.cit., p.74.
39. Mark Antliffe & Vivien Greene (Eds.), The Vorticists, op.cit., p.68.
40. Antje Pfannkuchen, From Vortex to Vorticism: Ezra Pound’s Art and Science, found online at http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-145475697.html
41. Ezra Pound, “Salutation the Third” in Blast, No.1 (The Bodley Head, 1914), p.45.
44. Ezra Pound, “Pastoral” in Blast, No.1 (The Bodley Head, 1914), p.50.
45. Timothy Materer, Vortex: Pound, Eliot, and Lewis (Cornell University Press, 1979), p.27.
46. Mark Antliffe & Vivien Greene (Eds.), The Vorticists, op.cit., p.68.
47. Ezra Pound, “Long Live the Vortex” in Blast, No.1 (The Bodley Head, 1914), p.7.
52. Ezra Pound & Wyndham Lewis, “Manifesto – I” in Blast, No.1 (The Bodley Head, 1914), pp.30-1.
53. Karin Orchard, “’A Laugh Like a Bomb’: The History and the Ideas of the Vorticists” in Paul Edwards (Ed.), Blast: Vorticism 1914-1918 (Ashgate Publishing, 1980), pp.18-19.
54. Ezra Pound & Wyndham Lewis (Ed.), “Manifesto – II” in Blast, No.1 (June 1914), p.39.
55. Ezra Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, op.cit, p.142.
56. Hilda Doolittle, “Oread” in Collected Poems (Boni & Liveright, 1925), p.81.
57. Ezra Pound to John Quinn in Harriet Zinnes (Ed.), Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, op.cit., p.235.
58. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, “Vortex: Gaudier-Brzeska” in Blast, No.2 (July 1915), p.34.
59. Timothy Materer, Vortex: Pound, Eliot, and Lewis, op.cit., p.64.
60. Ezra Pound, “The Game of Chess” in Blast, No.2 (July 1915).
61. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Hannah Arendt (Ed.), Illuminations (Pimlico 1990), p.234.
62. Vivien Green, “Ezra Pound and John Quinn: The 1917 Penguin Club Exhibition” in Mark Antliffe & Vivien Greene (Eds.), The Vorticists, op.cit., p.78.
63. Ibid., p.81.
64. T.S. Eliot, Letter of 21st August, 1916 in Valerie Eliot (Ed.), The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1 (Faber, 1988), p.144.
65. Ezra Pound, “Wyndham Lewis at the Goupil” in The New Age, 20th February, 1919.
66. Ezra Pound, “The Death of Vorticism” in The Little Review (February/March 1919), p.3.
67. Ibid., p.7.
68. Karin Orchard, “’A Laugh Like a Bomb’: The History and the Ideas of the Vorticists” in Paul Edwards (Ed.), Blast: Vorticism 1914-1918, op.cit., p.23.
69. Ira B. Nadel, Ezra Pound: A Literary Life, op.cit, p.78.
70. Ira B. Nadel (Ed.), The Cambridge Introduction to Ezra Pound (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.87.
71. Timothy Materer, Vortex: Pound, Eliot, and Lewis, op.cit.
72. Ira B. Nadel (Ed.), The Cambridge Introduction to Ezra Pound, op.cit., p.84.
73. Wyndham Lewis, “Plain Home-Builder: Where Is Your Vorticist?” in Walter Michel & C.J. Fox [Eds.], Wyndham Lewis on Art (Funk and Wagnalls, 1969), p.278.
74. Richard Humphreys, Wyndham Lewis (Tate Publishing, 2004), p.67.
75. Donald Davie, Pound (Fontana, 1975), p.45.
76. Paul Edwards, “Foreword” in Wyndham Lewis (Ed.), Blast 1 (Gingko Press, 2009), pp.ix-x.
77. Miranda B. Hickman, The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D. and Yeats (University of Texas Press, 2005), p.253.
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