- 1 Suffragettes Lilian Lenton and Freda Graham and Unionists Edward Carson and James Craig had been “b (...)
1The Vorticist movement appeared in 1914, after a fight between the English avant-garde and the Italian Futurism which Marinetti tried to introduce in London (Hewison 14) (Lemaire 11). Vorticism was an attempt to create a synthesis between Futurism and Cubism, which in turn revealed the interest of the young English artists for the dynamism of the modern world. The name was coined by Ezra Pound (Cork 23) while the vortex was defined by Wyndham Lewis in his painting The Vorticist showing a machine-like human being stuck in a mechanized world. Vorticism appeared just as England entered World War One, and when the country was facing an uneasy transition from an old and stable order to a new one, characterised by movement and change. England was struck by a greater instability because of the war, which gave rise to internal conflicts (Bédarida 237-241): by the end of 1914, the country felt the impact of the different strikes which had been conducted by suffragettes (Novion 317-322), Unionists rejecting Home Rule, and workers. The Vorticists knew those activists and used some of their attributes such as publicity, lectures, manifestoes (Wees 34). They even tried to establish a dialogue with some of them.1
2The political commitment of the Vorticists has been documented and discussed in several essays and monographs such as Georges Lemaire’s Wyndham Lewis et le Vorticisme (1982). For their part, Tom Normand and David Monteau have sought the influence of Georges Sorel—a French theorist of revolutionary unionism—and Charles Maurras—the French leader of the Action française—in Wyndham Lewis’s paintings and writings. In Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde (1972), William C. Wees has explored the social and political context in which the Vorticist movement appeared. Wees emphasizes the violent background of England before the war and draws a parallel between the revolts of the Vorticists and those of the suffragettes and Unionists. He also reveals the interest of the Vorticists for those rebels but he fails to explain how this artistic movement was seen by them. Moreover, Wees only considers the political links between the Vorticists, suffragettes, and Unionists, with the result that the members of the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties are ignored, in spite of their preeminent role in England’s political life. More recently, Jonathan Black’s article in the catalogue of the London 2004 exhibition displayed some interest for the media coverage of Vorticism (Black 2004). Black reveals the image of Futurism and Vorticism in the English press but fails to make any difference between the political and the literary press. Indeed, the political reception of the Vorticist movement has remained largely unexplored.
- 2 Consulting the press albums of Christopher Nevinson (Tate Gallery Archive 7311), Edward Wadsworth ( (...)
3Therefore, this study consists in a discussion of the links between the Vorticists and political militants through an analysis of the British political press. Indeed, the press used to play an important part in the political life of England (Koss 2), and was used by the Vorticists as an efficient medium. The political press which carefully followed the birth and growth of this avant-garde movement in a troubled Britain remains a very interesting source for historians: although its purpose was not to discuss art per se, it reported artistic events and hierarchically presented them on a daily basis.2 It therefore acts as a powerful tool to explore the expectations and reactions of its intended readers. An article on art in a periodical’s political section did not aim at deciphering artworks, but suggested interpretations aimed at its specific audience. Although subjective and mistaken, these interpretations sometimes written by political journalists acting as art critics, provide an opportunity to explore some links between the Vorticists and the political spectrum of their audience, from the arrival of Marinetti in London in 1913 to the enlistment of Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts in 1916 which signalled the end of Vorticism. Two phases in the reception of the Vorticist movement can be observed: after the arrival of Marinetti, the political press wondered about the political commitment of the artists, but the outbreak of the war focused the journalists’ interest to their artworks, this time envisaged in their commitment to war.
- 3 Founded in January 1911, this newspaper became linked to the Labour Party paper thanks to Ben Tille (...)
4After the arrival of Marinetti in London, some journalists wondered if those avant-garde artists were foreign rebels come to destroy the established order in England. This question was fuelled more by the provocative attitude and speeches of those artists than by their paintings and sculptures. Italian Futurism noisily stepped into the artistic scene in London and its violence triggered different reactions from political journalists. Since it somehow matched their sensibility, it seemed to arouse a certain interest among the members of the Labour Party. For instance, in the Daily Herald—the organ of the Labour Party3—Labour used Futurism as an opportunity to display some opposition to the Liberal Party which had been ruling the country since 1906. One of the Daily Herald’s journalists, when evoking the coloured clothes Marinetti wanted English people to wear, couldn’t help commenting: “It will certainly be a more lively world than the Liberal Cabinet gives us” (G. R. S. T. 12).
5Another article from the Daily Herald reveals that the members of the Labour Party expected art to express the modern life they were experiencing: “[Marinetti] says, if we understand him alright, that it is time we had a new Art form which will express adequately the new mental life which has been born: motor-cars, aeroplanes, wireless telegraphy, and newspapers. It is a very logical deduction” (Daily Herald 8). Futurist art seemed to fulfil some of Labour’s expectations when representing a mechanized society where the worker was the most needed piece. The journalist continues:
But life is the thing that matters, social machinery is merely a manner of getting there. Therefore it is that the part of existence which we roughly classify as Art, is infinitely more important than the arrangements of local government and communal finance. […] Signor Marinetti has raised a discussion of more importance than anything that politicians ever gabble about in their sleep. (Daily Herald 8)
6This article shows a convergence between Labour and Futurists since the journalists of the Daily Herald claimed that their fight was not only political but artistic as well.
7The supposed link between Marinetti and the “rebels”—the title the members of the Labour Party used for themselves—even gave rise to a dispute in the Daily Herald between the poet Harold Monro and a correspondent who signed “A Working Man”. Harold Monro seemed to be grateful for the agitation Marinetti brought to Britain, decrying the Conservative society and acting like the workers who organised strikes from 1910 to 1914: “Their war cries open their meetings; they fear nothing but compromise [...] I believe the Futurists are among those reformers who, where occasion required, would laugh happily in the face of death, and that is perhaps one of the chief reasons why I admire them” (“Marinetti: Poet and Iconoclast” 8). Harold Monro saw Marinetti as a reformer indeed, but a reformer who would not hesitate to go further and take action, thus revealing the state of mind of some of the workers. Indeed, at that time, the Labour Party was torn between reformist members and other radical elements much more interested in revolution. The Daily Herald, which had been created after the strikes of 1910-11, was getting closer and closer to Revolutionary Socialism (Salles 140). Therefore, the Futurist movement appeared as a model to follow, a possible example of revolutionary behaviour, and one chosen by some members of the Labour Party. Harold Monro saw Marinetti as an ally in the revolution and as someone bent on destroying the old order to leave room for a future reconstruction: “Their work is chiefly to clear away ruins; they are Futurists chiefly in that they will leave the ground clear for the Future to build on” (“Marinetti: Poet and Iconoclast” 8). The poet realized that Futurism was only a beginning, that it did not solve all the problems of the workers; still, he could see a form of violence that would unsettle the society Labour wanted to change.
8Six days after Harold Monro’s article, a Daily Herald correspondent reacted. From the first line he denied seeing the Labour Party embrace Futurism: “Labour has no use for the Futurist programme. […] Labour refuses to become enamoured of ‘mechanical beauty,’[...] Railmen will not be to their engines as ‘a lover caressing his adored mistress.’ [...] We object to vandals; the earth is ugly enough as it is” (A Working Man 2). The author, himself a worker, refused to cherish the instruments of his oppression, as the Futurists seemed to ask. As a response, Harold Monro wrote a further article in order to state his views more clearly: he did not embrace the whole of Futurism but he was interested in some aspects of the movement. He also underlined how it could help the workers’ movement:
Marinetti is one kind of ‘rebel’; [‘A Working Man’] is another. To say that ‘Labour has no use for the Futurist programme’ is not to say, as he seems to imply, that the world has no use for the Futurist programme. […] Marinetti is trying to invent a poetry of such a kind that the engine-driver may be able at a first attempt to understand a poem about his engine, as well as being able to drive it. (“About Marinetti” 6)
9This dialogue within the press organ of the Labour Party is really interesting as it reveals that Marinetti’s arrival in London crystallized dissent within the Party. Even if not all the members of the Labour Party expected anything from the Futurists’ ideas and saw Marinetti as an ally, it is nevertheless interesting to note that a poet, who was part of the Labour circles, stood for this artistic movement in the very organ of the Labour Party and named these artists “rebels”. Indeed, the appellation was used by the journalists of the Daily Herald to discuss some Labour members, especially the more revolutionary ones.
- 4 Founded in 1900 by Arthur Pearson, the Daily Express was linked to the Conservative Party; Ralph Da (...)
10For its part, the Vorticist movement was born on June 11th 1914 when Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Jacob Epstein, Thomas Ernest Hulme and Henri Gaudier-Brezska interrupted Marinetti and Christopher Nevinson’s lecture at the Doré Galleries, protesting against the takeover of the Rebel Art Centre by Marinetti. Indeed, Marinetti and Nevinson had published “Vital English Art. Futurist manifesto”, an article in which most of the members of the Rebel Art Centre found themselves affiliated with Futurism without their consent. The English avant-garde did not approve of everything in Futurism and was reluctant to be overwhelmed by this Italian movement. Nevinson was the only artist from the English avant-garde to join Futurism. After that troubled evening, a journalist of the organ of the Conservative Party4 compared the Vorticists to anarchists: “These rebel artists are Anarchists who resent any kind of leadership” (“Futurist Squabbles” 6). Other Conservative journalists also compared the Vorticists to another group which, according to them, was leading England to its death, i.e., the suffragettes: “At a recent lecture in London by C.R.W. Nevinson, a faithful disciple of Futurism, a number of Vorticists, whose leader is Wyndham Lewis, frequently interrupted Mr. Nevinson’s remarks in the style of Sylvia Pankhurst” (“Troubles of the Futurists”). The journalist linked the violence used by the Vorticists to disturb Marinetti’s lecture to the one used by Sylvia Pankhurst—Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter—when she prepared her attacks. The Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 had begun by organising marches to obtain the right for women to vote, but turned to violent actions from 1905 onwards in response to the government’s opposition (Mayhall 49-50 107-108). Such accusations reveal the fear Vorticism raised among some Conservative journalists.
- 5 Founded in 1855, the Daily Telegraph started to support Chamberlain’s policy after 1888 under its e (...)
- 6 Claude Phillips became critic for the Daily Telegraph in the late 1880s.
- 7 This painting is missing but known thanks to a photograph published in the Manchester Guardian (“A (...)
11To most of the Conservative newspapers the “Italian invasion” which had managed to convert some English artists seemed to be an attempt to pervert and corrupt England, hitherto preserved by her insularity. When discussing the avant-garde artists, journalists used the image of a disease corrupting a healthy body—English art’s and possibly England’s herself—as articles of the Daily Telegraph5 show. Art historian Claude Phillips6 expressed his fear of seeing England corrupted: “Mr. Nevinson is really very naughty in ‘The Strand; No. II.,᾽ for he, a Cubist, shows himself a partial convert, or pervert, to Italian Futurism” (Phillips). According to the critic, there was no doubt that England was attacked by these Italian artists: a proof of that attack was in the painting7 where Christopher Nevinson used the Futurist formula to paint a street view of London. According to Michael Walsh, this warning can be linked to a broader artistic crisis felt by some critics before the war fearing the disappearance of Englishness (Walsh 1-2). Because of this corruption highlighted by the press, some critics in Conservative papers were afraid that England might appear weakened to other countries: “Giving the Continent an impression that here in this country of Constable [...] we have so altered that we are the easy prey of every painter who is sufficiently insistent, sufficiently ‘new’, sufficiently strident”, Richard Grant noted (Richards).
- 8 T.P.’s Weekly was founded in 1902 by an Irish nationalist journalist, Thomas Power O’Connor.
- 9 Christophe Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches. 1914-1915. Oil on canvas, 51,2 x 76,8 cm. Ottawa, N (...)
- 10 Launched in 1888 by Thomas Power O’Connor, The Star was edited from 1908 to 1920 by James Douglas.
12Less than two months after the movement was born, England declared war on Germany on August 4th. The way political journalists looked at the English avant-garde changed. They seemed more interested in their works which became correlated to the enlistment of their authors. How these journalists saw these artworks illustrates how political parties reacted to war. In T.P.’s Weekly,8 social reformers could not help alluding to Gaudier-Brzeska’s enlistment when discussing Vorticist theories. They also began to admire Christopher Nevinson’s courage and saw some links between these artists’ participation in the war and the intensity of Nevinson’s works: “There seems to be some connecting current between the new art stimuli and the life of active service. [...] And an English Futurist, Nevinson, whose design decorates another page, has been serving in Flanders, and shares with his leader this desire to ‘futurise’” (“On the Way of the Trenches”). The journalist was interested in Returning to the Trenches9 which is perhaps Nevinson’s most Futurist war painting. He appeared to be impressed by the pictorial space almost entirely filled by a long column of soldiers marching guns and kits on their shoulders. Social reformers seemed grateful to Gaudier-Brzeska and Nevinson for giving their lives to the nation. Indeed, the parliamentary Labour group supported the government’s will to fight Germany. By contrast, a strong pacifist spirit remained in the rank-and-file members of the Labour Party, derived from the former Independent Labour Party (Leruez 102). The opposition between Labour’s leaders and the rank-and-file appeared when the journalists came to discuss the case of Gaudier-Brzeska who was indeed congratulated for his courage by T.P.’s Weekly but who was mocked by The Star,10 a publication dedicated to a working-class readership:
One or two of the Futurists of the London group have been at the front, but it does not seem to have done them much good. Mr. Gaudier-Brzeska, for instance, sends two drawings done in the trenches at Craonne. The first is ‘A Mitrailleuse in Action,’ […] ‘One of Our Shells Bursting’ is the title of the other. It looks as if it were bursting into laughter. (“Cubist Masters”)
- 11 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Mitrailleuse in action. February 1915. Pencil on paper, 28 x 21,9 cm. Paris, (...)
- 12 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, One of our shells exploding. February 1915. Pencil on paper, 21,8 x 28 cm. P (...)
- 13 The Military Service Act passed by the British government in January 1916 provided for the conscrip (...)
- 14 Founded by Charles Dickens in 1846, the newspaper was bought by George Cadbury in 1901 and edited b (...)
- 15 In August 1914, the Defence of the Realm Act established a curfew, censorship of journalism and let (...)
- 16 French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Christopher Nevinson enlisted in 1914; David Bomberg had to (...)
- 17 Founded in 1881 the newspaper was bought in 1894 by the Harmsworth brothers who converted it into a (...)
- 18 Christopher Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse. 1915. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50,8 cm. London, Tate Gallery.
13The Star criticized Gaudier-Brzeska’s artworks whose status as a soldier did not even seem to redeem him. The “two drawings” done on letter paper and sent from the front by Gaudier-Brzeska to Edward Wadsworth constitute his last testimony of the war: A Mitrailleuse in Action11 represents two soldiers firing a machine gun. The two men’s bodies are melting with the weapon that dominates the drawing. The space of One of Our Shell Exploding12 is entirely occupied by a vortex-like explosion. The review of the young Vorticist’s works reveals the divide caused by the war in the Labour Party. Political dissent appeared when the strikes that broke out during the war led the government to seek the help of the leader of the Labour Party in order to make the workers accept conscription13 and be sent to work in wartime factories (Leruez 102). The Liberals in power during the war needed brave fighters who could be used as models. Therefore, they chose Nevinson as a living example of patriotism and started to speak highly of his works. A Daily News journalist14 described the artist’s talent and exclaimed: “Futurism must have been invented with this war in view” (“Futurists and War”). The journalists of the Conservative Daily Express also could not help evoking the enlistment of the artist: “Mr. C.R.W. Nevinson [...] has just returned from the front, where he has been engaged in Red Cross work. The above paintings, photographed exclusively for the ‘Daily Express,’ record his impressions of modern warfare. They have not been passed by the Censor” (“Painter of Smells at the Front” 5). The press organ of the Conservative Party was now proud to reproduce three war paintings by Nevinson,15 while the Conservatives used the example of Gaudier-Brzeska and Nevinson as a model for the British. They rehabilitated these hitherto disregarded artists in order to make their works worth seeing. They explained how different they were from the Vorticists who had not joined the army,16 and how they seemed to encourage young men to enlist thanks to their example (C.M.). A united Conservative Party took advantage of the quarrels within a pacifist Liberal Party quite reluctant to rule a country at war by challenging the capacity of the government to lead the country and eventually forced the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith to create a coalition government in June 1915 with the participation of Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party (Leruez 24). Accordingly, Conservative papers used artworks to underline the importance of the Army fighting for the country, as we can gather from an article from the Evening News17 in which Charles Lewis Hind describes Nevinson’s Mitrailleuse:18 “I glory in these French gunners. I glory in their gun. I salute these self-sacrificing automata in the clothes of men, for they are giving their all—life, love, ideals—for their country, as our men are. […] It is the fate of our soldiers to fight, to live, to die for justice, humanity, freedom, and we who watch and wait envy them” (Hind 2). The critic narrated the experience of those four French soldiers with machine gun in their hands, waiting for their enemies in the trenches. After having related their lives, he made a genuine plea for enlistment. Thus, the Conservative papers seemed to use works by the avant-garde artists as military propaganda.
- 19 Jacob Epstein, Mother and Child. 1913-14. Marble, 43,8 x 43,1 x 10,2 cm. New York, Museum of Modern (...)
- 20 Founded in 1791, the Observer was the first Sunday newspaper. It was purchased by Alfred Harmsworth (...)
14Even if Nevinson and Gaudier-Brzeska were used as models, most of the Vorticists and their works were more vigorously rejected during the war. Their abstract works displeased political journalists who blamed artists for attacking figurative representation while the stability of England was jeopardized. Such a search for abstraction not only seemed to alter art but also threatened social order, humanity and civilization. In that context, Mother and Child19 by Jacob Epstein was seen as an extremely violent attack against humanity. This marble sculpture represents a mother and her child both of whom are devoid of features: the eyes of new-born are symbolized by a barely noticeable horizontal line; and those of the mother are mere cavities. According to a journalist from The Star these two characters were “flat, leprous slabs. Father is not there, and we won’t blame him” (“Cubist Masters”). Even if the journalist was beholding a nativity scene, he seemed to feel the need to allude to the father. The sculpture may remind workers of a mother alone with her child, with her husband possibly at war. Both characters appear to be deprived of humanity by the lack of features, as the journalist of The Observer explained:20 “The child’s head is simply a smooth marble globe with two thin wedge-shaped scratches to indicate nose and mouth, and a slight depression on the forehead. The mother’s head is not globular, but gourd-shaped, and so far removed from any human semblance that it would be absurd to apply to it any normal standard of comparison” (“Art & Artists”). The Evening News considered this sculpture so simple that it did not hesitate to offer its readers a reproduction (“The Amazing Pictures” 4). The journalist who drew the sketch took care to render both the absence of features of the child and the hand of the mother but interestingly, as if he could not stand this lack of humanity, he tried to give her much more expressiveness by turning her head toward her new-born and by drawing her mouth. The Evening News described Epstein’s sculpture in more detail three days later in an article stressing the feeling of loss that the piece suggests: “If the pictures and sculptures of the London group were gifted with the power of speech, the vast majority of them would repeat this exclamation in a chorus of wails and groans. Mr. Epstein’s marble ‘Mother and Child’ alone would be silent, because the nicely polished heads lack the organ to emit sound” (“Our Art Critic”). In Epstein’s work, the journalists seemed to decipher the representation of a body wounded at war, with the mother left alone with her child, unable to express her pain.
- 21 Founded in 1821 by John Edward Taylor, the newspaper was edited from 1872 by Liberal Member of Parl (...)
15Political journalists realized that the Vorticists were not only the witnesses of the international conflict but also of a whole epoch including the evolution of English society and politics. There were witnesses because of the topics of their works and because of their style and their abstract research between Futurism and Cubism. Therefore, the journalists of the Manchester Guardian21 presented Vorticism as the best representation of those years of upheaval:
In days of war the clash and clamour of Post-Impressionist colour and line seems natural to the times. When the whole world is disturbed and in arms, why should we expect art to show a calm or insipid face? And if many of the pictures, for all their show of force, do not seem to mean much, we have only to remember how little there is in the official communiqués. (J. B. 6)
- 22 Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill. 1913-15, reconstruction 1973-74. Polyester resin, metal and wood, 20 (...)
16This is precisely the lack of an identifiable subject that the journalist uses to explain the importance of the movement. Apart from being a mere mirror of the changes within British society, some political journalists saw an unheeded warning in previous works by Vorticists. In March 1916, in an article of the Conservative Evening News, Charles Lewis Hind expressed some regrets about Rock Drill22 by Jacob Epstein. At first, the critic had only seen some scaffolding in that sculpture. Afterwards, he felt a warning hidden in this work: “it is a frank statement or criticism of life; of our present horrible, not-to-be-evaded way of living. […] it is a stark criticism of the times—a warning for the unborn” (Hind 2). The Vorticists exposed the return to barbarity caused by the war, but they also denounced the rash mechanisation of the country that reified human beings. It is therefore all the more interesting to read such a questioning of England’s model in a Conservative newspaper. Hind saw Rock Drill as a warning to future generations against “the machinomorphic madness of the world” (Hind 2), and he explained how the production tool was taking possession of the human being: “Hunched on the rock drill, towering above it, yet part of the machine, and subservient to it, was—well, it was once a man, but it had now become a wiry, human frame, [...]. The machine had conquered. It had re-made man in its own image” (Hind 2). With the beginning of the war, the Vorticist movement experienced a new reception: artists were sometimes set up as examples and sometimes rejected with violence by critics with different political affiliations who saw the unbearable decline of the civilization in their works.
17Vorticism emerged at a key moment of England’s history. As the Labour Party began its ascent while Liberal policies were being questioned and contested, political journalists thought Vorticist works held a mirror to a rapidly evolving society, deformed by the vortex’s prism. All in all, Vorticism can be seen as a reflection of England between 1913 and 1916, which led the journalists affiliated to different political parties face their fears and hopes.
18By studying the reception of this avant-garde movement a clearer picture of the reaction of the political circles to a form of artistic commitment appears. Before the war, the English political journalists discussed a supposed political commitment by comparing Futurists and Vorticists to Labour members, anarchists and suffragettes. When England entered World War One, those journalists took a different interest in the artists’ commitment in the conflict against Germany, both through their military enlistment and their artworks. Those reactions emphasise the diversity of the political parties’ view on war in England. They also show how political journalists celebrated the artistic commitment of the Vorticists, and acknowledged them, thanks to their abstract works, as the key witnesses of the war and their time.