On July 1, 1914 — a miserable day of thunderstorms and the hottest day of the year — a new little magazine burst upon London. Its cover was described by the Chicago modernist magazine Little Review as “something between magenta and lavender, about the colour of a sick headache,” while the Pall Mall Gazette jibed that its color was “chill flannelette pink,” like “the catalogue of some cheap Eastend draper, and its contents are of the shoddy sort that constitutes the Eastend draper’s stock” (qtd. in O’Keeffe 157). Oversized black capital letters cut diagonally across the cover with the British expletive “BLAST.” The magazine featured a sharply worded, dramatic, often bitingly humorous manifesto that began, “BLAST First (from politeness) ENGLAND,” and it went on to “blast” the entire Victorian age, much of the British art world, British humor, France, and a wide range of other targets. It then “blessed” many of those same targets, yet with qualifications that delineated fairly consistent polemical positions.
The manifesto, written by Blast’s editor, Wyndham Lewis, was signed by a group of young writers and artists: Richard Aldington, Malcolm Arbuthnot, Lawrence Atkinson, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jessica Dismorr, Cuthbert Hamilton, Ezra Pound, William Roberts, Helen Saunders, Edward Wadsworth, and Wyndham Lewis. This list of signatories does not reflect the level of unity and coordination often signaled by the manifesto genre. Few of those named had taken a serious role in the creation of the magazine or of the manifesto. As Richard Cork puts it, “Aldington probably summed up the attitude of the others by recording, in the same year, that Mr Lewis has carefully and wittily compiled a series of manifestos, to which we have all gleefully applied our names” (Cork 246). William Roberts later noted that “The first knowledge I had of a Vorticist Manifesto’s existence was when Lewis, one fine Sunday morning in the summer of 1914, knocked at my door and placed in my hands this chubby, rosy, problem-child Blast” (qtd. in Cork 247). But it was important for the magazine to convey a sense of a cohesive and effective avant-garde group, even if “Vorticism” could only vaguely be said to exist. Just five years before, another avant-garde impresario, F. T. Marinetti, had published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro a manifesto and account of the founding of another avant-garde group, the Italian Futurists. At the time, the Futurists as a group did not even exist — or, if it did, Marinetti was both its leader and its only member. Marinetti had more or less created the Futurists ex nihilo by publishing the manifesto and asserting their existence. Similarly, Lewis would later say that “Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did and said, at a certain period” (qtd. in Wees 3). While Lewis exaggerates in equating Vorticism entirely with his own personal efforts, there was certainly something P. T. Barnum-like in Lewis’s and Marinetti’s efforts to manufacture an audience for their enterprises. Indeed, avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century owed a debt to the rapidly developing promotional culture of the modern industrial West — a debt that Blast, like the publications of the Italian Futurists, openly acknowledged.
Responses from supporters and detractors alike highlighted the trenchant, adversarial tone of the magazine. But the talk of flannelette — a cotton imitation of flannel — and East End drapers, while meant derisively, also demonstrates that the press had perceived the journal’s efforts to draw upon the promotional energies and industrial culture of British modernity. Visually, Blast set a new mark for British modernist periodicals, leaving behind the staid and visually conservative appearance of such otherwise radical modernist journals as The Egoist, English Review, New Age, and Harold Monro’s Poetry Review and its successor, Poetry and Drama. To print the magazine, Lewis had turned to a commercial printing firm, Leveridge & Co., whose own advertising posters used diagonal text lines and striking layout and font choices (see Leveridge). Yet Blast was a serious journal of art and literature. It was meant as a bold intervention in a rapidly changing art world. Its editor and the avant-garde “Vorticists” had high aspirations for the circulation and influence of the little magazine, though it never achieved mass circulation during its brief life. But it has come to be one of the most famous little magazines of the pre-War period and has, justifiably, been reprinted and written about for many years. A magazine full of great promise, it nevertheless succumbed to its own adversarial stances and, more important, to the advent of the Great War. Only one more issue of Blast was published — in 1915, a year after its London debut.
So what was Blast? Why is a little magazine that only survived to publish two issues so significant to our understanding of the modernist aesthetic revolt in London? In short, Blast was a manifesto (or, to be more precise, a set of manifestos with supporting art and literature) intended to promote a nascent avant-garde group comprising painters, writers, and a sculptor. It positioned the group’s aesthetics and reputations in relationship to the British art world, to continental avant-gardism, and to modernist literature, and it advocated a nationalist agenda that ultimately attempted to portray British modernity as characterized by industrial might, mass culture, and promotional sophistication. Surprisingly, though, Lewis and the Vorticists had a difficult cultural battle to fight in defining British identity as industrial, as characterized by the machine rather than the skylark. As cultural historian John Stevenson has put it, “Although Britain was an urban and industrial society, to a quite remarkable degree its culture, folk memory and ‘myth of itself’ was still bound up with a rural past — a past which was, by the nature of things, increasingly far removed from direct experience” (Stevenson pg.).
Moreover, when we think of the avant-garde activity of the first half of the twentieth century — of artists working in multiple media, establishing a group identity through group names, manifestos, publications, and group shows — we tend to think of Paris, Berlin, or New York between the wars, or even of Zurich during the Great War, and not so much of London. Yet London in the years immediately leading up to the Great War was a hive of avant-garde activity in the arts and in literature that attracted international artists. Though Vorticism and Blast advocated a nationalist agenda, their triumvirate of key players hardly included exemplars of the British art world. Wyndham Lewis, the editor and driving force of the magazine, was born in Canada to an American father and an English mother, while Ezra Pound, the modernist poet and promoter, was an American expatriate who had come to London in 1908. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a French sculptor, had arrived in London in 1910.
Why would a group so highly critical of much of British culture (and specifically of the British academic art world) and of such mixed national origin employ an insistently nationalist polemic? Indeed, why would an avant-garde little magazine position itself as the apotheosis of British modernity and empire just as the British Empire teetered on the edge of the abyss of the Great War? To answer such questions — and to show what Blast brought to the British avant-garde — I will examine briefly the history of London’s first major brush with continental avant-gardism and modern art. Then I will explore some of the political contexts from which the magazine arose — among them nationalist affirmations of the British empire and British industrialism as well as the provocations of militant suffragism. Finally, I will examine the context of promotional culture in Britain that contributed significantly to the content and form of the magazine and its manifestos, and will assess Blast‘s contribution to literary modernism.
Any account of Blast‘s relationship to the London art world must begin with the journal’s creator, Percival Wyndham Lewis, and the niche he was attempting to carve for himself. In 1898, at age 16, the young Lewis was busy failing to thrive at Rugby, the highly respectable public school. His mother was convinced by the headmaster that it would be better for young Percy to pursue the only thing for which he seemed to show some talent: art. On January 9, 1899, then, Lewis began his first term as a student at the Slade School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture in London, which was headed by Fred Brown.
In the five years immediately preceding the Great War, the British art world was buzzing with activity and change. Rebellion against what had come to seem the Royal Academy’s stultifying influence on British art had long been brewing, with major breaks with the Academy occurring as far back as 1886, when Frederick Brown created the New English Art Club (NEAC) as a counterfoil to the conservative Academy. The NEAC helped foster the English Impressionism of painters such as Walter Sickert. But by the turn of the century, when Lewis and many of the painters who would form the core of British modernist art were in art school, even the NEAC had come to seem out of touch with the art experiments launched after Impressionism on the continent.
The Slade, then, gave Lewis an entrée into the conservative world of British painting. The very young Lewis was hardly a budding avant-gardist in any case when he began his tuition. Richard Cork quotes Lewis’s friend and fellow student Hubert Wellington, who noted that Lewis was “surprisingly ignorant about art when he first appeared at the Slade; his favorite painter was a Victorian Academician who specialized in highland landscapes full of sheep grazing in the heather” (qtd. in Cork 1).
Under Fred Brown’s direction, students at the Slade were taught in the French manner, spending some months drawing the plaster casts of ancient Greek sculptures in the school’s Antique Room before moving on to the Life Room to draw live models. They also took a course of anatomy lectures by G. D. Thane, the University College Professor of Anatomy. The drawing instructor, Henry Tonks, taught his students to draw in a heroic cinquecento Italian style — hardly a source of modernist aesthetics (see O’Keeffe 26-38). Yet Lewis and other students discovered new aesthetic possibilities that strayed from the Slade’s veneration of human anatomy. Lewis was sent to the Prints and Drawings room of the British Museum to practice his drawing, though he focused some of his time on Oceanic and African art as well as works from the Asiatic Salon and the Ethnographic collections he encountered in the museum. He also met two men who would help broaden his aesthetic perspectives: Thomas Sturge Moore, a poet and engraver, and Laurence Binyon, a poet who served as assistant keeper of Prints and Drawings and had an abiding interest in “oriental” or Asiatic art (O’Keeffe 33).
The Slade, as Wees puts it, “was no den of black reaction. . . . Nor were the teachers at the Slade backward-looking academic artists. Frederick Brown, Henry Tonks (who succeeded Brown to the Slade professorship in 1917), and Wilson Steer were open to new developments in art — until Cézanne came along” (Wees 28). Indeed, many of the painters who went on to form the nucleus of British modernist painting attended the Slade between 1899 and 1913. These included Spencer Gore and Cuthbert Hamilton, who were fellow students with Lewis. Helen Saunders, Christopher Nevinson, William Roberts, David Bomberg, and Edward Wadsworth were at the Slade between 1908 and 1913 and were central to what would become Vorticism. Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson also attended, as did the key Bloomsbury painters Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, and Mark Gertler. Roger Fry, the Bloomsbury painter, aesthetician, and impresario, lectured at the Slade during these later years, and it is not surprising that the young students taking an interest in continental modern art would turn to him for inspiration. If the Slade’s instructors drew the line at Cézanne, Fry happily crossed that line and helped lead the younger students to the world of continental painting that followed in the wake of the French Post-Impressionists. Indeed, as Charles Harrison notes, “Among the students at the Slade in the crucial years 1911-12 were a gang calling themselves the “Neo-Primitives,” a term which suggests a Bloomsbury-derived view of modern practice. The group was dominated by Mark Gertler, who had been at the Slade since 1908, where he was regarded as the best draughtsman since Augustus John; among the other members were Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth and Stanley Spencer” (Harrison 65).
Indeed, the Slade, even with Fred Brown’s distaste for the Royal Academy, was only a starting point for all of the young artists who would eventually form the nucleus of British modernist painting. Lewis himself was thrown out by Brown for smoking in the hall, though Brown had perhaps been looking for an excuse to toss out his arrogant and rebellious student (O’Keeffe 38). Lewis would then spend the years 1902-1909 traveling through the continent, especially frequenting Munich and Paris. He befriended the British painter Walter Sickert, who helped set him up in Paris in 1904. In Paris, he met the anarchist Kropotkin, read Nietzsche, and attended lectures by Henri Bergson, the French philosopher who advocated an intuitive experience of reality that would influence Fauvism and Futurism. He spent the summer of 1908 in Brittany, encountering innkeepers, clowns, and other characters who would inhabit Lewis’s fiction in future years, and he honed his sense of the value of hilarity and of the grotesque. In December 1908, he returned to London, ready to begin publishing his fiction in Ford Madox Hueffer’s English Review and to reshape the London art world.
This trajectory — a rigorous training in drawing and traditional aesthetics at the Slade, followed by travel to the continent for exposure to the avant-garde, and friendship with the few figures on the London art scene who were open to modern European art — was followed by virtually all of the Slade students who went on to reorient the London art world toward modern European art. But that was a Herculean labor. The Impressionist exhibition put on by Durand-Ruel at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905 was the first major survey of French Impressionism to reach British audiences. It featured more than 300 paintings by Impressionist masters such as Manet, Renoir, and Degas and was derided by many critics. The Trustees and Director of the National Gallery even rejected the offer of a painting by Degas. As Richard Cork notes, “It was as much as London could do to swallow the tentative experiments of its native Impressionists” (4).
Indeed, as avant-garde art flourished on the continent — with Fauvism and Cubism causing a stir in Paris and groups such as the Blaue Reiter in Munich and the Italian Futurists soon to be launched — young experimental English painters had to create opportunities to promote their own experiments in a British art market that was slow to embrace continental influences. Lewis and other young artists followed Sickert’s lead when even heabandoned the NEAC in favor of unjuried exhibitions. (Their works were often rejected by the NEAC’s selection committee in any event.) They tried other groups as well, such as the Allied Artists’ Association founded in 1908. But the AAA’s exhibitions at the Albert Hall were so large and diverse that individual painters and trends were buried. Sickert then launched his own society, the Camden Town Group, in 1911, in which Lewis and others participated (see Cork 13-15).
But the sea change in the London art world came not from any of these exhibition societies. Rather, it drew strength from an exhibition put on by Roger Fry. Fry (1866-1934) was a little older than the other figures we associate with the Bloomsbury Group, such as Virginia and Leonard Woolf; Virginia’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell; art critic Clive Bell; essayist and biographer Lytton Strachey; painter Duncan Grant; and novelist E. M. Forster. He was already an established art critic. He had helped found the influential Burlington Magazine in 1903, and, at J. P. Morgan’s invitation, he had become Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1905 (and “European Advisor” for the museum two years later). Until his dismissal by the bank magnate after an argument in 1910, Fry accompanied Morgan on art-buying trips on the continent and developed his own enthusiasm for Post-Impressionism (particularly the work of Cézanne) and the newer art movements. Fry decided to bring modern painting, primarily by French artists, to British audiences, and he opened his survey Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in November 1910. The show, which ran until January 1911, featured works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Manet. Fry coined the term Post-Impressionist for their work in order to distinguish it from the Impressionism that had only recently come to British attention. (Many of the angry Londoners who looked with disgust at this work failed to understand that it was already a quarter of a century old.)
But Fry also included work by younger and more aesthetically radical painters, including Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Signac, and Vlaminck. Though the show’s title featured Manet, the artist that Fry most wished to bring before British audiences was Cézanne. As Harrison puts it, “until Fry’s curiosity was aroused by [a] 1906 showing, [Cézanne] was almost universally regarded in England as an incompetent impressionist. . . . But at the Grafton Galleries [Gauguin and Van Gogh], and particularly Cézanne, were presented as the founding fathers of a new movement, the New Movement, of which Matisse and Picasso were to be regarded as the present torchbearers” (Harrison 46). The response was almost uniformly hostile. As one critic groused in The Times, “It professes to simplify, and to gain simplicity it throws away all that the long-developed skill of past artists had acquired and perpetuated. It begins all over again — and stops where a child would stop . . . it is the rejection of all that civilization has done, the good with the bad” (qtd. in Cork 17). Harrison explains that “the outrage which the exhibition caused among members of the public and of the art world alike can only be explained in terms of the material it offered for a more fundamental revision of ideas. . . . This was the first exhibition in England — the first of many — at which a substantial number among the visitors were confronted not merely with a display of what they regarded as bad art, but with a selection which included much which they were unprepared to class as art at all” (Harrison 46).
Fry had begun paving the way for an understanding of this art the year before, with his 1909 “Essay in Aesthetics.” It provided a formalist understanding of modernist art that would leave behind the Victorian criteria of elevated content or representationality. (More on this below.) But he also followed the 1910 show with a “Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition of English, French and Russian Artists” opening at the Grafton Galleries in October 1912. This exhibition included 52 artists, with Fry choosing the French, fellow Bloomsbury critic Clive Bell choosing the English, and Boris von Anrep the Russian artists. Fry featured Matisse, and he emphasized that the first exhibition in 1910 had been about the “Old Masters of the new movement” (qtd. in Harrison 63), but that the 1912 exhibition would feature newer artists. Moreover, this show would highlight the work of important English artists. While the Slade had attempted to steer its students clear of Post-Impressionism, Clive Bell brought in many of the young Slade school painters into the exhibition, clearly launching modern English art to a broad audience.
During this period, a number of exhibiting groups were formed, in addition to the Camden Town Group and the AAA mentioned above. The London Group, for example, grew from the Camden Town Group. Its first exhibit in March 1914 in London’s Goupil Gallery included most of the young modernist painters. David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and others would move on to the Vorticist group. But the institution that led more or less directly to Blast was Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, which opened in July 1913 in Fitzroy Square. Fry had launched the workshops to help generate money for impoverished young painters and to bring Post-Impressionist aesthetics to the decorative arts. Bloomsbury painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were the co-directors, and the workshops employed not only those artists associated with Bloomsbury but also many of the artists soon to style themselves Vorticists. The Omega paid artists thirty shillings per week to design furniture, pottery, textiles, and other decorative items.
The Vorticists did not remain long with the Omega, however, after a rift over a commission for a “Post-Impressionist Room” at the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition in October 1913. The details of the so-called Ideal Home affair, while still not entirely clear, involved Lewis’s circulating a “round robin” accusing Fry of misappropriating for the Omega (where work was done anonymously) a commission that had been offered to Lewis, Fry, and Spencer Gore. Lewis, Gore, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Edward Wadsworth walked out of the Omega — and in March 1914, Lewis created the Rebel Art Centre, funded by his friend Kate Lechmere (see Harrison 73-74, Cork 92-95, Wees 63-66, O’Keeffe 130-33). Cork explains that the real discontent was over Fry’s aesthetics. As the round robin letter put it, “As to [the Omega’s] tendencies in Art, they alone would be sufficient to make it very difficult for any vigorous art-instinct to long remain under that roof… The Idol is still Prettiness, with its mid-Victorian languish of the neck, and its skin is “greenery-yallery,” despite the Post-What-Not fashionableness of its draperies” (qtd. in Cork 93).
The founding of the Rebel Art Centre at 38 Great Ormond Street represented a bold jockeying for position within the British art world. It meant to rival Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops and, above all, to position Lewis‘s camp as the true agents of modern aesthetics in London. The Centre’s prospectus claimed that the main room in the studio, decorated by Hamilton, Wadsworth, and Lewis, “will be the only room in Europe where artists belonging to the New Movement in art have had so free a hand, and done work on this scale” (qtd. in O’Keeffe 147). It offered “Lectures, Meetings and Picture Exhibitions” and art instruction under Lewis’s guidance. (Only a few pupils presented themselves, though, and the Centre rapidly closed.) Still, Lewis and those artists and writers who would become Vorticists had set their sights on a larger target than merely Bloomsbury, the Royal Academy, and other segments of the British art world. They were ready to claim a place in the broader field of European modern art. This required that they position themselves polemically in relationship to one of the most vibrant and extreme avant-garde movements before the birth of Dada: Italian Futurism.
F. T. Marinetti had styled Futurism as the apotheosis of Italian industrial and military supremacy — and he quickly “invaded” London. He read his futurist manifesto glorifying the machine, war, and speed — and scorning women — to, of all places, the London Lyceum Club for Women in 1910. He published it in 1912 in England. (On the seemingly bizarre relationship between Futurism and British suffragism, see Lyon 92-123.) In March 1912, the Italian Futurists held their first international exhibition at the Sackville Gallery in London, drawing a great deal of public attention. Among other events, Marinetti went on to give a reading for Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop and, on May 6, 1914, he gave a lecture at the Rebel Art Centre. Futurism drew much attention in the London art world, and Marinetti found a key disciple in the young English painter Christopher Nevinson.
In spite of Lewis’s having arranged Marinetti’s lecture at the Rebel Art Centre, tensions between the Rebel group and the Italian Futurists soon emerged. They came to a head on June 7, 1914, when Marinetti and Nevinson published “Vital English Art, Futurist Manifesto” in the Sunday Observer. While the targets of that manifesto and its efforts to proclaim a rejuvenated English art world would not have been objectionable to the Vorticists, its listing of Atkinson, Bomberg, Epstein, Etchells, Hamilton, Nevinson, Lewis, and Wadsworth — in other words, the Rebel Art Centre artists — and Nevinson’s having appended the Rebel Art Centre address to his signature made it seem as if the Centre were being represented by Marinetti and Nevinson, or, worst of all, that the English avant-garde was simply a colony of the Italian Futurists.
This perceived outrage led the Vorticists to show up at a Futurist event on June 12 at the Doré Gallery. Marinetti and Nevinson were to read the “Vital English Art” manifesto, and Nevinson was to lecture. Lewis, Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, T. E. Hulme, and Wadsworth and his cousin Norman Wallis showed up to disrupt the lecture. As O’Keeffe records, “That night, during Nevinson’s lecture, the word ‘Vorticist’ was heard in public for the first time. It was a measure of how out of touch [Nevinson] was with the discussions at Great Ormond Street that, while he was aware of the name coined by Pound and finally adopted by Lewis, he had evidently never heard it spoken. As a result he hardened the ‘c’ and pronounced it ‘Vortickist,’ giving rise to Gaudier’s sibilant and repeated correction from the floor: ‘Vorticiste! Vortic-CCC-iste!’” (O’Keeffe 154). Gaudier-Brzeska stood throughout the entire talk hissing “Vorti-cc-iste” while the other Vorticists disrupted the event. Someone even set off a firecracker in the doorway (154).
Blast appeared only a little more than three weeks after Marinetti and Nevinson published their “Vital English Art.” Ironically, the journal’s name was suggested by Nevinson, and Pound and Wadsworth were already referring to it in correspondence in late 1913. They had even had a tea party to generate the lists of “blasts” and “blesses” (this party included Pound, Lewis, and Gaudier-Brzeska, of course, but also Nevinson, Roberts, Dismorr, and Douglas Goldring) (O’Keeffe 142-43). But Italian Futurism nevertheless drew Blast‘s fire — over aesthetic differences, first, and in response to the nationalism of the political moment as well. Exploring these issues will clarify Blast‘s vision of English art.
The aesthetic differences bear discussing because much of the rhetoric of Vorticism, its emphasis on machinery and industry, seems at first glance to owe an obvious debt to Italian Futurism. O’Keeffe quotes an exchange that allegedly occurred between Marinetti and Lewis after one of Marinetti’s performances in London:
“You are a futurist, Lewis!”
“No,” Lewis replied.
“Why don’t you announce that you are a futurist!”
“Because I am not one.”
“Yes. But what’s it matter!”
“It’s most important.”
“Not at all! Futurism is good. It is all right.”
“Not bad. It has its points. But you Wops insist too much on the Machine. You’re always on about these driving belts, you are always exploding about your internal combustion. We’ve had machines here in England for a donkey’s years. They’re no novelty to us.”
“You have never understood your machines! You have never known the ivresse of traveling at a kilometer a minute. Have you ever traveled at a kilometer a minute?”
“Never. I loathe anything that goes too quickly. If it goes too quickly, it is not there.”
“It is not there! It is only when it goes quickly that it is there!” (O’Keeffe 152-53)
The exchange continued, with Lewis proclaiming “I am not a futurist anyway. Je hais le movement qui déplace les lignes.” As O’Keeffe puts it, Lewis’s response — showing his distase for “movement that blurs the lines” — “exposed the aesthetic and stylistic gulf between Futurism and his own sharply defined, crystalline abstractions” (153).
Much early Italian Futurist visual art was almost obsessively preoccupied with capturing movement visually, offering blurred lines to convey the dynamism of machines, or even of racehorses. Lewis could bitingly write off Futurism in Blast as nothing more than a child’s excitement with big, fast things:
AUTOMOBILISM (Marinetteism) 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.
Elephants are VERY BIG. Motor cars go quickly.
Wilde gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery. Gissing, in his romantic delight with modern lodging houses was futurist in this sense.
The futurist is a sensational and sentimental mixture of the aesthete of 1890 and the realist of 1870.
In other words, Lewis accuses Futurism of the very aestheticism and sentimentality that Marinetti and Nevinson excoriated in their “Vital English Art” manifesto. Moreover, Futurism is simply a form of representational realism, much like Impressionism: “Futurism, as preached by Marinetti, is largely Impressionism up-to-date. To this is added his Automobilism and Nietzsche stunt” (Blast 1, 143). And the problem with Impressionism? Simply its misplaced emphasis on realism: “No wonder painting has been discredited!” Lewis argued. ““Life” IS the important thing, indeed, if much painting of Life that we see is the alternative. Who would not rather walk ten miles across country (yes, ten miles, my friend), and use his eyes, nose and muscles, than possess ten thousand Impressionist oil-paintings of that country side?” (Blast 1, 130).
Roger Fry had argued something like this, too, when he criticized Impressionism for its representational fidelity. While valorizing Impressionism in his famous “Art and Life” essay for its “complete detachment of the artistic vision from the values imposed on vision by everyday life,” he also saw the limitations of its “quasi-scientific description of new effects of atmospheric colour and atmospheric perspective” (Vision and Design 10). Because Impressionists were in thrall to a realism of visual perception, they “lacked design and formal co-ordination to a degree which had never before been permitted” (11). Fry had argued that “impressionism marked the climax of a movement which had been going on more or less steadily from the thirteenth century — the tendency to approximate the forms of art more and more exactly to the representation of the totality of appearance” (11). Lewis could see Futurism’s emphasis on effects of speed in very much the same vein as the Impressionists’ experiments with atmospherics and light. Both movements were a kind of realism that came up short when compared to the actual lived experience of light and speed.
Fry had offered an aesthetic basis for Post-Impressionist and modern art in his seminal “Essay in Aesthetics,” where he argued that the aim of art should be the expression of an imaginative life, the eliciting of aesthetic emotions, rather than simply representational fidelity or (and here he tosses out Ruskin and much nineteenth-century writing about art) moral criteria (Fry 20-21). Art is important because it does not elicit “responsive action” — it doesn’t require the viewer to do anything other than simply become immersed in the painting. Aesthetic perception is a kind of disinterested perception, one elicited entirely by the formal qualities of a painting. Hence even an ugly painting can cause an aesthetic emotion, and the representational content of a painting is essentially beside the point. Paintings of heroic scenes, or Biblical stories, or drowning maidens may play upon non-aesthetic emotions, but the extent to which they elicit aesthetic emotions is related only to their formal properties, what Fry calls “the emotional elements of design” (Fry 33). In “Art and Life,” Fry argued for “the re-establishment of purely aesthetic criteria in place of the criterion of conformity to appearance — the rediscovery of the principles of structural design and harmony” (Fry 12).
Though Lewis tacitly affirms Fry’s sense of art’s purpose as not representational fidelity but rather a use of design and form to express an imaginative life and evoke an aesthetic emotion, in Blast he nevertheless departs significantly from Fry’s larger formalist claims about the history of art. After giving an historical sketch of centuries of art and major issues of life, Fry concludes “Art and Life” this way: “What this survey suggests to me is that if we consider this special spiritual activity of art we find it no doubt open at times to influences from life, but in the main self-contained — we find the rhythmic sequences of change determined much more by its own internal forces — and by the readjustment within it, of its own elements — than by external forces” (Fry 9). In other words, art history is the history of art’s internal dynamics, not of the events and changes in the culture that produced the art.
Rejecting such a hermetic vision, Lewis turned to a machine aesthetic as an appropriate signifier of British modernity, but he eschewed Marinetti’s. He looked instead to the English philosopher T. E. Hulme. In “Modern Art and Its Philosophy,”Hulme had argued (acknowledging his heavy debt to the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer) that “There are two kinds of art, geometrical and vital, absolutely distinct in kind from one another. These two arts are not modifications of one and the same art, but pursue different aims and are created for the satisfaction of different necessities of mind” (Speculations, 77). Vital art, represented by Greek art and “modern art since the Renaissance,” as Hulme put it, was a humanistic art, an art of “empathy,” an art in which “there is always a feeling of liking for, and pleasure in, the forms and movements to be found in nature” (85). By contrast, geometric art is an art of “abstraction” (86). Such an art affirms “a certain abstract geometrical shape, which, being durable and permanent shall be a refuge from the flux and impermanence of outside nature. The need which art satisfies here, is not the delight in the forms of nature, which is characteristic of all vital arts, but the exact contrary” (86). Geometric art — the art of the ancient Egyptians, or of India or Byzantine Christianity — gravitates toward “rigid lines and dead crystalline forms, for pure geometrical regularity gives a certain pleasure to men troubled by the obscurity of outside appearance” (87).
Hulme’s theory was very much in keeping with many modernist cyclical theories of history. Consider Yeats’s theory, elaborated in A Vision, that a Christian era was ending and giving way to a kind of repetition of an earlier pagan era. His iconic poem “The Second Coming” gives voice to concerns — bred by war and revolution — that one era was coming to a chaotic close, waiting for a new one to be born. For Hulme, the era of Renaissance humanism was ending, and modern art was the first harbinger of the new era. Such a theory, of course, directly contradicts Fry’s view that the history of events, ideas, and mores is not directly related to the history of art. In Hulme, “life” is changing, and so a new art is born of necessity — it fills a non-aesthetic psychological need in modern man. Most importantly for Vorticists, this new crystalline art of the hard line and form would not be a return of Byzantine icons or Egyptian hieratic art, but instead would be an art of the machine. The new desire for “austerity and bareness, a striving towards structure and away from the messiness and confusion of nature and natural things” (96), leads to the machine:
An artist, suppose, has to draw a part of a piece of machinery, where a certain curve is produced by the intersection of a plane and a cylinder. It lies in the purpose of the engine and it is obviously the intention of the engineer that the line shall be a perfect and mechanical curve. The artists in drawing the two surfaces and their intersection would shrink from reproducing this mechanical accuracy, would instinctively pick out all the accidental scratches which make the curve empirical and destroy its geometrical and mechanical character. In the new art on the contrary there is no striking of that kind whatever. There is rather a desire to avoid those lines and surfaces which look pleasing and organic, and to use lines which are clean, clear-cut and mechanical. You will find artists expressing admiration for engineers’ drawings, where the lines are clean, the curves all geometrical, and the colour, laid on to show the shape of a cylinder for example, gradated absolutely mechanically. (97)
This is far from Marinetti’s privileging of the machine for its speed, power, and movement. It is also a long way from Fry’s vision of pure formalism in art. “Machinery,” Lewis would argue in Blast, “is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke” (Blast 1, 39).
But Lewis and the Vorticists also rejected Italian Futurism for stridently nationalistic reasons. As Paul Peppis has argued, “When the Futurists stormed London in the spring of 1912, what the English were hearing and reading about Italy concerned its imperialist war with Turkey in North Africa” (Peppis 77). Peppis has convincingly shown that Lewis’s “exploitation of national loyalty helped consolidate the [Vorticist] movement” (84). With ultra-nationalism, Peppis notes, Lewis and Blast were bringing something unusual to the British avant-garde. At the time, many English intellectuals held that “England’s art and letters were less ‘developed,’ less ‘modern’ than those being created on the Continent.” Yet the internationalism of this modernist desire to learn from Europe disguised a “lurking nationalism,” an impetus to revive England’s global status, then in decline (84).
That said, Lewis’s opening editorial to Blast 2 — published under the shadow of all-too-real trench warfare — was surprisingly nuanced in its nationalist critique. Lewis railed against German nationalism and declared it “humanly desirable that Germany should win no war against France or England” (Blast 2, 5). He nevertheless pointed out that “unofficial Germany has done more for the movement that this paper was founded to propagate, and for all branches of contemporary activity in Science and Art, than any other country. It would be the absurdest ingratitude on the part of artists to forget this” (5). (Indeed, Blast 1 had translated excerpts from Kandinsky’s groundbreaking justification of the abstraction of the Blaue Reiter group, Über das Geistige in der Kunst.)
Beyond its preoccupation with questions of nationalism and imperialism, Blast was also attuned to other political issues of its politically turbulent day. The magazine’s affirmation of the suffragettes, Ulster Unionists, and union workers, for example, was part of a strategy of supporting vital revolution in the face of British “sentimental reactionaries” (Peppis 88). Janet Lyon has explored the triangulation of Futurist, suffragette, and Vorticist rhetoric, arguing that “it is not enough to say that modernist manifestoes ‘obliterated’ women and their role in the production of an avant-garde” (Lyon 93). As Lyon describes Marinetti’s and Lewis’s brush with suffragism, with the writings and militant action of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union in pre-War London, she shows that these revolutionary groups deployed manifestoes and polemical writings in similar (and reciprocal) ways, noting that “the closely watched public activities of futurists and vorticists in England helped to produce the public identity of the militant suffrage movement” (Lyon 94).
Perhaps Blast’s most noteworthy achievement was its fusion of the English avant-garde and modern promotional culture. The late nineteenth century had witnessed a simultaneous and mutually reinforcing rise of mass-market magazines and modern advertising practices. Cheap paper and new printing technologies had made periodical publication less expensive, and British mass market papers like the Daily Mail and magazines like the Strand, Tit-Bits, and Pearson’s Weekly flourished in the 1890s. Advertising became central to stoking demand, and the mass-market periodical became key to a new promotional economy (see Raymond Williams; Richard Ohmann). The advent of the modern advertising agency and national brand-name advertising campaigns helped shift mass-market periodicals toward relying on advertising revenues. The Daily Mail and other publications even began to charge readers less for their periodicals than they cost to create, thus driving up circulation and exponentially increasing the revenue derived from selling advertising space in these truly mass-market papers.
Lewis and the other painters and authors involved in Blast intended the magazine not to be a small-circulation affair but to circulate widely and have an impact outside of London. They attempted to advertise the movement, and Lewis and Wadsworth envisioned an initial print run of about 3,000 for the first issue — a large run for a new modern art journal. Wadsworth worked out an international distribution list that included major American and European cities as far flung as Bucharest and Petersburg, pushed advertising in other journals, and convinced Lewis of the promotional value of labeling the second issue a special “war number.” Hulme urged Lewis to use the publisher Howard Latimer, who handled the political and cultural periodical the New Statesman, because of Latimer’s aggressive promotion of the journal at bookstalls. Prospectuses were sent to contacts in various continental cities, and Pound wrote to a newspaper in the American west to promote Blast. He even published an article in the more traditional Fortnightly Review on vorticism (Morrisson 117-18). Advertisements for the journal informed audiences about its contents but used evocative phrases that had no informational value. These ads were clearly meant to function as commodity ads did — to catch attention and create an association with the product: “THE CUBE, THE PYRAMID / Putrefaction of Guffaws Slain by Appearance of / BLAST. / No Pornography. No Old Pulp. / END OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA” (Egoist April 1, 1914, 140).
As many have noted in recent years, Blastwas deeply involved in the mass-market popular culture of its period (see Tuma; Reynolds; Morrisson). Hugh Kenner had already commented on the “posterish conventions” of Blast in 1954, and most readers immediately note the wide array of font sizes and type faces, the evocative cover and the shock tactics used inside, as well as the famous lists of “blasts” and “blesses.” Paige Reynolds documents Blast’s borrowing from commercial culture and suffragette promotional practices, arguing that the Vorticists’ praise of advertising, rather than a weak imitation of Italian Futurist practices, was a nationalistic defense against Marinetti and his Futurists: “By celebrating the conflation of art and advertising, the vorticists could define themselves in opposition to other art groups in London, both native and continental. Just as important, this celebration allowed them to extol English advertising practices, practices that displayed for the world England’s preeminence in industry, economics, politics, and culture. Most obviously, Blast displayed and celebrated this merger of English avant-garde and commercial art through the journal’s aesthetics” (Reynolds 245).
Spectacle-based advertising had been widely used in London already, including advertising products on roving sandwichboard men, on moving vehicles, and on the sides of elephants. But, looking around for effective uses of spectacle to promote a non-commercial cause, the Vorticists quickly saw the significance of militant suffragettes’ tactics. Their window-smashing campaigns, destruction of property, and public arrests had been escalating since 1912. The suffragette Mrs. Mary Wood had slashed Sargent’s portrait of Henry James hanging in the Royal Academy on May 4, 1914, the same day that other militants burned down a tennis club in Belfast. On May 18, suffragettes hacked another painting at the Academy.
In Blast 1, Lewis (notoriously) addressed the art slashing in “To Suffragettes”: “A word of advice. In destruction, as in other things, stick to what you understand. We make you a present of our votes. Only leave works of art alone. You might some day destroy a good picture by accident. Then! — Mais soyez bonnes filles! Nous vous aimons! We admire your energy. You and artists are the only things (you don’t mind being called things?) left in England with a little life in them. If you destroy a great work of art you are destroying a greater soul than if you annihilated a whole district of London. Leave art alone, brave comrades!” (151-52). The Vorticists blessed Lillian Lenton, who had burned the tea pavilion at Kew Gardens on February 20, 1913, and Freda Graham, who had slashed pictures at the National Gallery.
“To Suffragettes” has been read as affirming, patronizing, and guardedly admiring the suffragettes (Wees 19; Lyon 113; Reynolds 252). Clearly, the address was a self-validating move for the Vorticists: their movement in art and literature could claim the same right to public spectacle and value as a political cause (see Morrisson 121-29). The Vorticists did try to set up spectacle and promotion as a masculine activity, though, to draw it away from specific association with the suffragettes. (Many of the figures blessed in the journal’s lists are public figures of “masculine” daring, violence, and adventure, such as the aviators Gustav Hamel, B. C. Hucks, and Salmet; aviation exponent Claude Grahame-White; prominent boxers Young Ahearn, Colin Bell, Dick Burge, Petty Officer Curran, Bandsman Rice, and Bombardier Wells, the heavyweight boxing champion of Britain; and male music-hall figures Gaby Deslys, George Mozart, George Robey, and Harry Weldon.)
While Blast has been most commonly situated in the context of the visual art and politics of its day, it also ran a few memorable pieces of fiction, including Rebecca West’s first published short story, “Indissoluble Matrimony” — a biting look at gender relations, women’s aspirations to public life, and even racial thinking in bourgeois British marriage. Most memorably, though, the first issue also published the first three chapters of Ford Madox Ford’s Good Soldier (then titled The Saddest Story). It published Lewis‘s genre-blurring drama, The Enemy of the Stars, as well. The play strove, with some success, to provide a literary analogue to the Vorticist visual art Lewis contributed to the magazine.
The magazine also intervened in modernist poetics, marking a transition in Pound‘s poetry. His own contributions to Blast were largely forgettable bluster that accomplished little, other than nearly causing publisher John Lane to pull the magazine.Pound’s “Fratres Minores” included mentions of testicles and of orgasm — lines which had to be blacked out by hand by the women of the Rebel Arts Centre, Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders, though the ineffective blacking was said to have increased sales (O’Keeffe 156, Carpenter 250). But if Pound’s first moves away from his short Imagist poems into something attempting to convey polemical energy and critical power were failures as poetry (witness “Salutation The Third” in Blast 1), those “eleven nice blasty poems of mine,” as he called them (qtd. in Carpenter 245), certainly presaged the kinds of criticism Pound would later level in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley against what he would come to see as a sterile pre-War Imagism. His move toward an aggressively polemical poetry marked a shift in his poetic sensibility, one that would develop into the far more effective Cantos. In fact, Pound seems to have intended his “Vortex Pound” manifesto to reformulate Imagism.Perhaps disappointed in the slow sales of his Imagist anthology, Des Imagistes (first appeared in March, 1914), Pound had by this time attempted to realign the Imagism he had successfully launched through Harriet Monroe’s Chicago little magazine Poetry in 1913 and was advocating through the London little magazine The Egoist. Indeed, he was to cede the field of Imagist anthologies to Amy Lowell. Lewis had asked Pound to put on an Imagist Evening at the Rebel Art Centre, but it never occurred.
The Imagist “manifestoes” in the March 1913 issue of Poetry (“Imagisme,” ostensibly by F. S. Flint, and “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” by Pound) rhetorically downplayed their status as manifestoes. The tenets of Imagism they laid out were austere (e.g., “Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective. . . To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation” [Flint 199]) and largely evoked a literary tradition. Sappho, Catullus, and Villion were venerated as ancestors. And in 1913, Flint explicitly disavowed any relationship between Imagism and two prominent movements in the visual arts: “The imagists admitted that they were contemporaries of the Post Impressionists and the Futurists; but they had nothing in common with these schools” (Flint 199). Pound’s reformulation of modernist poetics through Vorticism, on the other hand, explicitly allied Imagism to modernist visual art.
Now embracing the strident manifesto form, Pound’s “Vortex Pound” in Blast mirrored a few statements from Lewis’s Blast manifestos about machinery, energy, and the nature of modern art (as Pound put it, “The Vortex is the point of maximum energy. / It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency” [Blast 1, 153]). Then he went on to elaborate an aesthetics of “the primary pigment,” in which “Every conception, every emotion presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. / It is the picture that means a hundred poems, the music that means a hundred pictures, the most highly energized statement, the statement that has not yet SPENT itself in expression, but which is the most capable of expressing” (153). Pound was not calling for a heightened synesthesia in poetry, noting that the primary form in which concepts were engaged by the artist “BELONGS TO THE ART OF THIS FORM. IF SOUND, TO MUSIC; IF FORMED WORDS, TO LITERATURE; THE IMAGE, TO POETRY; FORM, TO DESIGN; COLOUR IN POSITION, TO PAINTING; FORM OR DESIGN IN THREE PLANES, TO SCULPTURE; MOVEMENT TO THE DANCE OR TO THE RHYTHM OF MUSIC OR OF VERSES” (154). Pound then traced an “ancestry” for modernist aesthetics in a series of statements intended to emphasize the commonality of aesthetic principles across the arts (and, of course, he included his own statements about Imagism in the lineage).
“All arts approach the conditions of music.” — Pater.
“An Image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” — Pound.
“You are interested in a certain painting because it is an arrangement of lines and colours.” — Whistler.
The vorticist will use only the primary media of his art.
The primary pigment of poetry is the IMAGE.
The vorticist will not allow the primary expression of any concept or emotion to drag itself out into mimicry.
In painting Kandinski, Picasso.
In poetry this by, “H.D.”
Whirl up sea —
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.
While clearly still advocating Imagism (and trumpeting his role in it), Pound took the cross-media energies of the continental avant-garde as an invitation to rescript Imagism as a poetics of dynamism and energetic efficiency, rather than efficient, if perhaps static, austerity. While some critics have downplayed the significance of Blast and Vorticism to Pound’s poetry, his choice of one of H.D.’s most dynamic Imagist poems, “Oread,” to illustrate Vorticist poetics points to the Pound’s growing sense that Imagism must become a more active and dynamic poetic. Obviously the Great War turned Pound toward the polemical poetry of Hugh Selwyn Mauberleyand the Cantos, but Pound’s Blast contributions and his efforts to bring Imagism into line with the energies of Futurism and Vorticism were clearly a product of his collaboration with Lewis and the Vorticist painters in Blast.Unfortunately, the one thing his association of Blast achieved for him in the London literary world seems to have been censure. G. W. Prothero, editor of the Quarterly Review, which had published an article by Pound, told Pound that he would not publish material from anyone contributing to “such a publication as BLAST. It stamps a man too disadvantageously” (qtd. in Carpenter 250).
Blast 2 featured more poetry by Pound, and by Vorticists Helen Saunders and Jessica Dismorr, but it also published work by a poet who had not been included in the first issue: T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s poems in the issue, “Preludes” (probably written at Harvard between 1909 and 1911) and “Rhapsody of a Windy Night” (written in 1911), were his first publications in Britain. (Harriet Monroe in Chicago had published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry the month before.)
The War clearly cast a shadow across Blast 2. Almost all of its literary and visual work began to address the War explicitly. Lewis‘s editorials, as well as the first part of a never-finished piece entitled “The Crowd-Master,” turned to the seriousness of the War for modern civilization; the poetry, including Ford Madox Ford’s “The Old Houses of Flanders,” also took up the subject. Vorticism proved to be particularly good at conveying the experience of war, and much of the art published in Blast 2 was war art, such as Nevinson’s “On the Way to the Trenches,” Roberts’s “Combat,” and Wadsworth’s “Rotterdam” and “War Engine.” Indeed, many of the key artists and authors in Blast, including Lewis and Ford, joined the military and went into combat in WWI. Nevinson became an official war artist, and Wadsworth, while serving in the Navy, would even go on to “dazzle” British ships in Bristol and Liverpool, painting camouflage on their hulls that was not so different from his Vorticist art in Blast. Sadly, the “Vortex (written from the Trenches)” by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a sculptor so full of promise and accomplishment, concluded with the announcement “Mort Pour La Patrie.” The announcement continued, “after months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in a charge at Neuville St. Vaast, on June 5th, 1915” (Blast 2, 34).
Though Lewis made some effort to pick up the pieces of the Vorticist group after the war and had even attempted to get a third issue of Blast out in 1915, the “War Number” would be the magazine’s last. In 1920, Lewis exhibited with Group X, which included five former Vorticists among the ten exhibiting artists at the Mansard Gallery. But Blast had made its mark on little magazine publishing. Lewis’s own magazines in the 1920s, The Tyro (1921-22) and The Enemy (1927-29), clearly followed the paths he had started down with Blast, including an effort at the visual style of the earlier journal — so influenced by promotional culture — and an effort to present both literature and art together. Above all, he preserved the weight Blast gave to polemical editorials and rhetorically trenchant self-positioning. Other modernist publications in Britain and America would no longer return to the somewhat bland visual presentation even of their radical pre-War journals. Coterie (1919-20) and Edith Sitwell’s Wheels anthologies, for example, featured striking modernist covers. The Little Review (1914-1929) in America went from rather pedestrian covers in its Chicago years to the visually spectacular covers of its New York period in the late teens and early 1920s. Though not significant visually, Pound’s little magazine The Exile (1927-28) adopted Blast’s trenchant editorial emphasis. Blast’s engaging combination of modernist art and literature with audacious advertising strategies and polemics had an influence well beyond the journal’s short life-and makes it worthy of electronic publication in our own time, as we face our own resurgence of nationalism and question the role of art and literature in a mass-mediated world.
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