Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: Vorticism

John Armstrong Turnbull flies again

It’s more than five years (gulp) since I did a quick post on the nearly vanished “English Aeropittura” of John Armstrong Turnbull, the Biggles of “Group X”, the post-Vorticist show organised in 1920 by Wyndham Lewis. My thanks to Stephen Delaney, who points out that there are two paintings by Turnbull at the Canadian War Museum in addition to the one I posted. How did I miss these at the time? Or maybe they weren’t online then. But here are all three now, and rather a revelation they are too. William Roberts may have sniffed, but Lewis knew a good thing when he saw one. Click to enlarge the images.

 

These have a fine Vorticist sensibility, the two “new” works particularly. The inevitable comparison with the aeropittura of the second wave Futurism of twenty years later (Dottori or Crali) is a fair one, but there is no chunky fascist-Deco confidence here; we are in a vertiginously fragile world where verticals and horizontals have lost their bearings, and the Vortex is a tail-spin. The Red Air-fighter, in particular, is such a spiralling abstraction that it is impossible to decide whether in fact it has been displayed here sideways.

But beyond these, where on earth is the rest of Turnbull’s work? For starters, does anyone out there have an image of his pages in the “Group X” catalogue? It’s a shame that the Imperial War Museum does not have a painting by him. Very topically, this reminds me that I still have to see the applauded Wyndham Lewis exhibition at IWM North, on till next January. Does it include a Turnbull? I don’t think so. But meanwhile, here’s a helpful review by Nathan Waddell.

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The fabric of war

And so to the excellent Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays, and in particular to their “Fashion on the Ration” show, a fine selection of British WW2 utility and creativity in stitching, running till May next year, and very much worth a look in. I was taken aback by the outrageous up-market “propaganda” scarves and fabrics – clearly anticipating the rise of Lettrism in their sloganising. (Click for enlarged slides.)


In the book/gift shop on the way out I noticed that the entire IWM “Dazzle” range of WW1 merchandising is now being flogged off at half price. Actually, I’m not too surprised, given that the IWM’s collaborators on this range, the bright young people at Patternity (“the world’s leading cult pattern specialists”) don’t actually seem to get the idea of dazzle ship camouflage, and have “re-imagined” this Vorticist application as a sort of simplistic GCSE op art of counterchanged black and white stripes, which it ain’t at all. The contents of my half price Dazzle post card pack will give the idea – half a dozen good cards of the real thing and four lacklustre “re-imaginings”.

A couple of Vorticist angles

Following my previous post and new page on Cuthbert Hamilton, a couple more scraps relating to the Great English Vortex …

Helen Saunders, ‘Study for The Island of Laputa’ © Estate of Helen Saunders

In 1969 the d’Offay Couper Gallery put on Abstract Art in England 1913-1915, which claimed to be the first attempt since 1915 to display a comprehensive collection of Vorticist work. I’ve just acquired a copy of the catalogue, which reveals that the show was surprisingly rich, if a bit Bomberg-heavy. It also allows me to make a couple of small amendments to my “galleries” for Helen Saunders and Lawrence Atkinson (tabs above) by adding images of Saunders’s study for The Island of Laputa, and of the original version of Atkinson’s very beautiful Vital.

Lawrence Atkinson, ‘Vital’

In 1969 Dorothy Shakespear and Kate Lechmere (among others associated with the movement) were still alive. Blimey. But then, 1969 was only four years after the mid point between 1915 and now. And, as it says in BLAST 1, the Future is distant, like the Past, and therefore sentimental.

Meanwhile, it’s been two years since we looked in on the prolific craftsmanship of eBay seller Raymond of Mortlake, aka “mortlakeunion2009”, who is still feverishly banging out pastiches of Vorticist works, as well tackling the cubisms of Leger, Marcoussis, Popova, Gleizes and a dozen more, and who shows no signs of fatigue. (See previous posts here and here.) In his six years on eBay, Raymond has racked up nearly 1500 sales of paintings and drawings, often in batches to repeat buyers Europe-wide. Feedback shows that 99% are happy with what they know full well to be fakes, though in a few cases the penny seems to have dropped after the event:

“Too new for Saunders, but a nice composition in her style”

“art works are fake, reported to ebay”

“The watercolour was sticked on a carton with a sticked frame. Good for trash”

“faux authentique. Attention !”

“Foot[sic] tooth and nail to avoid giving a refund for substandard workds[sic]. Avoid”

“bad imitation, fake and FALSE PAINTING on cardboard modern replica”

(To this last, Mortlake has responded in bristling self-defence: “PAINTED ON OLD PAPER AND ATTACHED TO MODERN CARDBOARD”.)

Among the many hundreds of positives, one buyer has commented, apparently without a trace of irony, “love this sellers detailed provenance”.

I imagine Raymond perhaps as an embittered shop steward of the Communication Workers’ Union or TGWU (both have offices in Mortlake), burning away the midnight hours cranking out his decorative fakes as an act of social revenge. Or perhaps not. But anyway, here are a few more of his old Vorts, and some newer ones, just for the record or just for fun … (Click for slide show.)

David Bomberg


William Roberts


Wyndham Lewis

 

Cuthbert Hamilton: a poor little gallery

Hamilton as remembered by William Roberts

Hamilton as remembered by William Roberts

This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, delayed only by awareness of certain inadequacy where Cuthbert J Hamilton is concerned. Cuthbert who? You know, the invisible Vorticist, the one in a hat at the left of William Roberts’s Tour Eiffel group, the could-almost-be-anyone gent sitting (wearing spats?) in one of the Rebel Art Centre photos of 1914.

'Self Portrait' 1920

‘Self Portrait’ 1920

Our biographical knowledge of Hamilton is not much further on than forty years ago: within Wyndham Lewis’s network working on decorations for the Golden Calf, at the Omega Workshops and Rebel Art Centre, signing the BLAST manifesto. Special constable during the war, founded and produced ceramics at the Yeoman Pottery in Kensington, participant in the Group X show of 1920. Skip forty years to his death in Cookham in April 1959. One painting in the Tate, one pot at the V&A.

So on a new page (click here, or find the tab up top) are all the works by Hamilton I can find, put critically into some sort of chronological order. It’s not much, but some of it is excellent stuff …

‘I drag my body over yellow stones’: the Vorticist period writings of Jessie Dismorr

l'ingenueFollowing on from my page of images by Jessie (later Jessica) Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, a new bunch of drop-down pages is available among the tabs up above (or go here and find the links) on her writings from 1915 to 1922. Here are collected all her pieces from Blast 2 of 1915, from The Little Review of 1918-19, and from the manuscript poetry collection of 1918 given to John Storrs, with her piece on Russian art for The Tyro 2 of 1922, preceded by a general introduction. Maybe someone else has done this far better, or is about to, but I’m not aware of it, so here’s my best shot.

From the psychogeography of “June Night” to the dense and breathless metaphysics of the later poems, from aphorisms on aesthetics to feminist satires on the Pre-Raphaelite woman, there is much of interest here, not forgetting the savage attacks on Dismorr in The Little Review by Margaret Anderson and Yvor Winters that knocked the stuffing out of her literary self-confidence.

“To Strangers – all my curiosity and artlessness.
To my Lovers – an eternal regret.
To my Friends – more insistent demands, the last enigma of conduct, a few gifts.”

A little gallery for Jessie Dismorr

small self portraitAs we move into the centenary year of Blast, it seems like a good time to present a page of work by the uncommonly interesting Vorticist (and much else) Jessie, or Jessica, Dismorr. (To view the page, find the tab above or go here.)

So far I’ve managed to scrounge up 66 images of paintings and drawings from all periods, including what appears to be an image of James Joyce, and two likely Vorticist designs, among the papers of American sculptor John Storrs, that for all I know may previously have been overlooked.

As and when other images turn up, they will be added without announcement.

Dismorr was also a poet, and the (uncollected) texts of her Vorticist period are well worth reading – the stuff of a future page, no doubt.

More crap Vorticist forgeries

My post of July 14 drew attention to the renewed appearance on eBay of decorative fakes of Vorticist artworks, mostly  by a single seller. He or she has since gone into overdrive, today’s browse turning up 25 new items by “followers of” Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and William Roberts. All are signed, though none are dated; all are described as a “deceased estate purchase”, and all are offered by London seller mortlakeunion2009 at prices up to £50. Just for the record, I show them here – click on thumbnails for the galleries. Similar items are offered by Laura Knight, Henry Moore and Mark Gertler, plus assorted Russian and Czech modernists, some at rather higher figures. Young Mortlake seems to be doing quite well with his/her artwork judging by his/her feedback, which shows multiple sales to a number of buyers, though the identities of items sold are nearly all blanked out on the feedback list. Buyers are presumably bottom end “art dealers” who sell this stuff onwards at a profit – though at this standard why don’t they just bang out their own and cut out the wholesaler?


The first Lewis here (above) is a re-run of the composition shown in my earlier post. The pasticheur has got a little of the jizz of 1914 Lewis, leaving some pen lines open ended or taking them fractionally beyond intersections, and being careful not to erase too much of the pencil under-drawing. But the compositions are hardly dynamic, tight or coherent, some whole sections being sliced off by grossly extended diagonal or horizontal lines that are not at all integrated. Some areas of watercolour are carelessly edged, and the use of three stripes occasionally has more of the feel of Adidas than of the Vortex. Even so, the Lewises are perhaps the best of the bunch.


The Bombergs (above) are far less successful, appearing clumsy and unknowing. This is particularly true of the first shown here, as well as the two superficial attempts at Ju-Jitsu type compositions where the faker has completely failed to understand the structural processes as discussed in my recent post on Vorticism and quilting. The final Bomberg shown here is a composition that doubles as two of the Roberts imitations (below), while a third Roberts re-employs many of the same motifs. The first, more figure-based, Roberts is a direct but very hesitant copy of his 1913 Study for a Nativity.


One could say more, but these hardly deserve the discussion. Though at least they are a tad better than the same seller’s lumpy attempts at Laura Knight drawings, which have to be seen to be disbelieved.

Foreshortening

Glancing down over the back wall of the little station platform, I am appalled by the changed appearance of the “thirty” speed limit sign stencilled onto the road directly below. Gone are the familiar pert numerals within a neat oval, replaced by some gothic elongation, horribly steamrollered into a dead sausage in a most outrageous ratio of width to height, pulled beyond the limits of readability. What can have happened to it? Ah. This is how it really is.

thirty 2Much the same with time past, I guess. Some kids I have taught see time in two roughly equal parcels, Now and Olden Times. Now is anything within their living memory. Olden Times seem to begin (working backwards) roughly at the end of the 20th century and cover all events back to the birth pangs of the universe. Our foreshortening of previous centuries is always severe and misleading. At this distance the dead world looks trim and well proportioned, but walk up to it and you find that it is road kill, stretched and flattened out of all recognition, like Holbein’s skull.

In common with many, I have a morbid preference for a train seat facing the front, but as all the forwards seats are occupied today, I have no choice but to travel backwards. This is emphatically the wrong way, given that biologically we are made to face in one direction, namely towards the future. So now I am being catapulted backwards in time at a rapidly accelerating speed. But since time travellers are exempt from the rewind that affects their surroundings (never being reduced to babyhood or pre-existence), my brain is still working forwards, though it has to struggle against the impetus. The train is speeding up alarmingly; at this rate I will soon be back at the narrow end of perspective, wandering like an inept giant among the miniaturised scenes of my childhood.

rock drillAt the city of my destination, I find that there is nothing new to see at all. Indeed, some shops have become empty premises, reverting to the condition that preceded their opening. As I thought, this is very much time past. As the Art Gallery and Museum is unchanged, I am reduced to viewing some old favourites, in particular Epstein’s Rock Drill, whose robotic operator, perched in white over his monstrous black machine, welcomes me in his familiar, alienated manner. But of course this is a recent reconstruction of a radically modernist piece that was dismantled almost a century ago because of its unacceptable futurity. Though the drill is not reconstructed, but is a real drill – a found object, and an antique. As was Epstein’s original drill, not an antique at the time, though it would be now if it had survived. It occurs to me that the “new” drill might actually be a few years older than the “old” drill. So this is a backward looking recreation of a forward looking piece that has not survived, using an element that may be older than the original. Where exactly should I peg it on my time line?

I head back. On the ramp up to the station a very elderly man with a hard, white little beard is sheltering from the drizzle, unsmiling, as if living has little left to offer him. He holds on a pole a pink placard advertising Eyebrow Threading and Eyelash Extensions, perhaps in preparation for his imminent return to youthfulness by means of reincarnation.

My return train is already at the platform. As this is its terminus, will it proceed or reverse? Uncertain even as to which end the engine may be, I pick my seat. A fifty per cent chance, past or future. That’s fair. The train sways into movement. I have bet correctly, and am propelled towards the future, or rather back to the resumption of the present.

A few stations later, I am accosted by the oldest ticket inspector I have ever seen. His lack of height is amplified by a vicious stoop, and he proceeds like a nervous question mark. Maybe his expeditions through past and future and back again, repeated without mercy, have taken their toll on his metabolism; has he not been granted the time travellers’ immunity? He scrutinises my ticket, holding it an inch or two from his nose, and pronounces that I have offered him my outward half, not its return twin. This seems improbable, but when I ask if I might check the ticket myself, he presses it to his hollow chest and hobbles off with it, muttering that he will be back later. Which ticket was it, to past or future? And, given that they are not collected in at the barrier any more, what has happened to the other one? This is unsettling; I sense conspiracy. He does not return, and I conclude that he must be some variety of phantasm, an undead figment, a wobbling anomaly thrown up by the scraping time-plates.

At my home station it is still raining, just as it was when I started my journey. And, amazingly, my car is exactly where I left it. To my relief, I am back in the present moment. I retrieve my car keys and pick up where I left off.

Vorticism and quilting

Being averagely blokey, I’ll admit to a degree of resistance to the Kirstie-ish world of quilting. But when my wife recently dragged me through the doors of the York Quilt Museum, I was pleasantly converted. The main exhibition, till the end of this month, is “The Blossoming of Patchwork”, a hugely impressive display of British patchwork quilts and coverlets from the 1780’s to the 1820’s. Their instinctive good judgement puts to shame the neighbouring small show of 1990’s pieces, which, in sad contrast, manage somehow to combine overly brash colouring with a new-agey cheesiness.

One historical piece that made me think twice was a large quilt made up of half-square triangles, their sizes doubling in stages towards the margins. No image of this seems to be available online, but here’s a modern quilt based on roughly the same scheme, with a smaller triangle piece from the York collection that will give the approximate idea:

modern trianglestriangles

Are we looking here at the genesis of David Bomberg’s extraordinary 1913-14 paintings Ju-Jitsu and In the Hold? Perhaps not, given that there seems to have been no tradition of patchwork quilting among the working class Jewish communities in which Bomberg was raised. On the other hand, the similarity is striking, and an actual convergence of craft and early modernism did take place during these precise years in the productions of the Omega Workshop and the Rebel Art Centre, with which Bomberg would have been familiar, though not directly involved.

Ju-Jitsu

Ju-Jitsu

In the Hold

In the Hold

Images of the studies for the two paintings, in Richard Cork’s 1988 Tate catalogue of Bomberg, show exactly the same grids pencilled in. Not surprising, given that this type of squaring up has long been a standard method of enlargement from the study to the canvas, and Bomberg had employed it previously. What is surprising is that, in the process of drawing up Ju-Jitsu, he clearly had the breakthrough idea of incorporating the grid into the final composition. Both grids divide the composition into quarters, sub-divide into 64 and then insert the diagonals, halving the squares in the case of Ju-Jitsu, and quartering them for the more complex In the Hold. Of the two, Ju-Jitsu resembles better the quilt pattern, being similarly divided into squares and half-square triangles, as opposed to the rectangles and quarter triangles of In the Hold. If Bomberg had seen this sort of patchwork, it may well have suggested to him the idea of making visible the triangular grid by alternating the tones of adjacent triangles. The logical next step was to counter-change the tones within the triangles to reveal the figures.

Despite the visual impact of In the Hold, it’s possible that Bomberg concluded that this technique, with such a complex image, decomposed legibility too far; he did not use it for his next major piece The Mud Bath of 1914, nor for any subsequent work, though the study for The Mud Bath is similarly gridded.

Billings coverlet

Billings coverlet

At their best, the 18th and 19th century designs on show at York balance a formal and mathematical approach to composition with a random approach to colour and tone. Perhaps not exactly random, given that the maker must consciously select each piece of fabric, but certainly allowing for an element of chance. The Billings coverlet of 1805-10, justly the centrepiece of the show, exemplifies this: the tones of the positive shapes show no regular repetition within the precise construction, so that intellect and instinct are beautifully combined here, giving the piece a sort of classical but vernacular nobility.

crazy 1crazy 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But by the early 20th century formality and symmetry were no longer obligatory, as revealed by examples of the irregular “crazy” patchwork style in the Museum’s Heritage Collection. All of these are dated to the first two or three decades of the century. It can only have been the impact of cubism, no doubt filtered through English Vorticism, that made permissable such a revolution in patchwork design.

Some crap Vorticist forgeries

Hardly a revelation that enterprising eBayers have hit on modernist art as a rewarding field for forgery; after all, if a child of five could do that, it should be simple enough for you and me. And so the eBay art listings are spammed to overflowing with drawings by Picasso, Cocteau etc, “in the manner of” or simply sans provenance, a few with a hint of skill, but most hilariously inept. (Though Lowry is a gift for the amateur pasticheur, given that he did draw like a five year old. Fake Lowries probably outnumber all the rest put together.) It’s doubtful that buyers are fooled any longer; more that they hope that their friends might be fooled when they see it on the wall.

Fancy a Bomberg for £50? Vorticism looks a doddle, given that all you need is a sharp pencil and a decent ruler. I’ve noticed these four in recent weeks (click on them to enlarge) – a “Bomberg” drawing and oil, a “Saunders” watercolour and a “Lewis” drawing. The “Bomberg” drawing wouldn’t fool the mythical five year old, but the other three – all by the same hand, as the digital gold frames indicate – show a superficial familiarity with their targets. But the babyish primary colours of the “Saunders” hardly do justice to her skill as a colourist, and the composition, which attempts to employ her typical boxed shapes, is neither dynamic nor convincing. The “Lewis” pastiches some familiar shapes in the lower half, but the composition unravels towards the top, where shapes fight against the general movement. In the “Bomberg” oil, positive and negative shapes seem oddly out of proportion with each other. One could go on. Hah! Not quite so easy, is it?

With such weaknesses, are these remotely dangerous? You wouldn’t think so, but looking at what some top auction houses get away with these days …

(More Vorticist forgeries in the follow up here.)