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)

Tag Archives: Vorticism

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

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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 …

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.

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.

My Love, the Crucified, hath sprung to life this morrow

William Roberts, 'The Resurrection', 1912