Vorticism: New Perspectives, Mark Antliff and Scott W Klein (eds): Oxford University Press, 320 pp, £50, ISBN: 978-0199937660
The concatenation and growth of scientific theories … may be like the growth of a tree, which from the start is destined for a certain height, volume and longevity. The human mind, evolving its theorizing chain, may have such a circumscribed and restricted destiny … If you take this restricted point of view (and all human life is lived in some such assumption) art then will always be its ultimate necessity: it is what the philosopher comes to out of the discomfiture of his system; what, for the man in the street, cannot with impunity be divorced from the attitudes and very form of his religious belief; and it is the ideal check on the mechanical encroachments of science. ‑ Wyndham Lewis: “Essay on the objective of plastic art in our time” in Tyro, No 2, 1922
Vorticism is the name given to a very improbable moment in the history of twentieth century painting when, for a couple of years more or less coinciding with the outbreak of the First World War, a group of English painters appeared who could be counted among the most radically “abstract” painters in Europe ‑ indeed they could well be regarded as the most radical, perhaps even the first, group of abstract painters, since Kandinsky, despite his close association with the Blaue Reiter, Kupka, despite his association with the Cubists, and Mondrian were still working as isolated individuals and Malevich had not yet produced his first “Suprematist” work.
The emergence of Vorticism was all the more improbable because nothing in English painting seemed to have prepared the way for it. Surprising as Cubism was when the French public first became aware of it in 1910-11, it had been preceded by a series of “avant-garde” developments, all of which had a tendency to detach the understanding of colour and the manipulation of shapes from the need to present an illusion of real life in a three-dimensional space. But this had been resisted in England. England had not even experienced Impressionism. The major English Impressionist (Alfred Sisley), the major Irish “synthetist” (of the school of Gauguin and Van Gogh) Roderic O’Conor and the major Scottish fauve, (John Fergusson) all worked in Paris. When Roger Fry launched his exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists in 1910-11, he was introducing England to developments that had occurred in France in the 1880s.
I am not suggesting that this is something reprehensible on the part of English culture, only that the English adventure was notably different from the French adventure. The “Camden Town Group” which emerged in 1911 has sometimes been called “Late Impressionist”, largely because of a fondness for small brushstrokes giving a slightly blurred effect. But the concerns of the Camden Town painters ‑ who, as it happens, included Wyndham Lewis, soon to be the leading figure identified with Vorticism ‑ were wildly different from those of the Impressionists and their successors in France. They wanted to record urban life, often, but not necessarily, in its most banal and sordid aspects. Their technique as painters was being used to convey their understanding of a subject whereas already, even among the Impressionists, the subject was becoming a pretext for exploring the “object”, the painting itself as an organisation of interacting colours.
Roger Fry was developing round himself a small group of artists in different media who were very conscious of what was happening in France and Germany, and again Wyndham Lewis was briefly involved with them. But the Bloomsbury-based “Omega Workshop” ‑ despite some continuity with the British Arts and Crafts tradition ‑ was clearly following continental, especially French, models. This wasn’t necessarily a problem for Lewis and his friends since even after they had broken with Omega they continued to call themselves “English Cubists”. The term “Vorticist” was adopted because they did not want to be identified with Italian Futurism.
Whereas Cubism remained safely installed in Paris and lacked a proselytising spirit, Futurism could be said to have invaded England in the noisy form of the poet FT Marinetti whose aggressive polemics and theatrical antics, supported in the early days by Lewis and his friends, made perfect copy for the popular press. As in Russia, Marinetti probably provided a useful stimulus to artists who were already breaking with old habits. But also as in Russia (and indeed as in Paris) his claim that a worldwide movement was developing in response to a specifically Italian initiative, obliged them to make it clear that they weren’t his followers. So Marinetti also provided a stimulus for the development of a theoretical literature as the painters, explaining why they weren’t Futurists, were obliged to explain what they were.
The Futurist idea could be summed up very crudely as a religious excitement attached to changes in technology, with a particular emphasis on the way in which such changes alter our sense of space and time ‑ what the world looks like from the air, or what it looks like when going by very fast. Lewis and his friends complained that this was really just an extension of Impressionism, in the most primitive understanding of the word ‑ the artist recording the impression made on him by some phenomenon in the outside world ‑ motor cars and aeroplanes in the case of the Futurists, daffodils and outdoor garden parties in the case of the Impressionists. The art of the new English school, by contrast, would be based on clearly defined shapes which, whether or not they evoked some object in the outside world, would be willed and invented by the artist.
The need for a name of their own ‑ an “ism” ‑ arose when, in June 1914, Marinetti and his closest English supporter, the young Christopher Nevinson, produced a “Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art”, published in The Observer and other mainstream journals, praising as vital English artists Lawrence Atkinson, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Wyndham Lewis, Nevinson himself, William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth. Nevinson compounded the offence by giving as his address the “Rebel Art Centre”, which had been set up under Lewis in opposition to Fry’s Omega Workshop (like Fry’s workshop and in conformity with the Arts and Crafts tradition it advertised itself as a centre specialising in interior decoration).
The actual term Vorticism was invented by Ezra Pound. In a letter to his friend and fellow poet William Carlos Williams, written in December 1913, he had used the term vortex to refer generally to the city as opposed to the country and later it became a general term referring to a metropolis such as London and Paris which drew into itself a large mass of talent and constituted a cultural centre. Pound’s lifelong concern ‑ the subject of The Cantos and the motive for his support for Mussolini ‑ was the creation of the social circumstances in which culture could flourish as it had flourished in the Italian Renaissance and such vortices played a role in the process as he imagined it. He had also used the term in a way that was specific to poetry. He had been attempting for the previous few years to launch a school of poetry called “Imagism” or, somewhat irritatingly, Imagisme. In his essay entitled “Vorticism”, published in The New Age in January 1915, he declared: “the image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which and through which and into which ideas are constantly rushing.” And he continues: “It is as true for the painting and sculpture as it is for the poetry. Mr Wadsworth and Mr Lewis are not using words, they are using shape and colour … The organisation of forms is a much more energetic and creative action than the copying or imitating of light on a haystack.”
A vortex is basically a spinning cone turning round a centre that is itself empty and still. Hence Wyndham Lewis declares: “The Vorticist is at his maximum point of energy when stillest.” This period, round the beginning of the war, was the period when Pound was closest to Yeats and one might wonder if there is a relationship between Pound’s vortex and the “gyres” that were central to the system of Yeats’s A Vision, worked out in the 1920s. We will soon be encountering in the Vorticist circle TE Hulme, who developed a cyclical theory of history that bears some resemblance to that which was soon to be developed by Yeats. Also, considering that the only poet I know of who deserves to be called a Vorticist in Pound’s understanding of the term ‑ that is, whose images are sufficiently simple and powerful ‑ is Edgar Allen Poe, I wonder if Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom, which he describes as a vortex, might have had something to do with the development of the idea.
Vorticism as a movement was launched with the publication of Blast in July 1914, a rather inauspicious moment, just prior to the outbreak of war. Blast was intended to be a quarterly review but in the event only two issues appeared ‑ as in 1921 Lewis launched The Tyro, which only ran to two issues and in 1927 The Enemy, which ran to three issues, almost exclusively written by Lewis.
Blast is best known for its aggressive layout and its first “Manifesto” with its list of things that are disapproved ‑ blasted ‑ and approved ‑ blessed. That, however, like the famous aggressive, unreadable sans serif typeface, is just flim-flam. Of much greater interest is the second manifesto, obviously written by Lewis, giving some idea of what he thought might constitute a distinctively English art in relation to the Futurist fascination with speed. It argues that:
The Modern World is due almost entirely to the Anglo Saxon genius ‑ its appearance and its spirit. Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else … but busy with this LIFE-EFFORT, she has been the last to become conscious of the Art that is an organism of this new Order and Will of Man … Once this consciousness towards the new possibilities in present life has come, however, it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe. It should also, as it is by origin theirs, inspire them more forcibly and directly. They are the inventors of this bareness and hardness, and should be the great enemies of Romance.
The Manifesto is signed by (in alphabetical order) Richard Aldington, a poet, one of Ezra Pound’s Imagists, who quickly dissociated himself from the movement; Malcolm Arbuthnot, a photographer who, as early as 1908, had been exploring the “abstract” possibilities of photography; Lawrence Atkinson, a painter, perhaps the oldest member of the group; the young French sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, Jessica Dismorr, who, like Atkinson, had studied under the Scottish Fauve painter JD Fergusson in the Académie de la Palette in Paris; Cuthbert Hamilton, contemporary with Lewis at the Slade School of Art; Ezra Pound; William Roberts, painter, part of a later generation of students at the Slade; the painter Helen Saunders ‑ her name misspelt as “Sanders”; Edward Wadsworth, a contemporary of William Roberts at the Slade; and Lewis, coming last by virtue of the “Wyndham”. His full name was Percy Wyndham Lewis but he couldn’t stand and never used the “Percy”, which didn’t fit his aggressive persona. Fate, however, played an unkind trick on him in the 1920s when a writer completely unknown and unrelated to him appeared with the name DB Wyndham Lewis, with the result that “Percy” became the means commentators used to distinguish them.
To that list could be added the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the painter Frederick Etchells, younger than Lewis but a friend from his pre-Vorticist days, and David Bomberg, contemporary of Wadsworth and Roberts at the Slade. His In the Hold and The Mud Bath are widely regarded as the outstanding paintings of the period but, although he undoubtedly belongs with the group and was particularly close to Roberts, he always kept a distance, and never identified himself as a Vorticist.
The standard history of Vorticism is Richard Cork’s great study Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, published in 1976, two years after the exhibition Vorticism and its Allies which he organised in the Hayward Gallery – a great work of archaeology apart from anything else since so much of the work done at the time had since been lost. Cork’s account has the form of a story, summed up in the titles of his two volumes – “Origins and Development” and “Synthesis and Decline”. And the story has a hero ‑ not any of the painters, not even Lewis, but “abstract art”, meaning non-representational art. The story tells how this group of painters approached a fully non-representational art through 1912-13, more or less achieved it by 1914-15, were disrupted as most of them engaged in the war and then, one by one, lost faith in it, moving on to other things. Sharing Cork’s view that non-representational was the great adventure of twentieth century painting I like this approach. But it is not the only way in which the story could be told. In particular it is not the only way to approach the evolution of Lewis, a stubborn man, not easily thrown off course by the fashions of the age.
Which provides an opening for other possible approaches. Like Cork’s book, Vorticism: New Perspectives, edited by Mark Antliff and Scott Klein, follows on from a major exhibition ‑ The Vorticists ‑ Manifesto for a Modern World ‑ which was shown in 2010-11 in Duke University, North Carolina, where Antliff is based, before moving on to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and to Tate Britain. New Perspectives is made up of the papers read in the wake of an exhibition at a symposium in Duke University. It has the usual character of a symposium ‑ a collection of broadly unrelated perceptions. Insofar as there is a connecting theme, a hero whose story can be told, it is not, as in Cork’s book, “abstract art” but the hopelessly amorphous concept of “modernism”. The editors have tried to provide some coherence by grouping it into themes ‑ the European context, Machine Aesthetics, Vorticism in America, and something called Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism and After, which might have talked interestingly about Lewis’s later development, but doesn’t.
Cork’s book is out of print and I know of no work that could replace it as a general introduction. New Perspectives, again typically of an academic symposium, presupposes a good basic knowledge on the part of the reader. It also suffers from too much concentration on Wyndham Lewis. Atkinson, Etchells, Hamilton and, even more surprisingly, Roberts and Bomberg, barely get a mention (I shall use that as an excuse for doing the same, though they deserve better). There are good articles on Wadsworth and on Jessie Dismorr and Helen Saunders. Mark Antliff himself writes on Gaudier-Brzeska and his relations with the anarchist ideology of Dora Marsden, the extraordinary power behind the journals The Freewoman, The New Freewoman and The Egoist, the last of these named for her enthusiasm for the philosophy of Max Stirner and his book The Ego and its Own. But this is really a long footnote to the article he had published on Gaudier in the exhibition catalogue. I found the article by his brother, Alan Antliff, Ezra Pound, Man Ray and Vorticism in America ‑ particularly interesting, dealing as it does with a moment when Man Ray was thinking seriously about the world, before he succumbed to the blandishments of Marcel Duchamp. But though the article did turn on themes related to Dora Marsden’s The Egoist the connection with Vorticism as such was tenuous (the anarchist bookstore Man Ray frequented apparently stocked Blast). I felt the same about the contributions from Rebecca Beasley on relations with Russia, Martin Puchner on the theatre and Douglas Mao, a rather wandering reflection on Lewis’s paintings The Crowd and A Battery Shelled in their relation to the general theme of personal celebrity. The book doesn’t succeed in what is presented as its main aim ‑ to show that Vorticism had very wide ramifications. It doesn’t widen the ramifications beyond what had already been established by Cork.
But perhaps I was unfairly predisposed against it from the start. When it was offered to me for review I thought it was going to be a whole book by Mark Antliff, and that could have been very interesting. Antliff was the author of the influential study Inventing Bergson, published in 1993. He argues there that the intellectual atmosphere in which Cubism was born in Paris had been deeply affected by a controversy that had broken out in the ranks of the right-wing monarchist movement Action française. The founding theorist of Action française, Charles Maurras, had proclaimed the seventeenth century and the reign of Louis XIV to be the high point of French culture. The Latin spirit, he believed, was necessarily classical and continuous with the tradition of Greece and Rome. But another tendency had developed within the movement which had socialist sympathies but rejected the socialist emphasis on material well-being. They had turned to Action française as a vehicle for the assertion in politics of what might be called spiritual values but believed that the primacy of spirit had been established on a scientific, or at least firm philosophical basis in the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Bergson stressed the manner in which our understanding of spatial categories (and therefore of material reality) were undermined by the action of time, and he argued for “intuition” ‑ of the sort assumed to be possessed both by artists and by animals ‑ as a means of grasping the reality of the world that was more direct and more complete than could be achieved by intellectual analysis. The best known writer associated with what we might call this “left wing” of Action française ‑ though he was not actually a member ‑ was Georges Sorel.
Antliff exaggerates the importance of this for Cubism, particularly with regard to its political implications, but there can be no doubt of its importance for French culture as a whole. It also touches closely on the intellectual history of Vorticism, most obviously in the person of TE Hulme, who in 1914 came forward as a major defender and theorist of the new art. Hulme was particularly closely associated with Pound, who recognised him as having been, in 1909, the real originator of his own “Imagist” school of poetry, though Hulme’s own poetic output was famously slight. After he had renounced poetry for philosophy, what claimed to be his “complete poetical works” were published as an appendix to Pound’s Ripostes in 1912. In a series of articles written in the most impressive of the small reviews of the time ‑ AR Orage’s The New Age ‑ Hulme had established himself as a leading British defender and interpreter of Bergson, publishing a translation of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence in New York in 1912 and of Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics in 1913.
In 1924 a selection of his writings was published, edited by Herbert Read, under the title Speculations. Wallace Martin points out in his study The New Age under Orage that though its polemics against “Romanticism in literature, Relativism in ethics, Idealism in philosophy and Modernism in religion” appeared quite startling in 1924, they seemed less unusual in the context in which they first appeared. “In fact, the reaction against Romanticism and the philosophy of Liberalism (which Nietzsche defined as the “transformation of men into cattle”) was one of the most significant features of The New Age during these years.”
In an essay published in Speculations – “The Philosophy of Intensive Manifolds” ‑ Hulme presents Bergson’s philosophy as a defence against what he calls (quoting Huxley) “the nightmare of determinism” ‑ essentially the nightmare that as everything can be explained, everything can be seen as inevitable. Hulme interprets Bergson as seeing this as a necessary consequence of overreliance on the intellect. While the intellect and its methods of analysis can “deal with matter … it is absolutely incapable of understanding life. In explaining vital phenomena it only distorts them, in exhibiting them as very complex mechanical phenomena. To obtain a complete picture of reality it is necessary to employ another faculty of the mind which, after defining it, Bergson calls ‘intuition’.” The world that could be analysed, spread out in its different aspects, was called the “extensive manifold”; the world of the real experience of life, continuous in time and indivisible, therefore not subject to analysis, was the “intensive manifold”. Hulme believed that by such means the real integrity of the human person, possessed of free will, could be defended in opposition to the mechanical conception of the universe.
Around 1911-12, however ‑ just about the time when the body of ideas that would issue in Vorticism was forming ‑ Hulme began to declare a disillusionment with Bergson, apparently as a result of his interest in the thinking of Pierre Lasserre, editor of the Revue de l’Action française and himself very much located on the “classical” side of the movement, best known for his polemics against le Romantisme française. Hulme visited Lasserre in April 1911 and Lasserre seems to have persuaded him that to accept Bergson’s notion of the élan vital as the driving force of “creative evolution” would be to envisage an infinite and unpredictable process of change running not just through nature but through human nature. Such a view would be destructive of human culture since it would imply that the past belonged to a quite different human species and therefore had no relevance to the future. In this view Bergsonism was a variety of romanticism, understood as the conviction that man, free of inhibiting rules and taboos, was capable of an infinite process of self perfection. Bergson’s élan vital is not God ‑ at least not God as traditionally conceived standing outside nature ‑ but a force of nature, and we are its manifestations. There is nothing higher than ourselves except the future, which is infinite in its possibilities.
As Alan Robinson points out in his excellent Poetry, Painting and Ideas, 1885-1914 (curiously absent from the bibliography of New Perspectives) there is a period in which Hulme divides himself in two on the question of Bergson. He continues to defend him under his own name in his series of “Notes on Bergson” in the pages of the New Age. But at the same time, under the pseudonym Thomas Gratton, he developed Lasserre’s anti-Bergsonian argument in the pages of a small right-wing journal called The Commentator, in which he also wrote a series of articles on “The Tory Philosophy”. Robinson points out that at more or less the same time TS Eliot, who would soon be closely associated with Pound and Hulme, was going through a similar struggle for and against Bergson.
In contrast, then, to Bergson’s emphasis on flux and change as the major characteristic of reality, Hulme began to feel the need for fixity and continuity in human affairs. A useful article by Henry Mead on “The Evolution of TE Hulme’s Thought” quotes him as saying in 1912:
There is always at the back of romanticism a certain characteristic exhilaration … It betrays itself in certain clichés, breaking down barriers, freedom, emancipation, and the rest of it; but above all, it betrays itself in the epithet NEW. One must believe that there is a NEW art, a NEW religion, even a NEW age.
After the fifth of his “Notes on Bergson”, published in February 1912, Hulme disappears for a while from The New Age, only to reappear early in 1914 as the defender of what one might have thought was a “NEW art” ‑ the art that would soon came to be known as Vorticism. He had not previously shown any signs of any particular interest in painting but now he appears in particular as a champion of “abstract” art. One could say that it was precisely the possibility of “abstract” art that excited his interest in painting. It can never be sufficiently stressed how many of the pioneers of what is called “modernism” saw themselves as deeply anti-modernist.
His thinking was now influenced by an encounter with the young German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, author of the highly influential Abstraction and Empathy. Hulme heard Worringer lecture in Berlin in October 1913 and in January 1914 he himself delivered a lecture largely based on Worringer’s ideas to an audience that included Pound and Lewis. The lecture was later published under the title Modern Art and its Philosophy. Worringer was not ‑ at least at the time he published Abstraction and Empathy ‑ particularly concerned with “modern art”. He belonged to a school of German art historians who argued that the art of different human cultures should not be judged by “modern” ‑ meaning at the time “realist” or “naturalist” ‑ criteria:
Every style represented the maximum bestowal of happiness for the humanity that created it. This must become the supreme dogma of all objective consideration of the history of art. What appears from our standpoint the greatest distortion must have been at the time, for its creator, the highest beauty and the fulfilment of his artistic volition. Thus all valuations made from our standpoint, from the point of view of our modern aesthetics, which passes judgement exclusively in the sense of the Antique [meaning classical Graeco-Roman ‑ PB], are from a higher standpoint absurdities and platitudes.
In particular Worringer identified “abstraction” and “empathy” as the perfectly valid though contradictory expressions of two quite different ways of experiencing the world. Empathy was characteristic of the art of a society at ease with its environment ‑ the artist loved what he saw around him and wanted to reproduce it in his art. It was a pantheistic art ‑ nature and its appearances were seen as embodying the highest, divine principles. Abstraction by contrast was an art that was suspicious of the world, seeing it as an unruly chaos that needed to be disciplined:
Whereas the precondition for the urge to empathy is a happy pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world, the urge to abstraction is the outcome of a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world; in a religious respect it corresponds to a strongly transcendental tinge to all notions. We might describe this state as an immense spiritual fear of space … The less mankind has succeeded, by virtue of its spiritual cognition, in entering into a relation of friendly confidence with the appearance of the outer world, the more forceful is the dynamic that leads to the striving after this highest abstract beauty.
Worringer was not using the term “abstract” to mean strictly “non-representational”. He assumes that a strictly non-representational pattern could only be “decorative” in the most superficial meaning of the word, incapable of expressing anything of human value. Nonetheless the publication of Abstraction and Empathy is certainly an important event in the history of “abstract art” in the twentieth century. It was ‑ by accident rather than design ‑ published in Munich, in 1908, and, probably to Worringer’s surprise, was taken up by the group of artists living in Munich ‑ Franz Marc, Alexei Jawlensky, Wassiliy Kandinsky, Paul Klee ‑ the German “Expressionists”. Behind Worringer’s use of the word “abstract”, however, was another German painter and theorist of art, the Benedictine monk Peter Lenz, founder of the “School of Beuron”, which aimed to do for ecclesiastical art what the revival of Gregorian chant had done for ecclesiastical music (the monastery of Beuron was an important centre of Gregorian chant). In his essay “The Aesthetic of Beuron”, Lenz said:
For us, however, the ideas of the eternal and divine are abstract; they do not allow themselves to be brought down to this region without being weakened; they may not be translated into a purely human manner and style. The God-Man, Christ Himself, is not revealed, even when I produce the most exalted model; there is always an “inexpressible” left over, which I can only indicate by typical-geometrical means.
Again, it was not a question of a “new” art but an attempt to understand the principles of an old art, better suited to the religious sensibility than the sensual opulence of baroque, rococo or romanticism. The Beuron art was flat, hieratic and obviously based on simple geometrical figures and relations, deliberately following ‑ in the case of Lenz ‑ Egyptian or ‑ in the case of his disciple Paulus Krebs – “Byzantine” (I would rather say “Eastern Roman”) models. Through Gauguin’s pupil, Paul Sérusier, Lenz’s argument for an austere geometrical painting was well known in Paris on the eve of Cubism.
One of the articles in New Perspectives ‑ Andrzej Gąsiorek’s “Modern art in England circa 1914: Hulme and Wyndham Lewis” ‑ looks at the relationship between the theory Hulme was advancing and the idea Wyndham Lewis had as to what he was doing. It begins with Lewis himself reminiscing and insisting that among all the artists associated with the movement it was really only his own work that corresponded to Hulme’s idea of abstraction: “In England there was no one else working in consonance with an abstract theory of art to the same extent as myself. Neither Gaudier not Epstein would in the end have been ‘abstract’ enough to satisfy the requirements of this obstinate abstractionist. He would have had to fall back on me.”
We happened, that is all, to be made for each other, as critic and “creator”. What he said should be done, I did. Or it would be more exact to say that I did it, and he said it.
While Lewis obviously wants to make it clear he wasn’t simply following a programme laid out for him by Hulme he is still suggesting that Hulme’s theory was indeed a good account of his own practice. Gąsiorek disagrees. He argues that where Hulme’s abstraction, following Worringer, is based on a state of alienation from the world, Lewis sees it as a means of entering into harmony with it.
But Hulme is not quite so categorical as Worringer in suggesting that abstract art is based on “a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world … an immense spiritual fear of space”. Summarising what Worringer has to say about the “space-shyness” of “primitive people” he says:
In art this state of mind results in a desire to create a certain 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 a characteristic of all vital arts [the word “vital” used here is descriptive, not an expression of admiration ‑ PB] but the exact contrary. In the reproduction of natural objects there is an attempt to purify them of their characteristically living qualities in order to make them necessary and immovable. The changing is translated into something fixed and necessary. This leads to rigid lines and dead crystalline forms, for pure geometrical regularity gives a certain pleasure to men troubled by the obscurity of outside appearance. The geometrical line is something absolutely distinct from the messiness, the confusion, and the accidental details of existing things.
But he continues:
It must be pointed out that this condition of fear is in no sense a necessary presupposition of the tendency to abstraction. The necessary presupposition is the idea of disharmony or separation between man and nature. In people like the Indian or the Byzantine this feeling of separation takes quite another form.
The crucial thing, then, is not fear but “the idea of disharmony or separation between man and nature”. Gąsiorek argues though that this was not what was motivating Lewis:
Lewis departed from Worringer and Hulme when he suggested that artists should not reject this seemingly inhospitable environment because “most wise men … have remained where they found themselves, their appetite for life sufficient to reconcile them, and allow them to create significant things.” He made substantially the same argument in Blast when he declared that “art must be organic with its Time” (p.34) and proclaimed that the “enormous, jangling, journalistic, fairy desert of modern life serves [the modern artist] as Nature did more technically primitive man.
We have already seen him in Blast boasting that this “fairy desert of modern life” is the creation of the “Anglo-Saxon genius”, which should therefore be best qualified to know how to deal with it. Also in Blast ‑ in a passage not quoted by Gąsiorek ‑ he says, with obvious reference to Worringer:
The African we have referred to cannot allow his personality to venture forth or amplify itself, for it would dissolve in vagueness of space.
It has to be swaddled up in a bullet-like lump.
But the modern town dweller of our civilization sees everywhere fraternal moulds for his spirit and interstices of a human world.
He also sees multitude, and infinite variety of means of life, a world and elements he controls.
It is however dangerous to jump to conclusions too quickly when quoting Lewis. This passage in “The New Egos” continues:
Impersonality becomes a disease with him …
Life is really no more secure, or his egotism less acute, but the frontiers interpenetrate, individual demarcations are confused and interests dispersed …
We all today (possibly with a coldness reminiscent of the insect world) are in each other’s vitals ‑ overlap, intersect and are Siamese to any extent [sic ‑ PB].
Promiscuity is normal; such separating things as love, hatred, friendship are superseded by a more realistic and logical passion …
Love, hatred, etc., imply conventional limitations.
All clean, clear cut emotions depend on the element of strangeness, and surprise and primitive detachment.
Dehumanization is the chief diagnostic of the modern world.
From this we would conclude that though modern man is indeed entering into a sort of pantheistic harmony with the outer world, Lewis sees his task as an artist as a matter of reasserting the separation, the “clean, clear cut emotions”, the strangeness.
But in any case it was no part of Hulme’s argument to suggest that the artist should not use the characteristics of the world about him. After all one could argue that the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite or Gothic architect was out of harmony with the industrial world that was developing around him and escaping from it into the past. Hulme is as emphatic as Lewis in rejecting this approach. He is as insistent as Lewis that his “new modern geometrical art” would be related to the “bareness and hardness” which Lewis took as characteristic of the world created by the “Anglo Saxon genius”:
Expressed generally there seems to be a desire for austerity and bareness, a striving towards structure and away from the messiness and confusion of nature and natural things. Take a concrete thing like the use of line and surface. In all art since the Renaissance, the lines used are what may be called vital lines. In any curve there is a certain empirical variation which makes the curve not mechanical. The lines are obviously drawn by a hand and not by a machine. You get Ruskin saying that no artist could draw a straight line. As far as sensibility goes you get a kind of shrinking from anything that has the appearance of being mechanical. 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 shrinking of that kind whatsoever. 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 engineer’s 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. You will find a sculptor disliking the pleasing kind of patina that comes in time on an old bronze and expressing admiration for the hard clean surface of a piston rod … (“Modern Art and its Philosophy” in Speculations)
This passage is actually prophetic. In a very short time ‑ Dutch De Stijl, French Purists, German Bauhaus ‑ it would be a commonplace but at the beginning of 1914 it could not be said of Italian Futurists, French Cubists or German Expressionists. It could begin to be said of Lewis himself and we may indeed see this as a characteristic in which the English (as yet to be named) Vorticists were “ahead of the curve”. This may help to explain something that otherwise puzzles me and that is Hulme’s enthusiasm for Epstein and in particular for The Rock Drill, and his view that this is represents a new stage that goes beyond what he calls “analytical Cubism”. The Rock Drill seems to me very far from being “abstract” in the sense we have been discussing. It is however mechanical.
But to return to Wyndham Lewis. The author of the “play” The Enemy of the Stars and the novels Tarr, The Childermass and The Apes of God could hardly be said to be a man at ease with his environment. There is nothing about him that suggests pantheism ‑ the view that God, or the gods, are manifest in the world as we experience it ‑ either natural or man-made. One of the keys to understanding Lewis as an artist I think lies in the reference in one of the essays in Blast (“Life is the important thing”) to Honoré Daumier:
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?
There is only one thing better than “Life” ‑ than using your eyes, nose, ears and muscles ‑ and that is something very abstruse and splendid, in no way directly dependent on “Life”. It is no EQUIVALENT for Life, but ANOTHER Life, as NECESSARY to existence as the former.
Daumier, whose work was saturated with reference to Life, has been, for instance, used to support imitation of Nature, on grounds of a common realism. This man would have been no more capable of squatting down and imitating the forms of life day after day than he would have been able to copy one of his crowds.
It was Life that MOVED MUCH TOO QUICKLY FOR ANYTHING BUT THE IMAGINATION that he lived for. He combined in his art great plastic gifts with great literary gifts, and was no doubt an impure painter, according to actual standards. But it was great literature, along with great art. And as far as “Life” is concerned, the Impressionists produced nothing that was in any sense a progress from this great realist, though much that was a decadence.
Daumier was a caricaturist and his caricatures were deliberately grotesque. Lewis too was a caricaturist, both before Vorticism and after Vorticism. Lewis praises Daumier for his “literature”. Lewis of course is as well known as a writer as he is as a painter, and the characters in his writing are as grotesque as the characters in his painting. He admired Hogarth, Rowlandson and Swift. How do we account for his brief but so convincing foray into abstract painting? What made him a Vorticist?
I do not wish to suggest that Lewis was won over by the arguments advanced by Hulme. Lewis was such a stubborn mauvaise tête that it would be hardy to suggest any such simple relation of cause and effect. Nonetheless, Lewis’s transformation from caricature to abstraction occurred in late 1913, early 1914, which was also the time when Hulme was developing the ideas given in his lecture of January 1914, and Lewis’s art over the next two years seems to fit Hulme’s argument almost like a glove.
Even so, the change was continuous with Lewis’s early work. It can easily be seen in the progressive abstraction of his Timon of Athens series (I am assuming incidentally that by definition anyone reading the online Dublin Review of Books will have access to the internet and can consult these works through Google Images). Timon of Athens – Shakespeare’s play about the transformation of a philanthropist into a misanthrope ‑ is almost perfect material for Lewis the creator of grotesques. Vorticism ‑ New Perspectives opens with an analysis of Timon of Athens by Frederic Jameson, arguing first of all that it is a very great achievement and secondly that it is symptomatic of a lifelong struggle in Lewis between the curve and the straight line ‑ the curve expressive of the dynamic, the organic, the sensual, and the straight line as the stable structure of materiality. This of course is one of the great themes in all painting, especially twentieth century painting, and it is hugely frustrating to me that the best discussion of it, that of Albert Gleizes in his books Form and History, Homocentrism and Man Become Painter, is completely unknown to most modern aesthetic theorists.
Jameson goes on to say that Cubism resolved the dilemma in favour of the straight line – “Cubism attempted to submit the round to the domination of the square” ‑ while “Futurism, far closer to Vorticism than Cubism ever was, places its bets on speed and on the power of high velocities to transform everything in its path into the rectangular, into vectors and winds, arrows and tornadoes … Meanwhile it is the round, which we may simply take to be the category of the independent free standing object or body, that remains unreduced to its subatomic elements.”
I give that last sentence, though it would probably take me another article to show how utterly wrongheaded it is. The difficulty of reconciling straight line and curve lies in the fact that the curve, launching the eye into movement, is of the nature of time, while the straight line is the means by which ‑ in an abstract work of art, using the terms as understood by Worringer and Hulme ‑ we structure and learn to appreciate space. Jameson goes on to relate this tension – “the warring intersection ‑ the mortal struggle ‑ of the square and the round” ‑ to Lewis’s whole career, with the square predominating in “the peculiarly sterile concatenation” of Lewis’s painting The Crowd and the round “culminating in the remarkable nudes of which Edwards [another contributor to New Perspectives ‑ PB] has observed that ‘line’ in them takes priority of the model.” But his main argument about the Timon of Athens series is that here the tension or, indeed, war is at its most acute.
In stressing that this is very far removed from the concerns of Cubism, however, Jameson seems to me to be far off the mark. 1913, the year when Lewis produced Timon of Athens, also saw the publication of an English translation of the book Cubism by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. I cannot claim to have read the whole literature on Vorticism but in the material that has come my way I have never seen this mentioned (it is, I am happy to say, mentioned in the chronology of the catalogue for the Antliff and Greene exhibition). I do not know who organised it, or who did the translation but it seems to me improbable that the publication of what was seen at the time as the manifesto of French Cubism would have gone unnoticed by the group that was still in December 1913 (the time of the “Cubist Room” in the Exhibition of the Work of English Post Impressionists, Cubists and others in Brighton) calling themselves Cubists. Hulme refers to it in his talk in January 1914, albeit somewhat dismissively:
I look at most cubist pictures with a certain feeling of depression. They are from a certain point of view, confused. If I may be allowed to go against my own principles for a minute, and to describe abstract things in a metaphor borrowed from organic life, I should say they look rather like embryos. I think they will soon open out and grow distinct. I picture what is about to happen in this way. A man whose form is, as it were, dimly discerned in hay, stands up, shakes the hay off him, and proceeds to walk, i.e. he proceeds to do something. Dropping the metaphor then, cubism ceases to be analytical, and is transformed into a constructive geometrical art. The elements and the method patiently worked out by analysis begin to be used. If you want a concrete example of the difference I mean, compare the work illustrated in Metzinger’s book on cubism, with that of Mr Epstein and Mr Lewis.
The illustrations in Cubism (and in the French original) are indeed unimpressive-looking small black and white photographs of sometimes very large paintings. But even if Hulme had seen the originals ‑ he was a frequent visitor to Paris ‑ he could well have felt the painting technique was too naturalistic, too blurred, lacking the hard mechanical edge he liked in Epstein and Lewis.
He also talks about “certain elements of Cubism, what I might call analytical cubism ‑ the theories about interpenetration which you get in Metzinger for example”. I know as much as anyone about Metzinger’s views on art but I can’t be sure what Hulme is talking about here. Possibly the view expressed in Cubism that elements widely scattered in space and time can be brought together in a single work, which is obviously not likely or desirable in a “new complex geometrical art” of the sort envisaged by Hulme. But Metzinger also argued for the possibility of opening out the object represented ‑ even a human face ‑ so that it could be seen from different angles simultaneously. This is almost certainly what Hulme means by the term “analytical Cubism”. It doesn’t appear ‑ or only appears in passing ‑ in Cubism but it was much talked about and it is the result of a process of intellectual analysis that rather resembles the “extensive manifold” as Hulme describes it in Bergson.
But the main point I want to make here is that the tension between straight line and curve is a major theme in Cubism which is far from wanting to “submit the round to the domination of the square”:
The science of drawing can be summed up thus: it consists in the institution of relations between curves and straight lines. A painting which contained only straight lines or curves would not express existence.
It would be the same for a painting in which curves and straight lines balanced each other exactly, since an absolute equivalence amounts to a zero.
The diversity of the relations between the lines must be indefinite; that is the condition on which it is able to embody quality, which is the sum, not susceptible to measurement, [la somme incommensurable] of the affinities that have been perceived between what we discern and what is pre-existent in us; that is the condition which the painting must fulfil if it is to be capable of moving us.
When Jameson evokes “Cubism” he is obviously thinking of the studio-based art of Picasso and Braque, with its very modest subject matter, but Gleizes and Metzinger’s book argues for an art in which “the plastic continuum must be broken up into a thousand surprises of fire and of shadow”. Thus, apart from the fact that the still figurative images in the Timon of Athens series are very chaotic, they are close in intention to the “epic Cubism” ‑ paintings on a large scale combining many heterogeneous elements ‑ of Gleizes and perhaps more so Le Fauconnier, with his Hunter and Mountaineers chased by Bears. I am not suggesting that Lewis was following the Cubists any more than that he was following Hulme but as his work of 1914 is consonant with the arguments of Hulme so it happens that his work of 1913 is consonant with the arguments of Gleizes and Metzinger.
We may indeed trace Lewis’s evolution in terms of this emphasis on straight line and curve as elements with a power in their own right, independent of the subject represented. In 1912 he is painting caricatures in which the influence of Daumier is obvious though the stylisation is more extreme. There is no particular emphasis on straight line or curve. In 1913 (Timon of Athens) the emphasis is still on grotesque caricature but the straight line and curve are emerging as elements in their own right. By the end of 1913 the representational-grotesque element is beginning to disappear. In 1914-15 the curve disappears. This is the phase that corresponds most closely to Hulme’s arguments, though Hulme, in his articles in The New Age mostly talks about Epstein and David Bomberg.
Lewis’s work of this period includes a number of drawings and sketches that are obviously based on architecture ‑ the painting called Workshop, the little ink and watercolour sketch that has been given the name (probably by Wadsworth, who owned it) New York, and the “Compositions” that make up what is called his “Vorticist Sketch-book”. They could be described as explorations of space, in particular of the effect that architecture has on space, and indeed the effect that an architecture that did not yet exist has on space. Comparisons have been made between Lewis’s imaginary architecture ‑ largely a matter of rectangular walls with rectangular windows ‑ and the architectural designs of the Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia. But where Sant’Elia was imagining actual buildings, Lewis is concerned with the effect such buildings could have, effectively the inability to situate oneself in relation to the perspective. Although Cubism played with “multiple perspective” it wasn’t aiming at a disorientating effect, simply to use aspects of the subject being presented that would not normally be seen by a static viewer. Gleizes attempted something like what Lewis has done in his paintings of New York, but Gleizes is still taken with the actual visual details of the scene before his eyes ‑ in particular the neon signs and their reflections in glass windows. Lewis is painting the raw abstract principle. The closest comparison I can think of is Piranesi’s Prisons.
It may be farfetched but I am tempted to relate this interest in a space that is not an empty space and that is charged with tension through the ambiguities of perspective, to the “space shyness” that Worringer and Hulme attribute to primitive art. I cannot develop the argument here but Lewis’s book of 1927, Time and Western Man ‑ all 487 pages of it ‑ is an assertion of the importance of space as against time. It is a critique of an obsession with time that he attributes to Joyce and Proust but traces back to Bergson. In his (in my view very unpleasant) novel Tarr, published during the war, the admirable English painter Tarr criticises the contemptible German painter Kreisler for confusing art with life, and declares in conversation:
This is the essential point to grasp: Death is the thing that differentiates art and life. Art is identical with the idea of permanence. Art is a continuity and not an individual spasm: but life is the idea of the person …
Consider the content of what we call art. A statue is art. It is a dead thing, a lump of stone or wood. Its lines and proportions are its soul. Anything living, quick and changing is bad art always; naked men and women are the worst art of all, because there are fewer dead things about them. The shell of the tortoise, the plumage of a bird, makes these animals approach nearer to art. Soft, quivering and quick flesh is as far from art as it is possible for an object to be … Deadness is the first condition for art; the second is absence of soul, in the human and sentimental sense. With the statue its lines and masses are its soul, no restless inflammable ego is imagined for its interior: it has no Inside; good art must have no inside: that is capital.
Edward Wadsworth’s best work of the period could also be described as an exploration of “dead” ‑ hard, architectural ‑ space, stripped of its “organic”, internal human content. In his case, the representational side ‑ the town with its houses, and factory chimneys, or the aerial view of the countryside or (notably in the Cape of Good Hope) the port is more obvious, but, especially in the series of woodcuts based on Northern towns, the game of perspective directing the viewer’s eye in different directions is reminiscent of what Lewis did in his architectural studies.
Unfortunately Wadsworth often just gives us an arbitrarily shaped fragment of the subject, weakening the impact with an intrusion of empty space. I have quoted Gąsiorek suggesting that the Cubists wanted to tame the curve (which he confuses with the line that expresses sensual fleshiness) by reducing it to the square. In fact the strong assertion of a rectangular frame has the effect of a pressure cooker, intensifying the tensions between the different elements in a Cubist painting. One of the main arguments in Gleizes and Metzinger’s book is that just as colours placed side by side alter each other ‑ an orange placed beside a blue is a quite different colour from the same orange placed beside a green ‑ so forms tightly juxtaposed modify each other. But the tension is lost through the intervention of empty space, and this is one of the objections to conventionally representational painting, with its isolated figures situated in an “atmosphere”. Thus the whole rectangular space of Wadsworth’s most powerful constructions ‑ Rotterdam and the truly extraordinary Enclosure, used for the cover of the second volume of Cork’s study ‑ is occupied.
We might also note how Wadsworth’s work of the period is weakened and indeed reduced to chaos by the introduction of curvilinear elements. In pointing this out I am not at all arguing against the use of curves in principle ‑ I believe the rigorous rejection of curves by painters such as Mondrian, Albers or, in our time, Sean Scully ‑ is an act of timid tastefulness. But the juxtaposition of curve and straight line in an abstract painting requires great skill, a knowledge it was hardly likely the pioneers of 1914 could possess. Bomberg’s work is interesting in this respect. His best known paintings are entirely rectilinear. But he also attempted paintings that were almost entirely circular, related to an effort ‑ a very common effort of the time ‑ to capture the movements of dance. These to my mind are almost entirely unsuccessful because though the curve launches the mind into movement the movement doesn’t go anywhere. We just go round in circles. The curve invites us to go for a walk but the walk is only interesting if we are walking through an interesting landscape. The landscape is the largely rectilinear structuring of the space. Gleizes called the structuring of the space (the part of the painter’s job Lewis and Wadsworth were beginning to understand) “translation” and the travelling through it, or round it, “rotation”.
At the end of his life, in a series of articles sent to The New Age from the trenches, published in Speculations under the title “Humanism and the Religious Attitude”, Hulme developed an argument that the changes that were occurring in art indicated that a historical cycle ‑ the cycle of humanism that had begun in the Renaissance ‑ was coming to an end and, at least by implication, a new cycle, which could be called religious, was emerging:
It is necessary to realise that there is an absolute, and not a relative, difference between humanism (which we can take to be the highest expression of the vital), and the religious spirit. The divine is not life at its intensest. It contains in a way an almost anti-vital element; quite different of course from the non-vital character of the outside physical region. The questions of Original Sin, of chastity, of the motives behind Buddhism, etc., all part of the very essence of the religious spirit, are quite incomprehensible for humanism. The difference is seen perhaps most obviously in art. At the Renaissance, there were many pictures with religious subjects, but no religious art in the proper sense of the word. All the emotions expressed are perfectly human ones. Those who choose to think that religious emotion is only the highest form of the emotions that fall inside the humanist ideology, may call this religious art, but they will be wrong. When the intensity of the religious attitude finds proper expression in art, then you get a very different result. Such expression springs not from a delight in life but from a feeling for certain absolute values, which are entirely independent of vital things. The disgust with the trivial and accidental characteristics of living shapes, the searching after an austerity, a monumental stability and permanence, a perfection and rigidity, which vital things can never have, leads to the rise of forms which can almost be called geometrical. (Cf Byzantine, Egyptian and early Greek art)
We have seen that Hulme’s initial enthusiasm for Bergson was that the inner life ‑ a potentially infinite “intensive manifold” ‑ was a means by which human integrity could be preserved in the face of an apparently mechanistic universe. Now he argues that it is by insisting on the limits and fixity of the human person in the presence of an essentially non-human divinity that the sense of the human can be preserved in the face of an apparently formless flux of arbitrary events. There is a resemblance to the ideas being developed in the 1920s by Gleizes, who also believed that the development of a non-representational art indicated the ending of a materialist cycle and the opening of a new religious cycle. Where Hulme, however, stresses a static, spatial art, Gleizes saw time and movement as essential to human nature and therefore inseparable from the very idea of form.
But what is of interest in the present discussion is the relation to the thinking of Wyndham Lewis. Lewis’s Time and Western Man, published in 1927, was a polemic not just against Bergson but also against Oswald Spengler and by implication any notion of a zeitgeist, an irresistible movement of history whether thought of as “progress” in a continual straight line, or as a succession of cycles. Lewis was not anti-religious but nor was he obviously religious (I tend to imagine that a Wyndham Lewis capable of engaging in prayer would have ended up rather resembling GK Chesterton ‑ indeed a resemblance to Chesterton, the endlessly garrulous essayist, is suggested in New Perspectives by Jameson). Nonetheless, he shares Hulme’s fear that the solidity of the human person is dissolving in a Bergsonian flux. Although he wrote in an almost insane abundance, there is a remarkable consistency in his thinking from the earliest grotesque caricatures of Breton peasants in the first decade of the century to the end of his life. It is as if he had, when very young, a vision and has since been engaged endlessly in an effort to find different ways of sharing it with the world. The crudest summary of this vision would be that art best serves human personality by being impersonal, by affirming space and the full maturity of the object, fixity, against the fleeting moment, the accidental by-products of a process. In his “Essay on the objective of plastic art in our time” (1922), he quotes Schopenhauer:
While science, following the unresting and inconstant stream of the fourfold forms of reason and consequent, with each end attained sees further, and can never reach a final goal nor attain full satisfaction, any more than by running we can reach the place where the clouds touch the horizon; art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and has it isolated before it.
Lewis’s vision is not the same as that of Hulme but they shared the idea that the problem of “form” in art was closely related to the problem of what it is to be human and that human nature was threatened by philosophies that blur the distinction between the human and the divine, the human and the natural, the individual and society. Both saw art as something other than simply an embellishment of life, both saw it as a weapon in the battle to preserve the integrity of human being. Vorticism was a moment when they came together, abstraction was a means by which positive values could be affirmed without the direct evocation of religious imagery. Lewis, without renouncing his central idea, then fell back again into satire and caricature. He assumed the role of The Enemy, the artist confronting the fashions of the world from a position of permanent alienation. I think Hulme would have understood. I doubt if he would have approved.
I am now faced with a moral dilemma. It will be obvious that I like this line of argument, especially in the openly religious form it assumes in Hulme’s late writings. I think this is in line with arguments that would soon be developed more fully by Gleizes. But I am obliged to admit that the articles sent from the trenches which developed this case, published in The New Age as “A Notebook” by “T.E.H.” were accompanied by another set of articles, also by Hulme, writing under the pseudonym “North Staffs” called “War Notes”. These largely consisted of a polemic using arguments similar to those in “A Notebook” to excoriate pacifism and particularly the pacifism of Bertrand Russell, seen as a necessary consequence of his rationalist, humanist philosophy.
Two members of what we might call the wider Vorticist group joined up right at the start of the war and both were killed ‑ Hulme and Gaudier-Brzeska (otherwise the Vorticists got off quite lightly). They could be said to represent opposite intellectual extremes of the movement ‑ Gaudier on the anarchist wing discussed in New Perspectives by the Antliff brothers, Hulme on what has been called, not entirely happily, the “neo-classical” wing. One might have expected Gaudier’s anarchism to incline him to pacifism. I assume his motivation was simple. He was French. His country was under attack and he felt the need to defend it, anarchist or not, regardless of any understanding he might have had of the reasons for the outbreak of war.
All the major participants in the 1914 war could claim credibly that they were defending themselves against aggression ‑ except Britain. No one was invading or threatening to invade Britain, so Britain’s involvement must be explained either as a matter of disinterested moral integrity or of opportunistic aggression. Hulme admits in the “War Notes” that he personally had joined in a mood of exuberant bellicosity (his writing often uses pugnacious imagery and he once famously suspended Wyndham Lewis upside down from the railings of Soho Square ‑ admittedly after Lewis had threatened to kill him). He claimed, however, that by 1916 all traces of bellicose feeling had vanished and that what was left was the clear cold calculation that Germany had to be defeated because the balance of power in Europe was a Good Thing and a Europe dominated by Germany would be a Bad Thing. He continually promises that he will elaborate on this purely political argument but he never does, always managing to distract himself into an assault on the philosophical premisses that prevent the pacifists from seeing what he regards as obvious. The “War Notes” make very disagreeable reading for someone who like myself is sympathetic to the line of thought being developed in the “Notebook”.
And it opens up the question of the politics of Wyndham Lewis ‑ who published a defence of Hitler in 1931 ‑ and of course of Ezra Pound and his commitment to Italian fascism. Gleizes ‑ although much more of a pacifist ‑ has also been accused of fascist sympathies. I obviously can’t develop this question here. Perhaps I shall be given an opportunity some time to review one of the many books that have been written on the subject. I only hope it will be a coherent book-length argument and not the scattered reflections of a group of contributors to an academic symposium.
Peter Brooke is the author of a general history, Ulster Presbyterianism – The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970, (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1987, Athol Books, Belfast, 1994). Since 1987 he has been devoted to the thought and painting of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, teacher of the Irish painters Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, a work which has implications in philosophy and theology.