What is Vorticism?

Vorticism is a modernist art movement that developed in 1914 in England, founded by the artist, critic and writer Wyndham Lewis. The Vorticists celebrated the energy of modern life, the imagery of the machine age and industrial progress, with all its destructive and experimental potential, rejecting the figurative British artistic tradition. Instead, Vorticism produced abstract, geometrically styled compositions, typified by bold colours, sharp lines and dynamism. The group of London-based avant-garde artists used different media, including painting, sculpture, poetry, typography, and design.

The name Vorticism was coined by the affiliated poet Ezra Pound, initially in a correspondence in the late 1913 and then in an informal talk at the Rebel Art Centre in April 1914. The metaphor of the vortex was used to describe the energy, vitality and dynamism of the vorticist aesthetic theory; the ‘vortex’ was seen as ‘the point of maximum energy’. Similarly, the city of London could also be conceived as the ‘vortex’, the centre, of a cultural and artistic renewal.

The artists of vorticism reinterpreted this concept; Wyndham Lewis used the metaphor of the ‘vortex’ to convey the concept of ‘the heart of the whirlpool’, which is a ‘great silent place where all the energy is concentrated’. The definition of vorticism embodies the dynamic attitude of these artists towards art and modern life, and it exemplifies their formal style, described by Lewis as ‘a new living abstraction’.

Examples of Vorticism Artworks

History of Vorticism

Vorticism is a London-based artistic and literary movement formed by the artist and polemicist Wyndham Lewis and a group of other modernist artists; in their only collective exhibition at Doré Gallery in London, artworks by Jessica Dismorr, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Helen Saunders and Edvard Wadsworth were displayed, but it also included other comparable artists, like Cristopher Nevinson and David Bomberg.

Vorticism flourished in England in 1914, but it was short-lived: the efforts of this avant-garde group were dissipated with the advent of World War I, suffering the national and international crisis and artists’ call to arms.

The Vorticist group was based on two previous avant-garde experiences in pre-war London: the first, the Omega Workshops, organised in the summer of 1913 by the art critic Roger Fry to promote abstract art and design practice, with whom Lewis later had quarrels. The second experience, the Rebel Art Centre, originated in 1914 by Lewis’s painter friend Kate Lechmere, where lectures, talks and art initiatives were organised.

Vorticism was officially born in 1914, named by the poet Ezra Pound. The Vorticist group was closely linked to the publication of the art and literary magazine BLAST: a review of the Great English Vortex, launched in 1914 and of which only two issues are preserved. BLAST also contained two seminal texts written by Lewis. In these two polemical texts, the author ‘blasted’ and ‘blessed’ several subjects according to Vorticists’ vision of society and art. The magazine is now considered the manifesto of the movement.

Vorticist aesthetic rejected the representational and traditional art and England’s Victorian attitude, celebrating the dynamism and the energy of the modern machine era and industrialization. Their artworks are brightly coloured and with a hard-edged, abstract style.

Vorticist shiny and geometrical abstraction was inspired by other avant-garde movements like Cubism and the Italian Futurism. The art movement shared with Cubism the fragmented representation of reality and the study of spatial movement; while it shared with Futurism the interest for the element of the passage of time in the pictorial work, and the fascination with imagery related to the machine, mechanisation and urban scenarios. However, even if they had a similar approach to the art practice, Vorticists never confirmed the parallelism with the Futurist movement; on the contrary, Lewis was openly hostile to Futurism.

Vorticism ended with the outbreak of the First World War, even if in the early 1920s Lewis, Wadsworth, and Atkinson continued to exhibit their works in solo shows. Considered that, Lewis tried to resurrect the energy of the art movement creating the label of Group X. However, the desire for a return to order and reconstruction that characterised the period after the war did not lead to their success. The legacy of this abstract movement in Britain did not enjoy particular critical acclaim. Most of the Vorticist artworks are currently preserved in the Tate Collection.

Notable Artists of Vorticism

  • Percy Wyndham Lewis (18 November 1882 – 7 March 1957), English
  • David Bomberg (5 December 1890 – 19 August 1957), British
  • Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (13 August 1889 – 7 October 1946), English
  • Henri GaudierBrzeska (4 October 1891 – 5 June 1915), French
  • Jacob Epstein (10 November 1880 – 21 August 1959), American-British
  • Edward Wadsworth (29 October 1889 – 21 June 1949), English
  • Lawrence Atkinson (1873–1931), English
  • Jessica Stewart Dismorr (3 March 1885 – 29 August 1939), English
  • Helen Saunders (4 April 1885 – 1 January 1963), English

Related Art Terms

  • Cubism
  • Futurism
  • War Artists
  • Avant-Gardes
  • British Art
  • London Group
  • Group X
  • Modernism
  • Abstract Painting





About Cinzia Franceschini

Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specializing in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin as well as anywhere with an Internet connection. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as a Freelance Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.

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