June 30, 2011
VORTICISM ("Vorticist Lewis/Vorticist Pound")
Vorticist Lewis/Vorticist Pound
by Douglas Messerli
“Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age,” an exhibition organized by Richard
Cork. Davis and Long, 746 Madison Avenue, New York, April 1977
Richard Cork Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1976, 1977), two volumes
While Richard Cork’s comprehensive and illuminating book, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, his ensuing show of the same title at Davis and Long gallery in April 1977, and the several articles and reviews accompanying these have helped to rekindle an awareness of Vorticism as a fascinating and vital art movement, many issues of Vorticist theory have yet to fully be examined; and no issue has been more glossed over than the ideological opposition of Vorticism’s major theorists, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound.
The reasons for this are many and somewhat complex. Vorticism, although named by Pound, is difficult as a visual art for the literary critic to discuss. The language of the art is here just similar enough to literature that it is tempting for the comparativist to make metaphorical connections rather than analogous ones, and even the analogies must too often be superficial. Pound knew little of art, especially painting; in at least two reviews he wrote, Pound admits his ignorance: writing in The Egoist in 1914, he notes: "It is much more difficult to speak of painting. It is perhaps further from one’s literary habit, or it is perhaps so close to one’s poetic habit of creation that prose is ill gone to fit it.” When he spoke of art, accordingly, he chose primarily literary terms. Even when discussing sculpture, to which he was innately more sensitive, Pound quickly shifted from an art critical language to a literary one, seemingly interchanging the terms of both. And when he was aware of distinctions, as in much of Gaudier-Brzeska and in the two issues of Blast, in an attempt to be inclusive Pound described a theory that remains abstract.
As Cork and others have perceived, moreover, the theory of Vorticism was often purposefully abstract. The English Cubists, as they had been called, seized upon Pound’s epithet, not only to differentiate themselves from what they often misunderstood of Cubist and Futurist doctrines, but also for purposes of creating personae and publicity, and out of what might almost be described as a “nationalistic” desire to create a new and vital English art. Thus, although the famed puce-colored first issue of Blast was well stocked with manifesto-like statements, taken together these present—contrary to Lewis’ later assertion—little of a sound art doctrine in the manner of Gleizes and Metzinger’s Du Cubisme or Apollinaire’s Le Peintres cubists. With the Vorticist emphasis on personality, however, this lack of a unified theory should come as no surprise—indeed, perhaps more than anything else, the disparity of the members of this movement (the first issue of Blast included work by non-Vorticists Ford Madox Ford and Rebecca West) assured its short life.
If the statements expressed in the first issue of Blast in June 1914 seem to be based on vague aesthetic and art critical theories, perhaps it should be recognized that the authors of those statements, who came together in the Spring of 1914 at Lewis’ studio, had had very little time to develop a coherent ideological stance. Lewis, it is true, in the years just prior, had established himself in the eyes of the public as a lierary rebel for the cause of the new art; but the reasons behind his rebellion were not always theoretical. And since Lewis publically expressed little theory in Blast, we have only a vague context from which to understand his acts. Hence, the art history is crucial.
In 1910 Douglas Goldring had printed in The Tramp a letter by the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti entitled “Futurist Venice,” a document which helped to open English painting to the influences of non-representational art. In March and April of that year Marinetti lectured in London at the Lyceum Club, and in November Roger Fry presented the first “Post-Impressionist Exhibition” (the exhibition, which was actually titled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” was held at the Grafton Galleries from November 8, 1910 through January 15, 1911), which gave the English public its first glimpse of more advanced styles of contemporary painting. Yet the art exhibited at this show was obviously not that avant-garde. The most “advanced” painting in the show was Picasso’s early Cubist work, Portrait of Clovis Sagot, and other artists represented were primarily of another era: Cézanne, Derain, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Redon, Matisse, and Seurat. In other words, as of February 1912, when Roger Fry wrote Lewis inviting him to become a member of the Omega Workshop, Lewis had had little direct confrontation with Cubism, and Futurism must have been an even more remote art. The situation was to change somewhat in March 1912 when the Futurists showed at the Sackville Gallery; and the second “Post-Impressionist Exhibition” of October 1912 included works by Braque and Picasso which were more representative of Cubist art. Still, no exhibition in England was entirely devoted to Cubist art until 1914. By July 1913, when the Omega Workshop opened, Lewis—while certainly influenced by the new styles—had had little time to assimilate them. As William Lipke points out, however, the Omega Workshop, with its emphasis on decorative pattern and motif, gave Lewis and his friends, men like Frederick Etchells and David Bromberg, an opportunity to experiment with form (Lipke, Apollo [March 1970]). Fry was exploring, moreover, his own theories of form; in 1913 he wrote:
I’m continuing my aesthetic theories and I have been attacking poetry to understand painting. I want to find out what the function of content is, and am developing a theory that…[content] is merely derivative of form and that all the essential aesthetic quality has to do with form. (Virginia Woolf, quoting Fry in Roger Fry: A Biography)
Lewis, brilliant synthesizer that he was, could not but have been influenced by such ideas. Simultaneously he must have been developing new theories of his own, applying techniques that he had developed at Omega along with what he had learned from the Futurists and Cubists. By October, Lewis and his future Vorticist friends were ready for a break; they left Fry, ostensibly in anger over Fry’s appropriation of a commission for Omega which belonged to Lewis and Spencer Gore. But, as Cork, Lipke, and others have indicated, there were reasons underneath:
They “broke away because Roger Fry did not want to, and could not satisfy their wish for personal distinction, anonymity being a basic principle of workshops founded to serve a community ideal." (N. Pevsner, as
quoted by Lipke)
This idea is supported to a degree by a “Round Robin” letter which Lewis and his friends sent to the press. A public stir resulted, and attention was brought to bear on Lewis and the future Vorticists. In that letter Lewis and others attacked Fry, as one would expect, not only for appropriating the commission but on grounds of his and Omega’s artistic taste. This attack, perhaps more than any document of the time, indicates not so much Fry and Omega’s sensibility, but what Lewis and his friends stood in opposition to in art:
As to its tendencies in Art, they alone would be sufficient to make it very difficult for any vigorous art-instinct to long remain under that roof. The Idol is still Prettiness, with its mid-Victorian languish of the neck, and its skin is “greenery-yallery….” (Lewis, ed. by W. K. Rose, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis)
Meanwhile, Lewis had obviously decided to go public in other ways. By November 17 he clearly felt that it was time to make known—if not his theory—at least his opposition to Futurist art, and that night, at Marinetti’s second London lecture held at Hulme’s Poet’s Club, Lewis, Gaudier, Edward Wadsworth, and Hulme heckled the Futurist; they “counter-putsched,” as Lewis later describe it, “worsting” the “Italian intruder” at his lecture stand where he stood “entrenched” (quote from Lewis, Blasting and Bombarding).
Yet, as late as January 1914, when Lewis went to find a publisher for Blast, he still spoke of the magazine as “a paper somewhat in the lines of the Futurist manifesto” (Goldring, Odd Man Out). And although on the evening the future Vorticists met, Lewis argued with C. R. W. Nevison, probably over Futurism (Nevison, Paint and Prejudice), the advertisements of April 1 and 15 in The Egoist suggest that, while Lewis had won out as sole editor, a focus for the journal had not yet evolved. Forthcoming was a manifesto, but of what was unclear. There were to be discussions of “Cubism, Futurism, Imagisme and All Vital Forms of Modern Art.” “THE CUBE,” “THE PYRAMID” and the “END OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA” were promised in capital letters. But there was no mention of a Vortex or of a new art.
At what point Pound actually coalesced the group by naming it is uncertain, but by July 15, 1914, the Vorticists were ready to celebrate at a dinner party at the Dieudonné Restaurant, and five days later Blast 1, “the great magenta cover’d oposulus,” as Pound described it, was out. If Pound brought the group a unifying image, it now became evident that Lewis was behind any unifying thought. The principles of the Manifesto, if one takes a clue from the advertisement, were probably written prior to the denomination of the Vortex image and demonstrate the vague and abstract character of the movement in its early stages. However, once the vortex had given the group a focus, some theoretical aesthetic principles were asserted.
If one finally sees evidence of a theory behind Lewis’ previous actions, however, it is a theory still often contradictory and unrefined. Certain statements were inevitable: “Blast presents an art of Individuals,” Lewis writes in “Long Live the Vortex!” (Blast 1, p. 8); “Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves,” begins the Manifesto (p. 30). These statements and others like them make it clear that from the beginning Vorticism was a vehicle for publicity, which Lewis later made even clearer: “Vorticism…was what I, personally, did, and said at a certain period. This may be expanded into a certain theory regarding visual art” (Lewis, from the preface to the 1936 Vorticist Exhibition catalogue for the show at the Tate Gallery, London).
To expand these statements into a theory is understandably more difficult. Perhaps two statements in part one of Lewis’ definitions of Vortex underlie all others. “Life is the Past and the Future,” Lewis asserts; “The Present is Art” (Blast 1, p. 147). While these may appear to be simplistic ideas, what they indicate about Lewis’ theory is extremely important, for they present the context needed to comprehend not only his theory but his Vorticist art.
What is immediately evident about these statements is that Lewis has made the Kantian distinction between life and art. But this separation is not the same as that made a decade or two earlier by the aesthetes. Art is not, for Lewis, Wilde’s “fascinating lie,” but is reality. And “the Artist’s OBJECTIVE is Reality,” he writes (p. 139). Reality for Lewis is not naturalistic; it is not the reality of life. Rather, it is a reality found only in art, in the abstract. Lewis had, in part, come to these ideas through the works of Wilhelm Worringer, who in Formprobleme der Gotik proposed three kinds of aesthetic men: “Der Primitive Mensch”—who perceiving himself in a hostile universe created an abstract art—“Der Orientalische Mensch”—who perfected the abstraction and moved to great order—and “Der Klassische Mensch”—who, as Geoffrey Wagner has put it, “no longer tortured by perception, no more at odds with nature…,” began “to enjoy life and artistically idealize nature." Obviously, for Lewis the superior sense of aesthetics was to be found in the Primitive and Oriental cultures, for “which art came to be an “avoidance of life and a resentment of nature” (Geoffrey Wagner, “Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticist Aesthetic,” in Journal of Aestehtics and Art Criticism).
One need not go to Worringer, however, for sources, for Kandinsky’s Über dast Geistige in der Kunst was reviewed and excerpted in the first issue of Blast, and it is quite evident that Lewis, like Kandinsky, was seeking the spiritual in art and its abstractions. Rather than an “imitation, and inherently unselective registering of impressions,” Lewis is interested in indicating an object’s “spiritual weight” (Blast 2, p. 25):
The essence of an object is beyond and often in contradiction to its simple truth: and literal rendering in the fundamental matter of arrangement and logic will never hit the emotion intended by unintelligent imitation….It is always the POSSIBILITIES in the object, the IMAGINATION, as we say, in the spectator, that matters. Nature is of no importance. (Blast 2, p. 25)
Nature had lost is importance, in Lewis’ thinking, because, as he would later express it, nature had been completely internalized. Bergson and his popularizer, Spengler, had converted all of nature into a mental state by claiming that time was human consciousness in duration:
Chairs and tables, mountains and stars, are animated into a magnetic restlessness and sensitiveness, and exist on the same vital terms as man. They are as it were the lowest grade, the most sluggish of animals. All is alive: and, in that sense, all is mental. (Lewis, Time and Western Man)
In this manner, Lewis believed, modern man had destroyed space:
Dispersal and transformation of a space-phenomenon into a time-phenomenon throughout everything—that is the trick of this doctrine. Pattern with its temporal multiplicity, and its chronologic depth, is to be substituted for the thing, with its one time, and its spatial depth. (Time and Western Man)
And, without space, man in time has no tension with which he can define meaning. The present, Lewis asserts, can only be revealed when it has become “Yesterday,” the past.
For Lewis then life is past and future, not Bergsonian durée. And art—because it is utterly different from life—must be the present. Yet, art cannot be duration. A few lines later in his Blast definition Lewis makes this clear: “There is no Present—there is Past and Future, and there is Art.” If Lewis seems here to contradict his previous statement, it is only because once he has established art as something that exists in a realm other than nature, he must redefine it in terms other than time. This new definition of art is implicit in his statement, for if art is not in time it is obviously something motionless and dead in space; and this is precisely the reality which art, according to Lewis, defines: in a world given over to flux, to duration, only art “is able to confer the static on the objects it apprehends” (Wagner, Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy). As Lewis expresses it, “We must have the Past and the Future, Life simple, that is, to discharge ourselves in, and keep us pure for non-life, that is, Art” (Blast 1, p. 147).
So for Lewis the value of the Vortex image lay not primarily in its associations with energy (although Lewis obviously recognized an energy in the tension between man and the static center of the Vortex), but in the paradox that is visual representation of energy is transformed into stasis:
You think at once of a whirlpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist. (quoted in Violent Hunt, I Have This to Say)
In Blast 1 Lewis expresses this idea in a pun:
The Vorticist is at his maximum point of energy when stillest.
The Vorticist is not the Slave of Commotion, but its Master.
The Vorticist does not suck up to Life.
Looking back, then, it is easy to see why Lewis so thoroughly took Futurism to task. While certainly Vorticism took much from Futurism, especially its “proselytizing attitude,” and while there is little doubt that Lewis was influenced by the likes of Carrà and Boccioni—both of whom exhibited in the March 1912 Sackville show—Lewis’s Vorticism is an art diametrically opposed to Futurism. The Futurists, with their emphasis on dynamism, with their reliance upon what Lewis calls “the plastic and real,” and with their subjugation to rhetoric were an anathema to Lewis. “AUTOMOBILISM (Marinettism) bores us,” writes Lewis (Blast 1, p. 46). “The futurist is a sensational mixture of the aesthete of 1890 and the realist of 1870.” In Futurism Lewis sees that “Art merges in Life again everywhere.” “Everywhere LIFE is said instead of ART” (Blast 1, p. 28).
Lewis’ reactions to Cubism, and especially to Picasso, are more complex. Throughout Blast, but particularly in the essay “Relativism and Picasso’s Latest Work,” Lewis debunks Picasso and Cubism. The latest works which Lewis describes are clearly Picasso’s collages of 1911-1913, shown perhaps in the 1914 Cubist show. Against these “small structures in cardboard, wood, zinc, glass, string, etc., tacked, sewn or stuck together,” Lewis reacts: “Picasso has become a miniature naturalistic sculptor of the vast natures-morte of modern life. Picasso has come out of the canvas and has commenced to build up his own shadows against reality” (Blast 1, p. 139). “The imitate like children the large, unconscious, serious machines and contrivances of modern life” (Blast 1, p. 140). In the second issue of Blast the attack became broader, as Lewis found fault with Cubism for its link with Impressionism: “Picasso through the whole of his ‘Cubist’ period has always had for starting point in his creations, however abstract, his studio-table with two apples and a mandolin, the portrait of a poet of his acquaintance, or what not…. The great licence Cubism affords tempts the artist to slip back into facile and sententious formulas, and escape invention” (Blast 2, p. 146). It is here, I suggest, that Lewis most displays his confusion and demonstrates what the Vorticist theory lacked.
What Picasso’s new works actually indicated was what we now call a shift from Analytical to Synthetic Cubism. Synthetic Cubism represented a movement in the same direction towards which Lewis was striving. Indeed, Picasso, Braque, and Gris were creating assemblages that existed for their own sake. As Christopher expresses it, the artist, through his inclusion of pieces of cloth, chair caning, or paper in the painting, had “placed it [the painting] in the world of real objects where it [had] its own existence as a relationship between real things, rather than as a representation of a set of relationships in nature, which it [was] intended to communicate in a more or less illusionistic manner” (Gray, Cubist Aesthetic Theories). A statement by Braque in 1917 supports this:
The bits of glued paper, the imitation wood and other elements of the same sort, which I have employed in some of my designs, are equally valid because of the simplicity of these compositional facts, and for that reason have been confused with illusion, of which they are the exact contrary. They too are simple facts, but they have been created by the mind, by the spirit, and they are one of the justifications of a new spatial figuration. (Braque, “Pensées et réflexions sur la peinture,” Nord-sud)
Furthermore, these works by Picasso, in pointing towards Synthetic Cubism—in indicating a shift from what Gray calls “epistemological” to the “aesthetic” approach—manifested also a shift away from an art in which the artist played the role of creator of a dynamic reality, to an art in which “the picture [was] regarded as a synthesis of the artist’s a priori ideas which is given concrete form in painting in order to take its place as a part of the world of natural forms.” In other words, Lewis had failed to see in Picasso the evidences of an art applicable to his own theory.
One can only speculate on the reasons for Lewis’ failure of perception here, but I suggest that the most obvious ones are implied by Lewis in the same essay on Picasso:
He no longer so much interprets, as definitely MAKES nature (and “DEAD” nature at that).
A kettle is never as fine as a man. This is a challenge to the kettles. (Blast 1, p. 140)
I think one can perceive in such statements that, despite his theoretical separation of art and nature, Lewis in actuality has trouble responding to and creating a non-referential art. Lewis’ art is an intellectual interpretation of nature, an interpretation that focuses and controls the time of man. In making art, in actually creating a new combination of objects and forms, Picasso, in Lewis’ thinking, was merely positing something which would exist in flux simultaneously with nature and which, because it has no human reference, is dead even in terms of that. In short, Lewis’ art, even when he turned to pure abstraction, continues to rely upon man and time for its reference: although diametrically opposed to them, his art of space is given meaning only insofar as it is separate from life, is something distinct from man’s future and past. Thus Vorticism, as Lewis theorized on it, is not a pure art—despite its obvious differences from Futurism, Vorticism like the Italian movement is a literary art, an art which relies on ideology rather than on a love of pure form. In the final evaluation, it is an art as reliant on time as it is upon space. In Lewis’ Vorticism, forms are not permitted to exist for their own sake but rather become emblems that stand for man’s confrontation with life.
It is in this context, then, that one must consider Pound’s poetic theory. But here we must be careful, for although Pound—who met Lewis in 1910—obviously shared much in his thinking with Lewis, he simply parroted some ideas without thoroughly understanding their implications, and, most importantly, there were vital areas where his theory differed from Lewis’ theory and art.
Surely, as Richard Cork has implied, the didactic and proselytizing tone of Vorticism was not antithetical to Pound’s nature; in 1912-13 he had fought almost as vociferously for the Image. But Imagism had failed him because it had been misunderstood to be a poetry of “visual” presentation. What Pound had meant by an Image was difficult to express in literary terms. While the Image for Pound had always been associated with precision and concreteness of visual presentation, what lay behind the Image was an idea or an emotion, not a phenomenon in nature, not a naturalistic fact. The year before Blast Pound had implied this in “The Serious Artist”:
The serious artist is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference. (The Egoist)
His emphasis, however, had been misconstrued. “Amygism”—as he was to describe what had happened to Imagism—was too often a poetic which focused on objects in nature and rendered them concretely. This was not what Pound meant. Art afforded him a better vocabulary.
In Lewis’ hard-edge abstraction, Pound saw what he meant by Image. Pound’s Image, like Lewis’ abstraction, was something precise that yet stood for a complex of ideas: it did not come from nature but from the mind of the artist. Rather than the artist being a “Toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impression,” Pound, like Lewis, saw the artist “Directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as Conceiving instead of merely observing and reflection” (Pound, “Vortex. Pound," Blast 1, p. 153). Just as for Lewis, what Pound’s artist did was in a realm other than nature.
For Pound, however, who after all dealing with language, not with pure form, there is a more vital interrelationship between nature and art—there is a flow between the two which is absent in Lewis’ theories. Perhaps Pound’s best statement of this was published the year after Blast, in “Affirmations”:
The Image can be of two sorts. It can arise within the mind. It is then “subjective.” External causes play upon the mind, perhaps; if so, they are drawn into the mind, fused, transmitted, and emerge in an Image unlike themselves. Secondly, the Image can be objective. Emotion seizing up some external scene or action carries it intact in the mind; and that vortex purges it of all save the essential or dominant or dramatic qualities, and it emerges like the external original.
In either case the Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy. If it does not fulfill these specifications, it is not what I mean by image. (“Affirmations [as for Imagisme]” in The New Age)
It is on the basis of these kinds of statements that we must draw a line between the theories of Lewis and Pound. Whereas Lewis’ art rejects nature in an attempt to interpret man’s time by focusing it into space, Pound does not reject nature at all, but would make it “new”: in Pound’s theory the mind of the artist in conjunction with nature makes something else. This view is supported by Pound’s attempt to describe how he came to write “In a Station at the Metro,” a description which appeared in his Gaudier-Brzeska of 1916. His recounting of this process has been so often reprinted that I will not do so here. The important thing to remember concerning it is that Pound saw his short “hokku-like sentences” as a “pattern” or an “abstraction” (“little splotches of colour”) in a specific impression, and he viewed that “pattern” or “abstraction” as a record of an interchange between nature and the mind, as an instant “when a thing outward and objective transform[ed] itself, or dart[ed] into a thing inward and subjective.”
What is implicit in these comments is that Pound understood nature and art to be in a dynamic relationship. He stresses, accordingly, the energy of the vortex, not the stasis at its center:
All experience rushes into this vortex.
All the energized past, all the past that is living and worthy to live. All
MOMENTUM, which is the past bearing upon us, RACE, RACE-MEMORY,
Instinct charging the PLACID, NON-ENERGIZED FUTURE. (Blast 1, p. 153)
For Pound, “The vortex is the point of maximum energy,” but that energy is not transformed into space; it is not Lewis’ stillness. Hence Pound criticizes Futurism not because of its dynamism, but because of its “disgorging spray,” its “dispersal” of energy. Cubism, however, is not attacked; indeed, Picasso is named as the father of the Vortex (Kandinsky as its mother). Somehow, Pound and Lewis—perhaps even unknowingly—had split along the way in terms of theory.
One can attribute this split in part to the obvious element that such statements of Pound betray; Pound has an unswerving faith in a space-time continuum. It is immediately tempting to connect this with Apollinaire’s “fourth dimension” as described in Le peintres cubists of 1913, and in turn to relate that to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity of 1905 and to Minkowski’s formulation of the space-time continuum in 1908. But, as Linda Dalrymple Henderson (in her essay “A New Facet on Cubism: ‘The Fourth Dimension” and ‘Non-Euclidean Geometry’ Reinterpreted,” Art Quarterly, No. 4 [Winter 1971]) has convincingly argued, the Analytical Cubists most certainly did not have knowledge of these developments in physics and were more influenced by Riemann and Poincaré’s theories on non-Euclidean geometry. And as we have seen, Lewis and his Vorticist friends had not been part of a milieu from which they could have gleaned even that. It is possible that Lewis had read Apollinaire prior to Blast, for in his statements on Vortex, Lewis attacks what he calls a “fourth quantity” made up of the Past, the Future and Art (Blast 1, p. 148), but in Pound’s writings there is no mention of any of these names or concepts.
Ironically, Pound arrived at some of his ideas of space and time, I suggest, through Lewis’ panacea for all the evils of the age—Henri Bergson. In December 1913 The New Freewoman—a magazine for which Pound was writing at that time and which the next year was to become The Egoist—published a selection from Bergson’s L’Évolution créatrice entitled “The Philosophy of Ideas.” This essay considers the problem of man’s perception of movement or evolutionary transition in a world where all is experienced as durée. According to Bergson, the problem is that, although man is sensible to the reality that the world is in flux, in a state of becoming, “the intelligible reality, that which ought to be, is more real still, and that reality does not change.” In other words,
Beneath the qualitative becoming, beneath the evolutionary becoming,
beneath the extensive becoming, the mind must seek that which defines change,
the definable quality, the form of essence, the end.
Thus, Bergson recognizes the paradox inherent in man’s experience: that he is both a creature of becoming—of pure flux—and of ideas—of something Immutable that seems to be in space.
Bergson’s solution is to consider becoming as working in the same way as a cinematographic film, as “a movement hidden in the apparatus and whose function it is to superpose the successive pictures on one another in order to imitate the movement of the real object.” If one looks at reality in this manner, argues Bergson, form becomes inseparable from becoming, which materializes its flow: “Every form thus occupies space, as it occupies time.” And eternity comes to underlie time as a reality.
Pound almost certainly read this essay; he published an article on Ford Madox Ford in the same issue, and his “The Serious Artist” had been serialized in the three issues previous. But even if he had not read it, Bergson’s ideas had achieved popularity throughout Europe. In fact, as Eugène Minkowski (the phenomenologist, not the physicist) points out, L’Évolution créatrice—and this is especially evident in this selection—was written partly in an attempt to counteract Bergson’s initial conception expressed in Time and Free Will (1910), of time and space as dichotomous; Bergson was reacting to the pressures which Einstein's and Minkowski’s theories of a space-time continuum had brought to bear (Minkowski, Lived Time).
Even more telling is the fact that it is impossible to read these words of Bergson without thinking of Pound’s experiments with hokku and the Chinese ideogram and his reading—probably in the same year—of the manuscript of Ernest Fenellosa. Other than serving as a reminder that the Chinese ideogram, according to Fenellosa, was based on the principle of superimposition of word-pictures, two short quotations from Fenellosa will be sufficient to show the relationship of Pound’s Asian studies to the cinematographical metaphor of Bergson.
The thought-picture is not only called up by these signs as well as words,
but far more vividly and concretely. Legs belong to all three characters: they
are alive. The group holds something of the quality of a continuous moving picture.
One superiority of verbal poetry as an art rests on its getting back to the fundamental reality of time. Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements. It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.
The overlapping of ideas could not have been missed by a reader as erudite as Pound.
When Pound writes, then, that “Every concept, every emotion, presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form,” I believe we must understand him in Bergson’s terms. For Pound, form is not to be posited as the essence of reality, as it is for Lewis, but as a reality which, like Picasso’s collages, makes something new that exists in contiguity with the artist’s time and space. Pound is not against representation in art. As he was to write later in 1914: “The vorticist can represent or not as he likes….A resemblance to natural forms is of no consequence one way or the other (“Edward Wadsworth, Vorticist,” The Egoist). It is not form that is stressed in Pound’s thinking, but the consciousness in nature which from either subjective or objective stimuli finds a form which expresses that stimuli as something new. As late as 1920 Pound was trying to clarify this notion:
I tried in my early writings on vorticism to explain how an idea emerges in the inventive mind, usually, if that inventive mind be an artist’s, in some form more sensuous than word-form, in some form for which the word or word combination is not already created. (“Objectivity,” The Apple)
His simple statement is a long way from Lewis’ claims that art as pure form is a reality opposed to time and heedless of nature, and Pound was certainly not unaware of this fact. Indeed, in the same essay published in The New Freewoman, Bergson described the futility of trying to work within the framework of the classical philosophy of ideas, a philosophy which he explains in terms that come very close to Lewis’ conception of space and time and his theory of Vorticist art. If Pound read this, as I suggest he must have, the fact would not have been missed: Bergson was understandably among those “blasted” in Blast.
One must ask, then, why Pound would give his name to, and join a group of men led by someone whose theory was in the long run quite at odds with his own. The answer is rather simple. First of all, in such a short time neither Lewis nor Pound had yet had a chance to realize fully their differences. As Cork notes, “Vorticism was never, even at its inception, a closely-knit movement like Futurism.” What I have shown is seen from the vantage-point of seven decades, but in 1914 the Vorticists’ theories had not yet been fully expressed, even to themselves. Moreover, the two men did have much in common: the belief in the artist as a serious creator who worked on a level above the minds of most men, and an outspoken contempt for much art and literature of the recent and often not-so-recent past. Both were missionaries who found in Vorticism a name that would give attention to their shared and their individual causes. Perhaps they never imaged that they needed to share a unified theory. As Lewis later wrote of Pound and his relationship to Vorticism:
Ezra Pound attached himself to the Blast Group. That group was composed of people all very “extremist” in their views. In the matter of fine art, as distinct from literature, it was their policy to admit no artist disposed to technical compromise, as they regarded it. What struck them principally about Pound was that his fire-eating propagandist utterances were not accompanied by any very experimental efforts in his particular medium. His poetry, to the minds of the
more fanatical of the group, was a series of pastiches of old french or old italian poetry, and could lay no claim to participate in the new burst of art in progress. Its novelty consisted largely in the distance it went back, not forward; in archaism, not new creation. That was how they regarded Pound’s literary contributions. But this certain discrepancy between what Pound said—
what he supported and held up as an example—and what he did, was striking enough to impress itself on anybody.” (Lewis, Time and Western Man)
Again, what Lewis most shows us here is what he failed to understand in Picasso’s collages: that Pound was using the past as Picasso had used the bits and pieces of cloth and glass from nature to create something new which would exist simultaneously in time and space. Pound, on his part, expressed the differences between himself and Lewis in a slightly more philosophical manner: “The Vorticism movement is a movement of individuals, for the protection of individuality. Humanity has been interesting, more interesting than the rest of the animal kingdom because the individual has been more easily discernible from the herd.” This emphatic individualism is something that we must take into account when we discuss Vorticism. Richard Cook’s excellent book and show have demonstrated this; but both would have been strengthened if Cork had more fully investigated the differences of theory which lay behind Vorticist art.
College Park, Maryland, 1976
Reprinted from The Art Quarterly (Metropolitan Museum of Art), I, Autumn 1978