By Rod Rosenquist


London, literature and BLAST:
the vorticist as crowd master


    Vorticism, though mostly made up of painters and sculptors, is drawn into our literary histories by the central role Ezra Pound played in its conception and the fact that Wyndham Lewis, its main protagonist, is perhaps equally renowned as a painter and a writer. The fact vorticism plays more easily into the history of the plastic arts is born up by the fact that such a thing as vorticist style in painting is perhaps readily recognizable to the initiated viewer, whereas the vorticist style within literature, though sometimes identified by literary critics, is not so easily distinguishable from any other distinctly modernist writing.1 Even vorticist painting might be seen as an abstract form positioned near the point that cubism meets expressionism or futurism, blurring the edges between these concurrent modern art movements with a synthesizing approach, though not radically different from them. Vorticist prose is even more difficult to distinguish. For this reason we might be forgiven, in searching for definitions and characteristics of this English avant-garde movement, for turning to Ezra Pound, who fortunately for us expressed the foundational principles in a chapter of his 1916 book on the sculpture of vorticist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Pound, however, really only outlines the central image and how the vortex might form an illustration of the artist's role in his or her culture. In other words, rather than describing techniques of vorticist poetry and art (although he does describe imagist techniques as a substitute), Pound simply makes an attempt to justify the name, applying the vortex as an idea of the artist standing as an anchoring center to the swirling chaos of modern thought. Similarly, Pound's explanations lead us to a recognition of a sense of place within the initial conception of vorticism. Just as the artist provides the stable center of the personal vortex, so the city might be seen as the stabilizing center of the movement's vortex.

    BLAST, the 1914 to 1915 journal of the Great English Vortex, was meant to be in this way directly linked to London, drawing all elements of culture and art through a vision of the city and its citizens—in this way purposefully subjectifying its approach to universal history and culture through the specifically London gaze. One of the primary goals of BLAST seemed to have been to create a specifically English form of the European avant-garde of that time, given their initial association with Marinetti and Italian futurism, then their subsequent (and violent) dissociation.2 Lewis and the other vorticists make clear in their founding manifestoes in BLAST that the movement is intended to match the need for an art of a more ‘northern' climate rather than a ‘latin' one. This leads the imagination to ‘a mysticism, madness and delicacy peculiar to the North.'3 The vorticists were careful to remain free of mere patriotism or chauvinism, not preferring English art to French, German or Italian; rather they wanted to recognize that the English had a distinct contribution to be made to the world's culture and art alongside the other movements.

    This vague concentration on ‘northerness,' however, does not fully answer all the questions raised as to what it means when Lewis calls himself the leader of ‘the Great London Vortex'.4 While the Englishness of vorticism has been documented, the role the city itself plays in the shaping of the movement has been sometimes overlooked. Lewis's view of England would always take a London-centric perspective, and the city became a great symbol to the other vorticists as a monumental, cold, even classical city, particularly (maybe paradoxically) when compared to what they saw as the Latin warmth of the more Romantic aspects of Marinetti's movement. The opening words of BLAST declare: ‘Long live the great art vortex sprung up in the center of this town', announcing from the start that the movement was intended to remain situated in and around the English capital. The list of BLASTs and blesses themselves focus on certain visions of London life, as general as ‘the London cloud [that] sucks the town's heart' or as specific as Reverend Pennyfeather, Pound's noisy neighbor in the Kensington Church, or the Victorian ‘purgatory of Putney.' However, London's centrality to vorticism remained little more than this in the first issue of BLAST: a statement of intent that vorticism was to be a distinctly English—even a London—movement and a handful of contemporary references and inside jokes.

    By the second and final issue of BLAST, dated July 1915, war had already taken its effect on the city and, more importantly to Lewis and his friends, its resulting approach to art. Whereas Lewis and the vorticists had, in 1914, been readily adopted as figureheads of a homegrown avant-garde movement—the very toast of the bourgeoisie they were, in theory at least, challenging with their revolutionary art—the war, a little over a year later, had changed tastes enough that aggressive tactics in the art world seemed not only trivial but in bad taste.5 For this reason, BLAST 2 is a less antagonistic magazine, finding that the former demand for an attack on the establishment had been filled by war itself. Unfortunately, it also seems to render the second issue of this important journal less of interest to literary or art critics who prefer to focus on the initial, more radical break. But it is with the second BLAST that the importance of the city in general—London in particular—takes its rightful role in the art and literature of the magazine. Among a number of designs and reproductions of paintings with cities as their subject matter, Etchells's ‘Hyde Park'

comes first, followed by a number of other cityscapes, some of a rather ambiguous nature, including Lewis's own images of the untitled cityscape making up the background to his ‘Red Duet'. Perhaps even more than in the first issue, the plastic arts seem to take the lead over the literary, forming the focus of most of the essays, notes, and manifestoes. Yet many of the literary contributions, at least three of which we will examine, seem related to the central themes laid out by Lewis for the establishment of the London-based vorticist movement.

    It is Lewis's extended survey, though, entitled ‘A Review of Contemporary Art', that forms the central focus of this second issue and sets the tone for the rest of the magazine. It is here that Lewis most clearly outlines where vorticism fits into the various movements of European avant-garde art of the time, examining in turn cubism, futurism and expressionism. Tributes are paid out to all three movements and their most representative practitioners (Picasso—Balla, Severini, and Boccioni—Kandinsky), but in turn each is shown to have fallen short of the ultimate goal of Lewis's ideal artist. Cubism is criticized for its passive approach to its subject, often taking the still life or, in Lewis's preferred phrase, the nature-morte approach. Lewis sees this as reducing the artist's vitality through a ‘relaxed initiative,' failing to represent the involvement in life which marks the truly great and revolutionary artist. Lewis goes on to say, ‘However musical or vegetarian a man may be, his life is not spent exclusively amongst apples and mandolines' (BLAST 2, p41). Clearly the problem with the cubists, according to Lewis, is not in their execution, their style or their ‘taste', since Picasso at least, as Lewis says elsewhere, ‘is one of the ablest living painters.'6 The problem comes in how Picasso's ability is used, since such ‘tours-de-force of taste,' while wonderfully executed and arranged, ‘are too inactive and uninventive for our northern climates' (BLAST 2, p41).

    The futurists, on the other hand, are applauded for their ‘vivacity and high-spirits.' Unlike the cubists, they engage their audience with more wide-ranging images than can be found on the table top, and devote themselves to artistic theory and revolutionary propaganda. Yet in their devotion to talking about art, Lewis remarks, they never manage ‘the great plastic qualities that the best cubist pictures possess' (BLAST 2, p42). The futurists are so caught up in the vitality of their passions that they fail to master their ideas and likewise fail to ‘sufficiently dominate the contents of their pictures.' The futurists become prisoners, Lewis suggests, of their own spontaneous association with action, with the machine, and, most importantly, with the public—for they are ultimately similar to ‘the best modern Popular Art'. According to Lewis, futurism was, paradoxically, the movement of the present moment and of the masses, suggesting, ‘Futurism and identification with the crowd, is a huge hypocrisy.' The futurist artists could not escape the passions and propaganda of the crowd and therefore could never perform with the heightened ability of the cubists. They were never enough in control of the painting's relationship to themselves or their audience to create their intended effects.

    In turning to Kandinsky, Lewis spends less time exploring expressionism than he does beginning to outline his ideal ‘new synthesis' of these three forms, specifically finding space for vorticism in between the cold and removed craftsmanship of the cubist nature-morte and the fiery passion and engagement of the futurist abstract painting. The English vorticists were not to simply dabble in decorations or stylistics, taking a wider vision of life of the streets as their subject matter. Yet unlike the futurists, they would not get caught up in the passions of that life or the propaganda of the political or commercial slogan, but retain the clinical removal of the craftsman at all times, to see what everyone might see but through the eyes of the painter. Kandinsky and the expressionists seemed, according to Lewis, to have found a position somewhere between the poles of craft and passion, but their focus on abstraction comes at the cost of the painting's connection to something real and therefore relevant to the social life. For while Lewis is certainly an abstract artist (at this point), art is only really art for Lewis if it is tied to some change beyond the merely stylistic.

    Having briefly outlined Lewis's conception of vorticist art, we can then look to the literary contributions which immediately followed the essay in BLAST 2. The most famous, the first ever contribution of poems to an English audience by T.S. Eliot, comprise his four ‘Preludes' and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night', none of which seem particularly vorticist or even mention London, although all are focused on evocative representations of urban scenes which could be seen to encompass a specifically London city life. While Pound, in both the first and second issues, had rather unsuccessfully tried to produce poetic equivalents of the vorticist arts promoted by the magazine, Eliot's work (which was very much not his own first choice of poetry for BLAST but favored by Lewis, who was disinclined to print the obscene verse first submitted) brought in a more quiet and respectful literary contribution to the otherwise avant-garde posturing of the magazine. In this way, Eliot was playing the role Ford Madox Hueffer had played in the first issue, that of ‘the straight man' next to the vorticist pranksters, showing that lasting literary arts might also take their place in such a timely periodical.7 These poems are perhaps more personal, more lyrical, than much of what Eliot would write in years to come; yet in centering themselves on the poet's outward gaze, away from self and into the city, reflecting in many ways Baudelaire's influence on modern English poetry, these poems were already establishing their own modern program of depersonalization. Strongly visual in style, there is little emotion, little passion or energy, to draw the poet into his own work. These are not futurist poems, full of the pace or clamor of machines; neither are they purely stylistic expositions of words, although there can be little doubt that the formal experimenting of poetic ‘preludes' is a tactic closer to Lewis's conception of literary cubism than to expressionism or futurism. If nothing else, Eliot's work, in being city-centric, fits into the vorticist context in theme, if not fully in technique.

    Eliot's poetry, though, is followed by several other literary contributions that have received much less attention, but which, in many ways, fit more clearly into the vorticist style than anything else printed in BLAST. Perhaps this is because both writers, Jessica Dismorr and Wyndham Lewis, were themselves more widely known as vorticist painters and therefore understood better what vorticist technique might look like when dressed in print rather than pigment. Lewis had already, to an extent, shown himself capable of this in the first issue with the invention of the BLAST typeface and his contribution of the vorticist play, The Enemy of the Stars. Yet Lewis's play is set in an abstract space somewhere outside our own world, more like his novel The Childermass than his works centered upon the city in general and London specifically. London would reclaim its place as central character in the second issue, in these works following Eliot's poetry.

    Jessica Dismorr was, by the time she fell in with Lewis and his Rebel Arts Centre in which she played a significant role, ‘already an accomplished Fauvist interested in dance and the Bergsonian ethos of Rhythm.'8 Douglas Goldring, present at the initial meeting for the conception of BLAST, described her as ‘an advanced painter and poetess' who was unfortunately sent for tea while the rest of the group came up with lists of names for BLASTing and blessing. Dismorr has, to our own misfortune, always remained somewhat obscured by the position Lewis sought for her. However, in the early years of the war, when BLAST 2 was being put together, she was one of the few members of the movement Lewis could count on, and her poetry and prose find their way into the magazine alongside her visual work. Of her literary contributions, several are centered upon visualizations of London. One, a short narrative entitled ‘June Night', describes the female narrator's rendezvous with ‘Rodengo' (a Latin type who, like Marinetti, is criticized for his romantic temperament), travelling on a No. 43 bus from the suburbs past Regent's Park. The narrator feels bored by her Latin lover whose ‘temperature is always above 98 1/2' and presses against her in the crowded bus. The narrator escapes the bus before they reach their destination, pulled away by the empty streets near Regent's Park and the temptation of ‘cool normality and classicism.' A distinction reappears constantly between the hard, cool structure of the buildings and streets and the hot ‘throbbing' press of the streets and the crowds. She writes,

I take refuge in the mews and by-ways. They lead to the big squares of the better neighbourhoods. [...] Moonlight carves them in purity. The presence of these great and rectangular personalities is a medicine. They are the children of colossal restraint, they are the last word in prose. (Poetics, your day is over!) In admiring them I have put myself on the side of all the severities. I seek the profoundest teachings of the inanimate. I feel the emotion of related shapes. (BLAST 2, p68)
    Dismorr is clearly writing as a vorticist here, preferring the cold, classical hardness of the London buildings and streets to the heat and bustle of the crowd and her rather one-sided love affair. She reads the city very much as if it were a sculpture, preferring the more cubist construction of architecture and flagstones to that of the uproar of the human flux.

    Dismorr's vorticist representation of the city is more distinct, however, in another piece, ‘London Notes', a collection of observations of identifiable locations throughout the metropolis described in distinctly visual terms, perhaps best described as sculptural, bearing a distinct resemblance to Gaudier-Brzeska's vorticist manifestoes, especially where he writes: ‘I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces, I shall present my emotions by the arrangement of my surfaces, the planes and lines by which they are defined' (BLAST 2, p34). Dismorr, likewise, writes of what she sees as a visual artist, but represents both the city and the emotions behind her gaze in strictly literary lines, planes and surfaces, providing a distinctly vorticist prose accompaniment to Etchells's visual illustration. She writes:

Long necked feminine structures support almost without grimacing the elegant discomfort of restricted elbows.

Commonplace, titanic figures with a splendid motion stride across the parched plateau of grass, little London houses only a foot high huddle at their heels. (66)

    She leads the reader through the British Museum and the old Reading Room, into a busy Piccadilly, full of signs, scaffolding, cranes and mannequined shop windows, and, lastly, to

Precious slips of houses, packed like books on a shelf, are littered all over with signs and letters.
A dark, agitated stream struggles turbulently along the channel bottom; clouds race overhead.
Curiously exciting are so many perspective lines, withdrawing, converging; they indicate evidently something of importance beyond the limits of sight. (66)

    Dismorr seems a painter foremost, always arranging her scenes according to visual composition and framing them as snapshots. Yet there is something within the textual style, I believe, which reveals a literary talent writing within the vorticist mode, perhaps taking her stylistic cue from Lewis's earlier play, but adding an element of her own through the seemingly simple pedestrian's gaze. Her description of Park Lane is clearly located somewhere in between the vorticist/cubist designs in the magazine and Eliot's own city-centric observations, just as it seems somewhere between formalism and expressionism, focusing equally on the ‘long necked feminine structures' and on the more internal ‘discomfort of restricted elbows.' Clearly the human elements mingle, though sometimes in unusual ways, with the non-human structures—the cubism—of London's streets and buildings. The ‘dark agitated stream', representing the futurist turbulence of the Fleet Street current below the high buildings, is an important counterbalance to the vision of the purely cubist cityscape: the flux of traffic and thronging crowds forms a more organic element, particularly placed next to the vision of houses ‘packed like books on a shelf, [...] littered all over with signs and letters.'

    Perhaps the best visual representation of this image of the city was produced by Wyndham Lewis rather than Dismorr. Started in 1914 and completed the following year, just as BLAST no.2 was published, Lewis's painting The Crowd provides a useful counterpart to the literary texts we are here looking at.

Wyndham Lewis

The Crowd

oil paint & graphite on canvas
Exhibited 1915
via The Tate Museum


The buildings and streets of the city are clearly represented in a highly cubist style. Yet, in his depiction of the crowds, also done in a cubist style but retaining much of the energy and flux which the futurists were keen to express, Lewis manages within a unified composition to bring together the heat of the crowds with the coolness of the buildings, to balance the Romantic sensibility of the throng with the classical structure of the city itself. While the cubist structure of the buildings and streets is perhaps the first thing noticed, it is the mass of people that gives the painting its name, and subsequently raises the most interesting questions. Tom Normand, commenting on the painting, recognizes that the regularized, depersonalized and standardized patterns of the modern city are reflected in the conception of the crowd, reducible to its own collective patterns of undifferentiated and produced instinct rather than individual thought.9 The seeming revolution on the city streets evident in The Crowd is positioned in the rhetoric of democracy, liberty, and individuality, but is oddly represented by indistinguishable stick figures, reproduced by the painter in almost a distinctly vorticist manner, as a series of boxes, lines and planes.

    Lewis provides his own literary companion-piece to this painting in BLAST 2, an unfinished narrative published as a fragment called ‘The Crowd Master'. The scene is established as London, July 1914, just before war would break out. It opens with ‘Men drift[ing] in thrilling masses past the Admiralty, cold night tide. Their throng creeps round corners, breaks faintly here and there up against a railing [...] THE POLICE with distant icy contempt herd London' (BLAST 2, p94). And while it is always only London the city which provides the backdrop to this observation of the crowd, with identifiable sites appearing and reappearing throughout, it is the nature of the crowd which consumes Lewis's gaze. Time is as important as place since it is the build-up to war which gives the crowd its futurist energy, its purpose. Lewis writes, ‘THE CROWD is the first mobilisation of a country,' and it is in this role that Lewis wants to observe it, an attempt to understand what makes up a country within its own city streets especially as it is led (for the crowd never leads) toward military engagement with some wholly other country with its own crowd mobilized within its own city streets. Lewis states that ‘Wars begin with this huge indefinite interment in the cities' (BLAST 2, p94).

    In discussing the nature of the individual within this specifically London crowd building up to war, it is important to outline how far the crowd represents, for Lewis, the opposite of peace. The energy of the multitude means war, just as death is, in the end, ‘only a form of Crowd. It is a similar surrender' (BLAST 2, p94). To enter the crowd is to lose one's individuality, sacrificing solitude and peace for the energy and passion of the collective. Lewis describes the cheering on the streets: ‘For days now wherever you are you hear a sound like a very harsh perpetual voice of a shell. If you put W before it, it always makes WAR!' The voice of the crowd, though raised collectively in affirmation, is the very sound of coming death, although death is something that, unlike war, only the individual can experience. The London crowd moves toward war happily, blindly and ‘with a first puppy-like intensity.' The violence of their affirmation of the collective life is paradoxical, a futurist step forward into annihilation. There seems little alternative, since the march towards mobilisation of the country seems resolved ahead of time—almost machine-like in Lewis's descriptions. He writes, ‘The only possibility of renewal for the individual is into this temporary Death and Resurrection of the Crowd.' The noise and commotion of the multitude draws everyone into its energy, and every individual is a type of martyr to the collective consciousness. At least in recompense, we are told, the ‘certainty of feeling alike with everyone else was a great relief' (BLAST 2, p98).

    I would like to look very briefly beyond this fragment of the narrative to another which Lewis would have published in the third number of BLAST had it followed the other two. (He later reproduced it as part of his memoirs in 1937). In this section of ‘The Crowd Master' we watch the narrator (in this later printing named Cantleman, the same hero of other Lewis works) engaging in ‘experiments' with the crowd. ‘He moved immediately to the center of London [...] rapping on the window for [his taxicab] to stop where the crowd seemed densest and stupidest. [...] He allowed himself to be carried by the crowd. He offered himself to its emotion, which saturated him at length' (BB 80). He finds that these emotions are merely electricity, passing aimlessly from individual to individual when they are in tune with the group. Cantleman describes himself as a medium, interpreting human messages which get passed through the crowd, but makes no sense of them. He trains himself ‘to act its mood', engaging in a role-playing investigation: ‘He disposed his body in a certain way, slouched heavily along, fixed his eyes ahead of him. Soon he had become an entranced medium' (81). Without warning, while thinking of something else, he receives an electric shock, a distinct message from the mind of the crowd which he had penetrated—the ‘cerebration of this jellyfish.' The message he receives from this group mind can only be defined as ‘that married feeling', where a ‘single man experiences sensation of married state. The Family. The Crowd.' Cantleman, the bachelor, in training himself to divine the secrets of the crowd, suddenly feels a sense of belonging inscribed by the crowd onto the ‘tabula rasa he offered them' (82).

    Caught up in this collective feeling, Cantleman retires to a cafe to record his data. But when he returns to the crowd he is disappointed to find no connection, and a feeling of detachment returns—of singleness. As he climbs onto the ‘plinth of the Nelson Column' in Trafalgar Square, he feels more connected to the cold stone than he does to ‘the extensive human lake' surrounding him. Cantleman begins to communicate with the spirit of Lord Nelson instead, electing to act as medium for the dead hero through his representative statue, and receives a sensation of what he calls ‘immediate bawdiness', a vision coming to him, transmitted through the statue, of Lady Hamilton dressed in ‘tight fitting bathing drawers.' Cantleman is disappointed to find the Crowd incapable of presenting him with such an immense sensation and his final comment is: ‘The English Crowd is a stupid dragon. It ought not to be allowed out alone!' (BB 83).

    Cantleman's disappointment in the Crowd is Lewis's as well, just as the initial curiosity belonged to them both. What is worth noting, though, is the expectation that communion with the spirit of the crowd was possible or even profitable and would lead to an understanding of the collective unconscious of London. Instead, Lewis, writing of his own experiences (as he later tells us) through Cantleman, finds it easier to communicate human emotion through the crafted monument, through the cold hard lines and planes of sculpted stonework, than through the ongoing flux and drift of the crowd itself. This is the meaning of the Crowd Master, not to be defined, as Lewis tells us, as one who is master of the crowd, but one who can master himself while in the crowd (BB 84). This is also, in some ways, the definition of vorticism, recognizing the motion and the flux of human life, as the futurists had done before them, but always from an isolated position of classical detachment, grounded firmly within the more cubist structure of the modern city—as artists capable of transmitting the message of the collective mind but without taking part in that collective themselves. The cubists had been, according to Lewis, unwilling to wade into life on the street. The futurists on the other hand, in their enthusiasm for the crowd, had lost their heads and could not master even themselves, let alone their art. Lewis's character of the crowd master is the ideal vorticist, judging the crowd through his own experience of it so that it might be accurately fixed to the canvas or the page, but always remaining in control of his involvement within the energy or the flux of collective humanity.

Editor's Note:  Rod Rosenquist's essay first appeared in FlashPoint #6.



1.    This might be explained by Reed Way Dasenbrock's hypothesis that what we consider ‘modernist' writing has its foundation (‘its seedbed or laboratory') in the literary experiments of early Vorticism, and therefore no real distinction can be made. See The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) p150.

2.    While BLAST was, in the early days, intended to be a ‘cubist, futurist, imagist' magazine, an open letter to the editor of ‘The Observer' announced, without using the word vorticist, that Lewis and his followers would insist that any implied association between themselves and Marinetti's brand of futurism would be considered ‘an impertinence.' See Lewis's letter, dated June 14th 1914, in The Letters of Wydham Lewis, ed. W. K. Rose (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1963) p62.

3.    BLAST no.1 (June 1914) p37. Hereafter references to issues No.1 or No. 2 (July 1915) will be given parenthetically in text as BLAST 1 or BLAST 2.

4.    This phrase was only used in retrospect; see Wyndham Lewis, BLASTing and Bombardiering, revised edition (London: Calder, 1982) p21.

5.    See David Peters Corbett, The Modernity of English Art: 1914-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), especially his first chapter, ‘Radical Modernism 1914-1918' for a discussion of how popular opinion toward avant-garde art, Lewis's in particular, changed with the First World War, pp25-56.

6.    Wyndham Lewis, The Caliph's Design: Architects! Where is your Vortex? (London: Egoist, 1919). Lewis's chapter on Picasso is probably his most clear attack on modernist aestheticism (its ‘executant' and ‘art for art's sake' qualities) as would be expanded by Lewis's prose in the following decade to include Joyce, Pound and Stein. Lewis takes a particularly avant-garde antagonism toward modernist autonomy, as illustrated (not in this specific context) by Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984)

7.    It might be worth noting that Hueffer's story, which went on to become The Good Soldier, and Eliot's ‘Preludes' are the only literary works from BLAST which could be said to have a wide readership outside of the context of the magazine.

8.    Paul Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000) p102.

9.    Tom Normand, Wyndham Lewis the Artist: Holding the Mirror up to Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p7.