‘Long Live the Vortex’: A Report on the symposium, BLAST at 100, by Alex Runchman

Wyndham Lewis would probably have been appalled to learn that, 100 years on, his short-lived avant-garde publication, BLAST, would be the subject of two academic conferences. What could be more damning to a movement—Vorticism— that defined itself against ‘THE SPECIALIST’ and the “PROFESSIONAL”, and that celebrated the individual, than to be assimilated, via the institution, into a canon to be pored over by dry-as-dust literary critics and art historians?

Perhaps Lewis would have been reassured by the varied schedule of the one-day symposium held at Trinity College Dublin on Wednesday 2nd July. Co-ordinated by Philip Coleman, Katy Milligan, and Nathan O’Donnell, the event matched conventional panels with more unusual proceedings: a roundtable discussion of BLAST in the classroom, a first performance (in its original form) of Lewis’s proto-Beckettian play ‘Enemy of the Stars’, and a manifesto-inspired pub performance by local poet Dave Lordan. TCD’s Old Library, meanwhile, hosted an exhibition of original copies of both issues of BLAST, along with a number of other art prints and journals either published contemporaneously or influenced by Vorticism, many of which were referred to throughout the day.

The papers themselves attested to BLAST’s ongoing vitality. In the opening keynote, Andrzej Gąsiorek emphasized four of the magazine’s key tenets: its visionary impulse; its hybridity; its human agency; and its humour. If Lewis’s description, in 1937, of his Vorticists as ‘the first men of a future that has not materialized’ is one of many statements that refuse to admit the movement’s debts to Cubism and Italian Futurism, it is also a premature disavowal of Vorticism’s own influence. You can never predict a movement’s afterlife, Gąsiorek explained, before demonstrating the perpetuation of BLAST’s satirical spirit in such outlets as the 60s New York journal FUCK YOU! A Magazine of the Arts and the more recent Welsh publication BAST. As for BLAST’s own heritage, Gąsiorek drew on Stanley Cavell’s claim that ‘only someone outside the enterprise could see [modernism] as a means of exploring old conventions’ to introduce the difficulty that, while it might be limiting to judge experimental art only in terms of the works it criticizes, these may yet be the only terms by which it can be fairly judged. Looking beyond the magazine’s surface gripes and expendable laughter, Gąsiorek concluded with the suggestion that, ultimately, BLAST asks its readers what it means to be human.

In the panels that followed, Kathryn Laing undertook a reading of Rebecca West’s ‘Indissoluble Matrimony’, describing it as ‘a parodic rewriting of the Genesis story’ and situating it within a number of important contexts that included Dora Marsden’s critique of ‘indissoluble monogamy’ in the pages of The Freewoman, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and BLAST’s own advice to suffragettes. Alex Runchman, meanwhile, echoing Gasiorek’s argument that BLAST itself is a Vorticist work of art, approached the magazine’s two numbers as a single collaborative poem unified by recurring motifs of decay and explosion. BLAST, Runchman claimed,consistently suggests a taxonomy of destruction: from the ignoble and long drawn-out decay of fungi and gangrene, to the manmade devastation of warfare, to the awe of momentous natural disasters—and it is this last category which best represents the Vorticist’s artistic endeavour.

Chris Lewis’s paper focused on ‘Enemy of the Stars’, probing what T. S. Eliot described, in ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’ as the ‘continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’. ‘Enemy of the Stars’, he argued, enacts the defeat of mythos (represented in the play by Argol) in the face of logos (Hanp and the narrator); or, to use Baudrillard’s term, ‘extermination by museumification’. According to (Chris) Lewis, the play’s central anxiety is whether or not pure myth is possible for the modern artist. As such, his paper engaged with the problem of originality, of making it new, that is so key to the entire project of BLAST. In citing Paul Edwards’s proposition that ‘Enemy of the Stars’ is ‘strictly unperformable’, Lewis also provided a timely provocation ahead of the evening’s performance. Jim Mays examined Lewis’s interactions with Ezra Pound and, more extensively, Marshall McLuhan, who would edit his own COUNTERBLAST in 1954. The latter publication, Mays illustrated, could be read as an updating of Lewis’s original to a North American and more internationalist context. With regard to Pound, Mays argued that the poet’s satire of his younger self in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) buried the bombastic poetry of BLAST; and yet, the BLAST poems marked a crucial early moment in the development of this satirical mode. Mays’s attention to the material text of COUNTERBLAST was complemented by Simon Cutts’s overview of his own Coracle Press, established in 1975 with Stuart Mills, and committed to the publication of words and images in such a way that the book itself becomes a work of art, not just a medium through which to present art. Though not set up in direct homage to BLAST, the press’s commitment to the avant-garde (in the forms of concrete poetry, Oulipian poetry, and even poems on lollipop sticks) makes it a distinctly BLAST-like enterprise.

The second keynote, delivered by Sarah Victoria Turner, turned the day’s emphasis toward Vorticist art, and specifically the sculpture of Gaudier-Brzeska. Turner’s focus was the move from the classical study of muscle undertaken by Victorian painters such as Frederick Leighton towards Gaudier-Brzeska’s vigorous abstractions—towards violence as both subject matter and technique. Drawing upon Kasia Boddy’s 2009 study of boxing—in which she puts forward pugilism as ‘the basis of a method’—Turner equated such a style with BLAST’s overt assaults on English social establishments, as typified by its rejection of regulated public school sports in favour of the primacy and intimacy of fighting.

This led into a panel that foregrounded, on one hand, BLAST’s contribution to art and architecture and, on the other, its heritage in Ireland. Nathan O’Donnell’s discussion added Ireland to the contemporary Russian and German artistic contexts that have previously been examined by Rebecca Beasley. Noting BLAST’s association of Shakespeare not just with ‘Northern Rhetoric’ but also, implicitly, with Celtic mysticism, O’Donnell suggested the Celtic Revival as one of the magazine’s disavowed influences. Cuala Press’s 1914 A Broadside, for example, (one of the Old Library exhibits) exemplified the kind of the national exceptionalism that BLAST claims for England. It also attracted the attention of the patron John Quinn, who would be introduced to the Vorticists by Pound (himself living, at the time, with Yeats at Stone Cottage.) Could Yeats’ gyre have been in any way a model to BLAST’s iconic storm funnel? Tom Walker extended this discussion by suggesting that BLAST might fruitfully be read through the prism of Yeats’s 1913 essay, ‘Art and Class’, and by aligning Vorticism more closely with the late nineteenth-century Aestheticism that it so often denigrated (editions of Keats’s letters and The Yellow Book had, after all, been advertised at the back of BLAST 1). Angela Griffith, meanwhile, examined the aesthetics of the Irish periodical, To-Morrow, putting it into an internationalist context and enquiring what its resident artist, Cecil ffrench Salkeld might have learned not just from the acknowledged influence of German modernism, but also from Vorticism. Ellen Rowley then traced Frederick Etchells’s architectural aesthetics, taking into account his early illustrations in BLAST, his translation of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, and his association with John Betjeman. Etchells, Rowley posited, epitomized an anxious modernism that needed to look back in order to be able to look forward, but that also had the benefit of showing that the radical and traditional need not be exclusive.

In the panel discussion on BLAST in the classroom, arising from Philip Coleman’s undergraduate seminar option, Sarah Goodman, Patrick Grogan, Ella Jordan, Rosemary O’Dowd and Barry Ó Séanáin discussed the essays they had written (on topics ranging from representations of the city and of women to examinations of individual works and contributors) and gave reasons why the module had been a success. Among the most prominent of these was the fact that BLAST returns us to fundamental questions: what is a poem, play, or painting? How are we meant to read such a work? Can an artistic movement be political? Is BLAST good art? If so, how can we tell? If not, can it be defended on the grounds of cultural and historical importance? Universally troubling, such questions put the most knowledgeable scholar on the level of the uninitiated student, encouraging openness of discussion. Coleman further admitted the role of historical contingency: had there been more than two numbers, teaching BLAST to the same degree of detail would have been unfeasible.

All of the day’s events led towards Nicholas Johnson and Colm Summers’s production of ‘Enemy of the Stars’. TCD’s Long Room Hub provided a ready-made vortex as performance space: the audience stood around a glass balcony peering down upon Matthew Malone and Colm Gleeson’s Argol and Hanp writhing and wrestling two storeys below while Wyndham (Hugo Lau) narrated from an intermediate level. With the lighting crew and all stage effects visible to the audience, we were sucked into the performance, an effect exacerbated at the climax when the actors came up to the audience level, funnelling us into a new space, goading us with stares, and discomfiting us with their much closer proximity. The production was illuminated by the discussion afterwards, in which the directors and actors discussed their rationale—noting, for example, how each choreographed move related to a specific line of ‘unperformable’ stage direction (how do you portray ‘dry, white volcanic light’?) in a way that seemed to correlate with imagist and vorticist principles.

Some further BLASTing in a hex-laden ‘Letter to the Editor’ by Dave Lordan rounded off a day which had suggested that the ‘Great London Vortex’, despite its early demise, was still alive and likely to live longer yet.  

 

 

 

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