‘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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BLAST at 100: print exhibition in Trinity College’s Long Room

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BLAST at 100 is an exhibition of original copies of both issues of BLAST, currently on display in the Long Room of the Old Library in Trinity College Dublin, alongside a range of contemporary art prints and journals, demonstrating BLAST‘s contexts as well as its influence upon later artists and designers.  Running in association with the one-day international symposium which will take place on Wednesday 2 July, 2014, in the nearby Trinity Long Room Hub.

Published on the eve of the First World War in July 1914, BLAST marked the emergence of Vorticism, a new, modernist, British art movement. Led by Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957), Vorticism was responding to other avant-garde and nationally-defined art movements such as Futurism in Italy, Expressionism in Germany, and the Celtic Revival in Ireland.  With its bright cover and bold type, BLAST distinguished itself from other art vernaculars then popular in Britain and Ireland, such as academic painting or colourful Post-Impressionist styles.

The volume included a manifesto for Vorticism signed by Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Ezra Pound, William Roberts, Helen Saunders, Lawrence Atkinson, Richard Aldington, Cuthbert Hamilton, Malcolm Arbuthnot, Jessica Dismoor, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The content in the magazine was not limited to these signatories however: as a whole BLAST presents a fascinating overview of avant-garde artists and authors working in Britain at this time.

In the exhibition currently on view at the Long Room of the Old Library in Trinity College, both issues of BLAST are presented in context.  Seen alongside examples of contemporary avant-garde and other art publications, the radicalism of BLAST’s spirit becomes clear.  Its influence upon later art movements and journals is also showcased, as is the later work of a number of its contributors, in the fields of sculpture, criticism, architecture and engineering.

These artists were the participants of the ‘great London vortex’ of 1914, a powerful concentration of individual energies, a startling and potent grouping of talent, and BLAST was its articulation.

For more information about the exhibition, see the online version of the exhibition on the Library website, here.

 

ENEMY OF THE STARS

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ENEMY OF THE STARS

directed and adapted by Nicholas Johnson and Colm Summers
a textual event supported by the Trinity Long Room Hub and BLAST at 100

As part of the symposium at Trinity College Dublin marking the centenary of BLAST, the organizers have commissioned Ireland’s first performance of Wyndham Lewis’s famously “unstageable” play Enemy of the Stars. Working with the 1914 published version as an exclusive source, Assistant Professor of Drama Nicholas Johnson has collaborated with his co-director Colm Summers, as well as undergraduate actors, designers, and technicians, to create an immersive experience of the play within the Trinity Long Room Hub space.

This challenging text blends images, extended prose, and theatrically “impossible” stage directions with more conventional dialogue. Rather than a theatrical performance in the conventional sense, this presentation should be seen as the dissemination of practice-based research: it is, simply, what has emerged from trained theatre artists grappling with Lewis’s work in this context. This event poses a rare opportunity for scholars of BLAST and Vorticism to see Lewis’s thought embodied live and placed in space, and should, by its nature, raise more questions than it will answer.

Tickets are limited due to the nature of the event, and will be issued free on request to conference participants.

Spaces with limited visibility will be available if the initial allotment for participants runs out.  The presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the artists.

The creators are extremely grateful to the BLAST at 100 committee and the Trinity Long Room Hub for core support, as well as to the Samuel Beckett Centre, Pan Pan Theatre, and DU Players for in-kind support.

PERFORMERS

Hugo Lau • Wyndham

Matthew Malone • Arghol

Colm Gleeson • Hanp

 

CREATIVE TEAM

Nicholas Johnson and Colm Summers • co-directors/co-adaptors

Molly O’Cathain • designer

James Ireland • puppet master

Honi Cooke • stage manager

Dara Hoban • production manager

 

No. 1. June 20th, 1914.

 

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Though it did not appear for another fortnight, the first volume of BLAST, that infamous, oversized, puce-coloured block, was marked with today’s date: 20 June, 1914. It was published a little less than a fortnight later, on 2 July 1914.  To mark the centenary of this later date, BLAST at 100 will take place in the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin on 2 July, 2014.

 BLAST was an assemblage of poetry, prose, drama and visual art, the manifesto of the Vorticist movement and, in its own right, a radical experiment in typography and avant-garde self-promotion. Vorticism may have been a short-lived phenomenon, but BLAST remains as vivid and challenging today as it was one hundred years ago. Its influences upon the subsequent courses of art, poetry and popular culture have been extraordinary.

BLAST at 100 sets out to assess some of these influences.  The day’s proceedings will be accompanied by an exhibition of both issues of BLAST, alongside other examples of contemporary artistic and print culture, in Trinity’s Long Room library, and a performance of Wyndham Lewis’s avant-garde play, first published in BLASTEnemy of the Stars, directed by Nicholas Johnson and Colm Summers.  This one-day interdisciplinary event, which is open to all, will showcase the continuing influence and relevance of BLAST in the twenty-first century.

 It will also ask the question whether BLAST might have been influenced by the contemporary renaissance of the arts underway in Ireland.  Certainly it set out to generate its own ‘native’ ‘nationalist’ movement in the English arts.  Its influence in turn upon the work of Eileen Gray has been noted, while the Irish journal, To-morrow, took its inspiration openly from BLAST.  There are also strong connections between the Vorticists and literary figures like Joyce, Yeats and Beckett, giving a particular resonance to the location, in Trinity College Dublin, of this first centenary celebration of the house-journal of the English avant-garde.

Registration to take place on the day.  Full price: €10.  Discounted price (students, unwaged): €5.  All are welcome to participate in this one-day exploration of early avant-garde art, poetry, prose and drama in Trinity College Dublin.

BLAST at 100: plenary details and registration

We are pleased to be able to announce the titles of the two plenary speeches for our one-day international symposium to mark the centenary of the avant-garde magazine, Blast, on 2 July 2014 at Trinity College Dublin.  Our plenary speakers are:

Andrzej Gasiorek (University of Birmingham): ‘“With Expletive of Whirlwind”: BLAST then and now’

Sarah Victoria Turner (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University): ‘The Force of Technique: Vorticism, Violence and Avant-Garde Sculpture in Britain c. 1914′

The programme has now been finalised and will feature, alongside our plenaries, a full schedule of panel papers on Vorticism, on individual contributors to BLAST, and on the connections between BLAST and Ireland; a panel on ‘BLAST in the Classroom,’featuring students of a sophister module on BLAST delivered last year; an exhibition of both issues of BLAST, alongside other examples of artistic and print culture, in Trinity’s Long Room library; and a performance of Enemy of the Stars, directed by Nicholas Johnson.  A full list of speakers is available here.  This interdisciplinary event, which is open to all, will showcase the continuing influence and relevance of BLAST in the twenty-first century.

Registration for the symposium is now open.  Cost for attendance will be €10/€5 (students/unwaged) to be paid on the day, but please do register in advance, here.  And we look forward to seeing you in July.

Nathan, Philip and Katy

BLAST at 100: a centenary symposium

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BLAST

On 2 July, 1914, the first volume of BLAST appeared, an oversized, puce-coloured block, an assemblage of poetry, prose, drama and visual art, the manifesto of the Vorticist movement and, in its own right, a radical experiment in typography and avant-garde self-promotion. Vorticism may have been a short-lived phenomenon, but BLAST remains as vivid and challenging today as it was one hundred years ago. Its influences upon the subsequent courses of art, poetry and popular culture have been extraordinary.

To assess some of these influences, and to mark the centenary of the magazine’s first appearance, a one-day symposium will be held in the Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin on 2 July, 2014. Speakers from the disciplines of English, the History of Art and Architecture, and Drama, will speak about BLAST, its contexts, and its influence on the work of later writers and artists. There will also be readings from some of the manifestos and poetry published in the two issues of BLAST, and a performance of Wyndham Lewis’s play Enemy of the Stars directed by Nicholas Johnson. The symposium will be accompanied by an exhibition of the original issues of BLAST in the Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity College Dublin,where the magazine will be placed alongside examples of the contemporary fine-art print culture: journals, magazines, and advertisements. Viewed in this curated context, the radicalism of BLAST is clear, and especially its singular readiness to use the techniques and aesthetics of advertising and popular culture in the early decades of the twentieth century.

A list of the contributors to BLAST gives some sense of the ambitious range of the Vorticist movement. Poetry by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Sculpture by Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Visual art by Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Jessica Dismoor, Helen Saunders, and William Roberts. Prose by Rebecca West and Ford Madox Hueffer. Notably, it also included some of the first translations of Vasily Kandinsky’s writings on art. The ‘great London vortex’ was a concentration of individual energies, a startling and potent grouping of talent, and BLAST was its articulation. BLAST set out to provide an English counterpart to the renaissance of the arts underway in Ireland at the time of its original appearance. One of the themes to be explored in the ‘BLAST at 100’ event, therefore, will be the relationship between BLAST and Irish modernist culture. The magazine’s influence upon the work of Eileen Gray has been noted, while the Irish journal, To-morrow, took its inspiration openly from BLAST. At the same time, BLAST belongs very firmly in the networks of the London art world. Its unity, and its singular confidence, derive from the interconnected nature of the ‘great London vortex’ out of which, in July, 1914, it so suddenly and unexpectedly emerged. ‘BLAST at 100’ will explore its impact and significance one hundred years after its first appearance.