‘Art is dirt, art is sex, art is revolution!’ screams Scott Antony in Ken Russell’s 1972 film Savage Messiah. Antony is playing the French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, precocious sculptor and founder member of the Vorticists, that short-lived group of artists and poets active on the eve of World War I. The movement outlived the man; Gaudier was dead by 1915, shot in the trenches at just 23. The words may or may not be his: they were penned by Christopher Logue, whose screenplay drew loosely on H.S. Ede’s eponymous 1931 biography of Gaudier. These two sources lent this exhibition of small works, books and ephemera not just its title but its expansive ambition.
The show occupied the tiny gallery space shared by Sutton Lane Gallery and Rob Tufnell, who co-curated the exhibition with Michelle Cotton. A number of the artists included in the show had a direct connection with either Gaudier or Russell’s film: Horace Brodsky, Edward Wadsworth and Alfred Wolmark were contemporaries or friends of Gaudier; Derek Jarman designed the sets for Savage Messiah, while Bill Woodrow worked on props. All were represented here. Others, though, were present in a more oblique, but perhaps more active role, drafted in to suggest that, far from being an historic moment, Vorticism might remain a dynamic force in the art of the present.
Of the nine contemporary artists included, Steven Claydon and Mark Leckey most directly engage with and extend the movement’s ideas and attitude. Both draw heavily on the art and culture of the past (either recent or ancient), but both make work remarkable for its material and aesthetic sensitivity to the present. Leckey showed a 2004 inkjet print, a portrait of Jacob Epstein’s Rockdrill (1913–14). Photographed in rakish semi-profile against an electric-blue background, it’s like a studio headshot or a still from a pop video, made over for the 21st century. Claydon also showed a print, a black and white image of a comic-book robot being blown apart. It looks not unlike one of Gaudier’s triangle-faced future-primitives, the radical graphic language of the Vorticists finding its popular contemporary expression in the pages of 2000 AD. However, it’s in his films Cluk, Cluk (2005) and The Ancient Set (2006) that Claydon brings together the primitive and the technological in a way that’s closest to the spirit of the Vortex. The degraded digital video operates in a manner that embodies and celebrates all the gaudiness, sleaze, dirt and corruption (in this case both physical and technological) that Gaudier found so beautiful and vital for his art. The sex is provided by Anthea Hamilton’s exquisite, sculpture-cum-stool, Pardon My French (2011). There are the obvious references to Alan Jones’s fetishistic furniture/sculpture from the late 1960s – the shapely Perspex legs displaying publicity shots of a naked Jane Birkin – but in this context it evoked the camp styling of the ‘Vortex’ nightclub, designed by Jarman for Russell’s film. It brought a feminine note to the exhibition, as well as a slightly saucy, ’70s pop-sexiness – which also pervades the movie.
The only work by Gaudier himself was a plaster, The Wrestlers (1914/61), which was paired with Karin Ruggaber’s Relief # 57 (2008) – they made for an elegant, if polite, coupling. A group of vitrines contained books, manuscripts and Gaudier-related curios, including a knuckleduster made by the artist, as well as letters and drawings by his partner Sophie Brzeska (they never married but Gaudier adopted her name, on occasion posing as her brother).
Vorticism is having something of a moment, despite its centenary still being some three years away. Tate Britain’s survey continues to pull in the crowds, Wyndham Lewis was at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008 and another exhibition, also entitled ‘Savage Messiah’, was running concurrently (and coincidentally) with this one at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. One of the movement’s most potent convictions was a dynamic collapsing of the past onto the present – the exuberant belief in an essential, vital simultaneity. In the words of Ezra Pound (another of its vociferous members): ‘All experience rushes into this vortex. All the energised past, all the past that is living and worthy to live.’ In this deceptively understated show that brash, imperious, but celebratory spirit was reaffirmed and enacted as something which runs not just through the art of the past – from the primitive to the moderns – but the art of the present too. A vigorous, violent continuum. ‘You told me that today’s art can’t be made from anything but today!’ exclaims Sophie in the film. ‘Ah,’ Gaudier replies, ‘but today comes from yesterday – art is made from art.’