The Camera Club Vortograph Exhibition

When the celebrated photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn exhibited eighteen of his Vortographs at the London Camera Club in February 1917 he broke new ground by publicly showing the first abstract photographs in the history of art. An American expatriate, Coburn came into contact with the Vorticists by 1913. He subsequently photographed Ezra Pound and Jacob Epstein at their homes, Wyndham Lewis and Edward Wadsworth in their studios, and acquired a number of Wadsworth's Vorticist woodcut prints. Coburn later stated that he devised the Vortoscope—a kaleidoscopic instrument composed of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle—to emulate Vorticist abstraction. His camera lens was projected into this device, and Coburn photographed pieces of wood and crystal on a glass table to create his non-objective Vortographs. In late fall 1916 Coburn created multiple exposure photographs of Pound he labeled Cubist and then used the Vortoscope to produce portraits of Pound with mirror effects; a group of two-dimensional profiles of Pound's silhouette; and his famous abstractions. When Coburn exhibited his Vortographs alongside his less adventurous paintings at the Camera Club, the catalogue included prefaces by both Pound and Coburn. Their working relationship proved short-lived, however, due to Pound's limited appreciation for Coburn's achievement and of the photographic medium itself. Coburn had originally planned to exhibit the Vortographs in New York and Boston, but hostile critical reception of his Vortographs combined with his schism with Pound led Coburn to withdraw from the Vorticist movement and to a major extent from photography altogether. By 1918 Coburn had begun to frequent an artists' colony in Harlech, Wales where he pursued his life-long interest in Free Masonry, astrology and the occult.

The six vintage abstract Vortographs exhibited here, all dated 1917 and all owned by Coburn throughout his lifetime, were very likely among the eighteen Vortographs exhibited at the Camera Club in London.

Doré Galleries' First Vorticist Exhibition

The Vorticists published their passionate manifesto declaring their ideals in the journal Blast No.1 in 1914, but it was not until June 1915 that Wyndham Lewis presented the First Vorticist Exhibition at the Doré Galleries in London. Vorticist works had been included in earlier exhibitions organized under the auspices of an artists' association known as the London Group, however, the Doré presentation was the first concerted effort to gather the artists associated with the movement and show their work under the Vorticist title. Lewis assembled painters Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Helen Saunders, William Roberts, and Edward Wadsworth, and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, all of whom were labeled Vorticists in the catalogue. Additionally, he invited artists Bernard Adeney, Lawrence Atkinson, David Bomberg, Duncan Grant, Jacob Kramer, and Christopher Nevinson, but listed them separately in that publication. The absence of some Vorticist manifesto signatories and the inclusion of individuals such as Grant — a close associate of Lewis' arch-rival Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury group — hint at the notoriously shifting alliances within Vorticist circles, even at this pivotal stage. But the core Vorticists transcended any personal or theoretical discord through their stylistic allegiances, witnessed by their lightning-bolt forms, lurid colors, and elemental or mechanized conceptions of the human figure. It was through these shared radical aesthetics that the movement cohered and defined its visual identity to the British public. Sadly, the Vorticists' first public presentation as a group was overshadowed by news of Gaudier-Brzeska's death on June 5, 1915 while fighting in the trenches in France.

The Penguin Club Exhibition of the Vorticists and Sunwise Turn

The Vorticists had their first real exposure to the United States avant-garde audience in 1917 with the Exhibition of the Vorticists on view in New York from January 10 to February 1 at the Penguin Club (an artist-run club.) The exhibition was organized in the midst of World War I by two Americans, the London-based expatriate poet Ezra Pound and the New York patron and collector John Quinn. Though Quinn underwrote the presentation, it was Pound who acted as its curator from wartime London, inviting the artists and choosing many of the artworks. While the exhibition occurred before America entered World War I on the side of Britain in April 1917, wartime conditions made the transatlantic shipment of works of art a difficult affair. Matters were further complicated by the enlistment of Vorticists Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth in 1916 into the British army and navy. Other key members Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders decided to volunteer for war-work in France spreading the group even farther afield. Because Pound fervently championed Lewis, the show revolved around a notable group of his works spanning his still-brief career. Dismorr, Etchells, Roberts, Saunders, and Wadsworth also each were represented with smaller selections of paintings and drawings. Quinn's enthusiasm for Vorticism led to his purchase of almost everything included in the Penguin exhibition. What he did not acquire he sent to the avant-garde bookstore, Sunwise Turn. These remained unsold and eventually were returned to England. While the Penguin Club exhibition garnered scant notice in the United States, it was nonetheless important to the group's fortunes and the only presentation outside of England to focus specifically on Vorticism during the movement's heyday.