A Vorticist row in 1967

Revolution 1915 ('The Crowd')

Found in the letters column of The New Statesman of 21 April 1967 this angry exchange about Vorticism and Wyndham Lewis. The Surrealists were famous for arguing amongst themselves and it is interesting to see the vehemence in this post-Vorticist  argument. Michael Ayrton shows Lewis as a difficult man (others were less kind) and Robert Melville's reply scores a few points - but not a direct hit. It is odd that there was any debate about Nevinson being a Vorticist: he is now seen  with Lewis as their greatest exponent...

Sir, Mr Robert Melville contrives to perpetuate an ugly falsehood when he wrote as it was 'with the connivance of Lewis' that the Tate 'took advantage of the public ignorance of Bomberg's early work and included only a single unrepresentative drawing in the exhibition Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism in 1956 to create the impression that he was one of Lewis's lesser camp followers.' A similar argument was vociferously advanced by and on behalf of William Roberts in 1956. David Sylvester took up Roberts's cudgels in the New Statesman and, in passing, pointed out that Bomberg was not a Vorticist at all, but had simply exhibited with them. Denigrators of Lewis are tenacious but they cannot have it both ways. If Bomberg was not a Vorticist but one of what Mr Roberts called 'the Tail' then he had no special place in the Tate exhibition, which was avowedly concerned with Lewis and Vorticism.

C.R.W. Nevinson 'Return to the Trenches 1914-1915

In fact, Lewis had by then had come to reject everything about Vorticism  as regards the visual arts, maintaining that it had a literary application only. He believed that only one of his own large oils of that period survived - the 'Revolution' of 1915 (now in the Tate) - and that was of no interest. I thought him wrong about Vorticism then, as I do now, and argued with him but he dismissed me with the characteristic remark 'Vorticism  was what I personally, did or said at a certain period.' This sentence he later included in his short introduction to the Tate catalogue and whether or not it was true, it was hardly tactful. Quite understandably it made Mr Roberts very cross, but Bomberg never came under discussion. What ever part Lewis played in the selection of his own work for his retrospective exhibition, he could hardly have selected works by other Vorticists and sub-Vorticists for the simplest of reasons. As he had reported in The Listener in May 1951, he could no longer see a picture' and it would have been impossible for him to discriminate between representative or unrepresentative works by artists he found unmemorable, works which in any case had been dispersed 40 years earlier. By 1965 Lewis had been blind for four years. Michael Ayrton

Robert Melville replies: Although Lewis had lost his sight he had not lost his hearing, and since there is plenty of evidence he was well acquainted with Bomberg's major avant-garde paintings he had only to be told that Bomberg  was being represented in the exhibition by a drawing to set his mind at rest. If, as Mr Ayrton suggests, Bomberg was not entitled to a special place in the exhibition, 'which was avowedly concerned with Lewis and Vorticism', why was Nevinson represented by three canvases, in spite of the fact that the organisers admitted that 'his form of Futurism stands apart from the style of the Vorticists' ? And if Nevinson could be included, why not Epstein? I can only think that the organisers realise that the presence of Epstein's Rock Drill  and one of Bomberg's large paintings would have reduced the 'whale surrounded by minnows' effect produced by the exhibition. Mr Ayrton's quotation from Lewis simply reinforces my impression that the organisers pandered to Lewis's megalomania.

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