Object in Focus: Blast: War Number

17 October 2014

Burgh House & Hampstead Museum’s current exhibition, Fellowship & Sacrifice: Hampstead and the First World War, explores how the war affected Hampstead and its residents. We have acquired a few new artworks and objects for this exhibition, including an original copy of the Vorticists' second, and last, magazine, Blast: War Number, which was compiled during the first year of the First World War and released in July 1915.

The first step towards the formation of Vorticism came when future Vorticist artists Wyndham Lewis and C. R. W. Nevinson (who grew up in Hampstead) saw an exhibition on Italian Futurism in 1912. They were so inspired that they decided to host a dinner with the movement’s founder, the Italian poet F. T. Marinetti. The dinner took place in November 1913 and was attended by the other artists who had left the Bloomsbury Group’s Omega Workshop with Lewis to join his short-lived rival workshop, the Rebel Art Centre.

Influenced by 'The Futurist Manifesto' of 1909 and other Futurist poems written by Marinetti, Lewis and Nevinson decided to create a magazine to accompany their newly developing artistic style, which would similarly stress the importance of modernity, power and technology on their art. Nevinson came up with the title ‘Blast’ and, in an attempt to move away from the Futurist label, the group renamed their movement ‘Vorticism’, as suggested by American poet Ezra Pound.

Blast: War Number combines etchings and drawings by Lewis, William Roberts and others, with poems and essays by writers including Lewis, Pound, Helen Saunders and T. S. Eliot. Many of the artworks and written pieces are inspired by the horrors of the First World War, including On the way to the Trenches by Nevinson, which uses the Futurist-inspired angular and geometric style to powerful effect in evoking the force, violence and anonymity of the soldiers going into battle.

The most moving written piece in the magazine is perhaps 'Vortex' by the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, which he wrote from the trenches. In it, he talks about how his experiences in the war have made him realise that everything is made up of planes and lines and so, while his view of sculpture has not changed, he will from now on ‘DERIVE MY EMOTIONS SOLELY FROM THIS ARRANGEMENT OF SURFACES’. He goes on to demonstrate this by writing that ‘the hill where Germans are solidly entrenched’ gives him a ‘nasty feeling’ because ‘its gentle slopes are broken up by earth-works’. Perhaps, by adapting the horror he sees all around him into artistic principles for Vorticism, he was hoping to transform his impossible situation into an experience he could actually learn from. Below his essay sits a notice informing the reader that, 'after months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry', Gaudier-Brzeska was killed on 5th June, 1915.

The power of Blast: War Number lies in the struggle created when the order that so defined the art and literary work of Vorticism came up against the monumental chaos that defined the First World War. Unlike the Dada movement, which aimed to create nonsensical artwork in response to irrationality of the war, the Vorticists attempted to utilise their sharp lines, dynamic figures and didactic language as a weapon against the chaos, in an attempt to create order and sense where there was none.

Fellowship & Sacrifice: Hampstead and the First World War is open until Sunday 14th December. Please click here for the Blast: War Number catalogue entry.