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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Did Virginia Woolf Comment on Vorticism?

Monday, August 20, 2012

I have spent the last couple of weeks writing a paper comparing computer games to developments in literary modernism. One of the fascinating things about the modernist period is the way in which visual artists and literary writers interacted and drew inspiration to radicalise their traditional forms of working through thinking about the aesthetics of other media. Most notably, for example, Virginia Woolf wrote her innovative short story, "Kew Gardens," on the back of an exhibition of post-impressionist painting. Briefly, I am trying to think about why it is that our contemporary writers (particularly novelists) do not seem to have been correspondingly affected by the advent of computer games, and the new narrative and artistic possibilities they seem to bring to bear.

In the process of researching what has turned out to be quite a complex essay, I have come across what appears to be a curious gap in relation to Woolf and visual art. Throughout her diaries and letters, Woolf continually professes her interest in developments in the visual arts. It was a visit to the 1910 exhibition of "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" which caused her to make one of the most reiterated (if now hackneyed) pronouncements of modernism that "on or about December 1910, human character changed." She enthusiastically essays by her friend and member of the Bloomsbury group, Roger Fry, and was thinking about these when she wrote her early short stories such as "Kew Gardens" or "The Mark on the Wall" (the latter of which almost directly lifts a quote from Fry's Vision and Design). In a 1922 essay on Proust, Woolf declares that "We are under the dominion of painting" and contends that "Were all modern paintings to be destroyed, a critic of the twenty-fifth century would be able to deduce from the works of Proust alone the existence of Matisse, Cezanne, Derain, and Picasso; he would be able to say with those books before him that painter of the highest originality and power must be covering canvas after canvas, squeezing tube after tube, in the room next door." One can similarly say that Woolf's own novel To the Lighthouse (1925) - which centres around the efforts of Lily Briscoe to paint Mrs Ramsay - could not have occurred were it not for the parallel movement of modern painting.

So one might have expected Woolf to have something to say about the advent of the Vorticist movement, which seemed to present the interaction of media, visual and literary, in the most prominent fashion. The arrival of Vorticism was represented by the first issue of Blast! magazine (1914), which was produced by Wyndham Lewis, who was both an artist and a writer, in collaboration with that perennial sponsor of experimentalism, Ezra Pound. This seems a truly multimedia work, mixing visual art, poetry, prose and politics, and using typography to represent the crossover between literature and art. As well as Lewis and Pound, contributions came from Jacob Epstein, Spencer Gore, Wadsworth, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Ford. (For the full flavour of the magazine, explore the digitised versions at the Modernist Journals Project)

With its bright pink cover differentiating it from other magazines of the period, Blast! attracted a certain amount of attention. The Chicago modernist magazine Little Review described it as as “something between magenta and lavender, about the colour of a sick headache” and the Pall Mall Gazette noted it was “chill flannelette pink.” An advertisement for the journal in The Egoist promoted it in the hyerbolic manner of a commodity as “THE CUBE, THE PYRAMID / Putrefaction of Guffaws Slain by Appearance of / BLAST. / No Pornography. No Old Pulp. / END OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA.” The Vorticist manifesto - with its demand to "Blast first England" and "Convert the King" - was every bit as controversial as Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto" or the first post-impressionist exhibition of 1910 which caused a stir in the popular press.

It seems hard to conceive, then, that Woolf did not know or hear about what was a remarkable and, ultimately, significant intervention on the stage of modernist aesthetics. However, nowhere in her diaries or letters for the period covering the two issues of Blast! does Woolf make any mention of the magazine, or for that matter of Vorticism. She mentions Lewis and Pound only very briefly and tangentially. It seems odd that someone who was otherwise heavily engaged in the intersections of visual and literary art should be uninterested in a magazine which seems of its time quite important (if also self-important).

One reason for this gap might be that it is a wilfully cultivated ignorance, stemming from Woolf's antagonistic relations with both Pound and Lewis. In a letter of 1918 to Roger Fry, Woolf reports of her first meeting with Pound's protege, T.S. Eliot, whom she describes as a "strange young man." Their conversation got as far as discussing Pound, Lewis and Joyce, and whilst Woolf is inclined to agree with Eliot that the latter is a "great genius," she says of Pound: "Not that I've read more than 10 words by Ezra Pound by [sic] my conviction of his humbug is unalterable." Was Blast! just another example of his "humbug," and so not worthy of mention?

Woolf and Lewis were similarly conflicted. Lewis had been prompted to develop Vorticism after falling out with Roger Fry, who had mentored Lewis at his workshop at the Omega gallery and who included Lewis in his second exhibition of post-impressionist painting in 1912. In 1914, feelings between Lewis and Fry were still raw, and Woolf's allegiances certainly lay with the latter, with whom she sustained a long correspondence and whose art theories influenced her later prose. Conversely, Lewis would later (in 1938) describe Woolf as "a sort of party-lighthouse," a symbol for the feminist movement but of exaggerated literary importance. So was Woolf allying herself with her friend by refusing to read Blast!?

Both of these seem reasonable possibilities. The third option is that Woolf did in fact read or at least know of Blast! but did not comment upon it explicitly in her letters or her diaries - hence why I have been unable to track down any mention of the magazine in her writings. However, the fourth possibility is that, not being a scholar of the modernist period, I may well be missing some glaringly obvious link or a reference to Blast! or the Vorticists elsewhere in Woolf's writing. If anyone can get in touch to correct me, or to confirm that indeed Woolf either did not read or did not comment on this particular movement, I would be very grateful.

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Posted by Alistair at 5:43 pm


Blogger Alice said...

Doing research into Woolf and modernism for dissertation and having the same difficulty finding any acknowledgements of Vorticism by Woolf. Wondering whether you've discovered any since writing this piece?! Best, Alice

5:03 pm  
Blogger Alistair Brown said...

Hello Alice, and thanks for your question. No I'm afraid I didn't come up with any other tangible links; I also asked a Woolf specialist and he wasn't aware of anything either. If you happen to come up with anything, do let me know - it seems to be an otherwise curious elision.

Good luck with your dissertation!

7:10 am  

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