Frances Spalding says Vorticism was aggressive

As part of its coverage of the 1918 Armistice centenary, BBC Radio 4’s World at One decided to look at Modernism. On 9 November 2018 they asked along Will Gompertz and Frances Spalding, to be interviewed by Mark Mardell. They would, he said, "discuss the cultural impact of the First World War". Here is an account of the sense and nonsense that followed. All quotes are taken from the online recording, so they’re exact.

The item began with a reading of an excerpt from The Waste Land, from “My nerves are bad tonight” to “a knock upon the door”. Plenty of subjective stuff there, then. Gompertz, who is the BBC’s Arts Correspondent, began by saying that Modernism is:

A movement […] which comes out of advances in technology, most importantly perhaps photography, which encouraged artists to look at the world differently. In a way it liberated painting [he mentions Cézanne, Picasso and Braque]. Modernism in its purest form is about simplicity.

Not bad, if you could only say one thing. Next, the effect of the war itself, and into the post-war:

Before the war I suppose Modernism was captured with [sic] a sense of optimism, after the war it was pessimism. If the society that Modernism was in a way celebrating was capable of such destruction, such heartless murder, then this is Nagasaki for us, the artists thought.

Yes, you really did read that: after the First World War modernist artists were thinking about the atom bomb!

Gompertz redeemed himself by speaking particularly well about Epstein’s Rock Drill: this “is really a huge anti-war and anti-technology statement”. Then Frances Spalding corrected Gompertz, and mentioned Vorticism and Futurism. That means violence:

But what I think that Will has failed to mention is this, the association of Modernism with violence and aggression in the pre-war period, primarily with the Futurists and Vorticists. I’m thinking of Nevinson’s remark that there is no beauty without aggression. The Vo– [hesitates] the Futurists’ desire to destroy the libraries and museums and the universities and so on, and totally turn their backs on the past.

Yes, you read that too. The Vorticists may have rejected everything violent in Futurism – but they were really violent themselves all along!

Spalding started to say that the Vorticists were out to destroy the libraries, stopped herself, and substituted the Futurists. Never mind the contents of BLAST, or the stasis and reflectiveness of Vorticist art, everything is changed by a remark from C. R. W. Nevinson, who was, of course, the Futurist Marinetti’s best friend in London.

Frances Spalding is an art critic who gets a lot of access to broadcasts of this kind. She has a responsibility not to misrepresent what she is talking about. She continued as follows. Make of it what you can ... It’s either very profound or just too much for a lunchtime broadcast:

And I think one major difference between Modernism before and after the First World War is that there is the recognition that the past is much more intractable than perhaps the Futurists had suggested, and will return, and does return to challenge the present.

Alan Munton