Yesterday, I saw a fantastic exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “The Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914-1939.” I was absolutely fascinated by these prints and the personalities of the artists, some of whom like, C.R.W. Nevinson were around Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticist group. Most of the catalog, however, was drawn from the ranks of what would be called the Grosvenor School. These artists, including Cyril E. Power, Sybil Andrews, and Claude Flight, drew on Futurism, Expressionism, and Cubism to produce linocuts and prints inspired by the dynamics and speed of modern urban life.
Like the Italian Futurists, who were a primary influence, the artists grouped around the Vorticists embraced the First World War as a great act of creative destruction, the “sole hygiene for the world” in the words of Futurist leader F.T. Marinetti. The Futurists, intoxicated by mechanization, speed, technology, and force, viewed War as the greatest exemplification of these modern virtues. The Vorticist journal BLAST included works by noted reactionaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, as well as C.R.W. Nevinson, who was perhaps the most impresive of the artists on display at the Met.
Nevinson’s work drew heavily on the imagery of war, and he himself served as an ambulence driver for the British in WWI. The images of the war provided subject matter for many of his works, including a stunning set of etchings and prints emphasizing the usual Vorticist and Futurist themes of technology, dynamism, and speed. In an impressive work called Building Aircraft: Banking at 4,000 Feet, he employs methods similar to those of the Futurists, like sharp diagonal angles and lines to suggest force and
movement, with dramatic effect. Standing in front of this print, you almost get a feeling of vertigo, like you might fall out of the plane at any moment.
You can see why such technologies as aircraft would thrill the artists of the time. The intoxicating feeling of flying, still a novelty in this age, certainly comes through in this work. Imagine, also, the experience of being in a plane with an open cockpit, with the bracing air around you and your stomach jumping into your throat as the plane banks hard to the right.
Not all of Nevinson’s prints had this sense of giddy exuberence, however.
My favorite work on display was Hauling down an Observation Balloon at Night, which has a more forboding atmosphere.
One aspect of Nevinson’s fascination with the machinary of war must have included the thought that this technology can easily dwarf the powers of men to control it: in this work, the balloon looms ominously over the men below, who seem barely able to reign it in from the sky. It descends like some terrifying black cloud as dozens of troops strain bring it under their control. The thick layers of ink suggest a gloomy, nocturnal scene.
Seen up close, this work is chilling. Unlike some of his other war prints, which show troops marching to the front, dying in trenches, and the like, Hauling Down an Observation Balloon at Night has a terrifying feeling of silence. The balloon itself, despite it’s customary associations with weightlessness, suggests a tremendous weight bearing down on the men below. It’s force in the work is downward, not upward, an oppressive force, rather than an uplifting one.
In addition to the militaristic themes of Nevinson’s work, he also was interested in urban themes, and several of the works on display were inspired by the time he spent in New York City. Looking Through the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1920, in some ways carries over themes which appear in Hauling down an Observation Balloon at Night. The massive scale of the bridge dwarfs the people walking across it, and the city behind it appears massive and grey. There is little that is comforting in this image of city life: rather the metropolis appears to be hostile, polluted, and inhospitable to human life. The greyish tone, as well as the apparent sheen on the metal suggests rain or sleet. The people are anonymous and shrouded by shadow, their gait suggesting that they are perhaps hurrying to escape the weather. The man in front appears to be carrying an umbrella, which reinforces this impression.
The sharp diagonal lines of this work, extending from the upper-left corner to the lower-right, remind me of Banking at 4,000 Feet. However, whereas in Banking these lines give a powerful suggestion of motion and speed, in Looking Through the Brooklyn Bridge they somehow have the opposite effect: The Bridge is unmoveable, a monument to the permenance of the new Industrial reality. It is the people who seem temporary, as fleeting as the shadows which move across it.
Other artists on display showed a fascination with urban themes, and I was excited to find many works
dedicated to the theme of mass transportation. Many of the artists of the Grosvenor School, most notably Cyril E. Power, produced prints on this subject. The scene portrayed in The Tube Train, seen above, is familiar to anybody who has spent time in a major metropolis, the alienated riders of the train focused on anything but the people around them; here absorbed in newspapers. The riders are anonymous and uniform, without individuality or personality, and the jilted angles suggest motion; you can imagine the train racing through the underground, tilting with the turns of the track.
The alienating aspects of urban life also come through in Power’s print Whence and Whither?, another of my favorite works from the exhibit. Here a mass of people descend down an escalator, a wave of anonymous humanity moving through the underground arteries of the city. The caption at the museum said that this work had the working title “The Bottomless Pit: Homo Mechanies,” and suggesting the sort of alienation and automatization of humanity that was a theme for many of the artists of the time.
Here again the downward angles suggest movement and force, and the working title of The Bottomless Pit seems to suggest a sort of black hole sucking the people down.
Another favorite of mine from Power was The Escalator, which reminded me very much of the 51st Street
Subway Station in Manhattan, which has a long escalator which descends down a tiled, rounded tunnel to the platform for the E and V trains. When I lived downtown, I took this escalator every day on my way back from Hunter College. Here again, the man is dwarfed by the scale of the city, darkened and anonymous, and his stance makes him appear as though he were bracing himself for his encounter with the technology before him. Unlike Whence and Whither?, which suggest a force pulling downward, The Escalator seems like a massive obstacle to the man’s upward ascent. This seems to suggest the opposite of the intended effect of the escalator, a strange dichotomy that reminded me of the Ballon from Nevinson’s print above.
Like the Vorticists and the Futurists, the artists of the Grosvenor School were fascinated by the political upheavals of the time. I was very interested to learn of the themes behind Revolution, a print by Claude Flight, the leader of the Grosvenor School. One of the blurbs in the museum pointed out that Flight, like Nevinson, was fascinated by mechanization, technology, speed, and political upheaval, but unlike Nevinson he refused to embrace militarism.
Revolution, an abstract work produced in 1931, coincided with events like the rise of Fascism in Germany and the Stalinist purges in Russia, but it was also pointed out that the title may have been inspired by Leon Trotsky’s classic work The Permenant Revolution, which saw it’s first English language publication at this time. This inspiring call for internationalism was popular among a certain layer of intellectuals at the time who were put off by the repressive nature of the Soviet state but had yet to abandon hope for revolution or slide into sympathy with fascism or western-style imperialism. Here the reds and yellows, arrayed in chaotic jagged lines, suggests violence and force, but in the service of progressive, rather than reactionary political goals.
The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, in his classic work “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” had called out Marinetti and the Futurists for glorifying war as the best outlet for technological progress, rather than applying such technology for more humanistic ends. As he pointed out:
All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.
Most of the artists of this time came from middle-class backgrounds, and had no reason to oppose the system of private property as such. Without this orientation, where else could their passion for mass violence be turned, except toward nationalism and imperialism? Flight’s Revolution suggests a rare exception in the currents which emerged from the influences of Vorticism and Futurism: violence and mechanization in the service of social progress.