RUMNEY, Ralph. Kill John Bull with art! : what went wrong?. In Studio International Vol. 178, no. 917 (pp. 216-221). London: Cory, Adams, and Mackay, 1969. ca. 80 p. (i-xvi + 64 p. [numbered 201-264]); ill.; 25 x 31 cm.; ill. wrappers.
Rare piece by Ralph Rumney, published in the British arts magazine Studio International: Journal of Modern Art. Technically, the article is a review of the show Abstract Art in England 1913-1915, the first broad survey of the Vorticist movement. It was held at the d’Offay Couper Gallery in London from November 11 to December 5, 1969. But, as often with Rumney, it is so much more than that.
The British artist and former member of the Situationist International praises the exhibition, “likely to be the only occasion we shall have to see a considerable selection of important work from this period [1913-1915]” (pp. 216). He goes on to express his admiration for Vorticism, an avant-garde movement founded by (Percy) Windham Lewis and whose other members included the likes of Laurence Atkinson, William Roberts, David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth, and others. Vorticists rejected landscapes and nudes in favor of bold, abstract geometric shapes. Its members – “all except one who were under thirty” (ibid) – were contemporaries of Mondrian, Malevitch, Arp, and others — but these artists were not yet known in England. In their only contemporary show in the UK at the Dore Gallery, Vorticists positioned their movement against Naturalism, Cubism, and Futurism all at once: “By Vorticism we mean (a) Activity as opposed to the tasteful passivity of Picasso. (b) Signifiance as opposed to the dull and anecdotal character to which the Naturalist is condemned. (c) Essential Movement and Activity (such as the energy of a mind) as opposed to the imitative cinematography , the fuss and the hysterics of the Futurists” (ibid). Vorticism is perhaps best remembered through the short-lived magazine Blast.
It’s easy to see what Rumney admires in the Vorticists: just like him (and the Situationists), they were young, bold, and not afraid to launch a frontal assault against artistic currents that gained notoriety in the public sphere.
In the second part of the article, however, Rumney goes to lament the aftermath of the movement. Specifically, he wonders how World War 1 effectively put an end to the great Vorticist experiment: “What happened during the war to change radically the attitudes of a group of rebel artists into near conformity? What was it only in Engand that the mainstream of art was interrupted and diverted” (pp. 221). He then hypothesizes that the eradication of cafes and meeting places leads to an atomization of the artistic sphere: “The art scene is broken into smaller groups who have only occasional and suspicious contacts with each other…in this sense of the the disappearance of an efficient working environment the war was indeed ‘bad for art’, and that the change from rebellion to a sort of conformity which eventually led us to the insipidity of Unit One was the product, akin to brainwashing, of an unfamiliar world on men suffering from acute mental strain” (ibid). Rumney then goes on to cite an article entitled Combat Neurosis Development of Combat Exhaustion, published in a journal of neurology and psychiatry, as evidence. He concludes: “we are left with the tantalising prospect of what might have been if these artists had recovered from their wartime experiences and gone on producing abstract art through the ‘twenties and thirties to compare the dim reality of art in England from 1915 to 1955” (ibid)
It’s hard not to see parallels between the Vorticists and the intense burst of artistic activity that characterized Rumney’s own years in the Situationist International.