Vorticists and Entertainers

In London yesterday, I visited a pair of contrasting exhibitions.
The Vorticists at Tate Britain displays a lot of artwork from Wyndham Lewis and his chums (and a few of his enemies).
It was the sculpture that most impressed me. Epstein’s Rock Drill (above)  meets you at the door, and it’s still a wow a hundred years on. Gaudier-Brzeska’s monstrously phallic head of Ezra Pound is also mightily impressive. I’d seen photos before, but never the actual stone, and was amazed by it.
The paintings, with a few exceptions (like Bomberg’s The Mud Bath) don’t electrify. Lewis’s pictures of this period are studied and theoretical. On the wall big slogans from Blast show his wit, aggressiveness and originality. The paintings seem academic in comparison, nothing like as good as the later portraits, seen recently in a show at the NPG.
Probably the best room has copies of the 1914 pink-covered Blast available to readers who don’t have it at home (those without a copy of this extraordinary work can download an electronic version here).
I’ve a feeling that the designers of the exhibition take Vorticism a bit too seriously as Art theory, and underestimate its function as something that allowed Lewis to have fun and annoy people. Lewis at his best was a brilliant comedian, but hardly a theorist of the first rank. Vorticism was less a coherent set of ideas than an aggressive challenge to received thinking. That’s why it attracted talents like Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska. Those who took the ideas seriously (like the movement’s WAGs, who are given rather too much gallery space) did not sparkle.
The other exhibition I went to was Entertaining the Nation: Stars of Music, Stage and Screen at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. This chronicles the Jewish contribution to show business over the twentieth century. What would British popular music have been like without Harry Roy, Joe Loss, Alma Cogan, Manfred Mann and Amy Winehouse? A lot less fun.
Ineviably I found something to argue with. There is an interesting mini-documentary by Alan Yentob, about the development of Jewish comedy in Britain. He starts with comedians making fun of their own ethnicity (like Issy Bonn, and Julian Rose, who on the basis of the clip shown here was particularly excruciating). Then comics like Bud Flanagan and Sid James took over as comics who did not make an issue of their Jewishness. Sid in particular was treasured as a Cockney everyman.
But another Jewish comedian was doing this long before Sid. Ernie Lotinga’s ‛Josser’ character was not explicitly Jewish, but a working-class upsetter of posh dignities. He was one of the biggest stars, especially during the nineteen-twenties, but Yentob does not seem to know about him. A pity.
Entertaining the Nation is a temporary exhibition at the Museum, which also has a permanent show of the history of Jewish life in Britain. The thirteenth century seems to have been a particularly vile time for persecutions. Did you know that Magna Carta made some debts owed to Jews less enforcible than those owed to Christians? I didn’t until yesterday.
There are very good displays about the Jewish East End, and interesting material about Jewish involvement in the Great War. Proper tribute is paid to Isaac Rosenberg. A museum well worth visiting.


  1. Christopher Lotinga
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Such a pity that so little of Ernie’s material is now lost.

    • Christopher Lotinga
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      That ought to be ‘so much’! Sorry.

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