Lost Vorticist Masterpiece Found Hidden Under Another Painting | Smart News
On the eve of World War I, a London-based group of iconoclastic artists heralded the beginnings of Vorticism, a movement that rejected “sentimental” Victorian aesthetics in favor of bold abstraction celebrating the vitality of industrialism . Bright colors, strong lines, and hard angles evoke the slash of modern machines in Vorticist works. The group received its name from the poet Ezra Pound, who believed that “the Vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.
Helen Saunders was one of only two women to join this radical movement, now considered England’s first avant-garde group. Over time his legacy has been largely forgotten and nearly all of his Vorticist paintings have been lost.
One of these paintings was Atlantic Citycreated around 1915. And now, more than a century later, researchers have found it, hidden under a work by Wyndham Lewis, the famous founder of Vorticism, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London announced in a press release this week .
Saunders’ lost painting was revealed in 2019, when two Courtauld students undertook an X-ray study of Praxitellewhich Lewis painted in 1921. Praxitelle portrays film critic Iris Barry, but as the Guardian‘s Harriet Sherwood writes, clues pointed to the possibility that another piece of art was hiding below: PraxitelleThe texture of is uneven and the bright red paint pierces through cracks in its surface.
The students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, spent six months scanning the canvas with high-resolution scanning equipment, but were unable to identify the hidden artwork until they come across a reproduction of one of Saunders’ paintings in Blast, the journal which shamelessly declared the fundamental principles of Vorticism. Edited by Lewis, Blast took this name because he “castigated” entities that irritated the Vorticists.
“Blast France, Blast England, Blast Humor, Blast the years 1837 to 1900,” proclaims the newspaper in a manifesto written by Lewis and signed by 11 other artistic and literary figures, including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound and Saunders.
A number of Saunders’ paintings and writings have been featured in Blast during his short run; the journal published only two editions. An image of one of these works, Atlantic Citycaught the attention of Chipkin and Kohn.
“We realized that when we transformed the image of Atlantic City upside down, it had striking similarities to the composition seen in our x-rays of Praxitellesaid Chipkin in the statement.
Atlantic City depicts a “fragmented modern metropolis”, according to the Courtauld. Scholars are unsure why Lewis would have painted over a work by one of his close contemporaries. Maybe he just needed the canvas, as he often ran out of money. It is also possible that Lewis acted out of spite. He was a prickly figure – and, for a time, a Nazi sympathizer – who made unfavorable impressions on the likes of Ernest Hemingway. He and Saunders separated in 1919, which caused “emotional distress” to Saunders, according to the Courtauld.
By then, the dynamic energy of vorticism had largely fizzled out. The devastation wrought during World War II by industrial technologies – mass-produced artillery, machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons – forced the group to reconsider its respect for modern machinery. Saunders turned to a more figurative style of art during the postwar years, and her contributions to Vorticism were both overlooked and explicitly diminished.
“Vorticism, as [Lewis] designed, was essentially male in character – a line swallowed by later critics,” wrote Brigid Peppin, a relative of Saunders, in Tate Etc. in 2011. “Contemporaries and many later writers assumed that [Vorticist Jessica Dismorr] and Saunders painted under the influence of Lewis, allowing their artistic voices to be dominated by his.
The Courtauld hopes to foster a more nuanced appreciation of Saunders’ art with a new exhibition honoring his legacy. “Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel” will highlight 18 drawings and watercolors by the artist, tracing the innovations and evolutions of her work. Praxitelle will also be exhibited, alongside the X-ray and a partial color reconstruction of Atlantic City.
“We hope our findings will spark more interest in Saunders’ work and the work of other female Vorticist painters, who are overshadowed by male Vorticist painters, such as Wyndham Lewis,” Chipkin said in the statement. “It also gives hope that there are other hidden vorticist paintings waiting to be found.”
“Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebelwill be exhibited at the Courtauld Gallery in London from October 14, 2022 to January 29, 2023.