On the eve of World War I, a band of iconoclastic, London-based artists announced the debut of Vorticism, a movement that rejected “sentimental” Victorian aesthetics in favor of bold abstraction celebrating the vitality of industrialism. Bright colors, strong lines and harsh angles evoke the slash of modern machinery in Vorticist works. The group was given its name by poet Ezra Pound, who opined 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 regarded as England’s first avant-garde group. Over time, her legacy has been largely forgotten, and nearly all of her Vorticist paintings have been lost.
One of those paintings was Atlantic City, created around 1915. And now, more than a century later, researchers have found it—hidden beneath a work by Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism’s famed founder, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London announced in a statement this week.
Saunders’ lost painting came to light in 2019, when two students at the Courtauld undertook an X-ray study of Praxitella, which Lewis painted in 1921. Praxitella depicts the film critic Iris Barry, but as the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood writes, clues pointed to the possibility that another artwork lurked underneath: Praxitella’s texture is uneven, and bright red paint peeks through cracks in its surface.
The students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, spent six months analyzing the canvas with high-resolution scanning equipment, but they weren’t able to identify the hidden artwork until they came across a reproduction of one of Saunders’ paintings in Blast, the journal that unabashedly declared Vorticism’s core principles. Published by Lewis, Blast took on this name because it “blasted” the entities that rankled Vorticists.
“Blast France, Blast England, Blast Humour, Blast the years 1837 to 1900,” the journal proclaimed in a manifesto that was written by Lewis and signed by 11 other artistic and literary figures—among them Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound and Saunders.
A number of Saunders’ paintings and writings were featured in Blast during its short-lived run; the journal published just two editions. An image of one of these artworks, Atlantic City, caught the attention of Chipkin and Kohn.
“We realized that when we turned the image of Atlantic City upside down, it had striking similarities with the composition seen in our X-rays of Praxitella,” says Chipkin in the statement.
Atlantic City portrays a “fragmented modern metropolis,” according to the Courtauld. Researchers don’t know why Lewis would have painted over a work by one of his close contemporaries. He may have simply needed the canvas, as he was often hard-pressed for cash. It’s also possible that Lewis acted out of spite. He was a prickly character—and, for a time, a Nazi sympathizer—who made unfavorable impressions on the likes of Ernest Hemingway. He and Saunders became estranged in 1919, which caused Saunders “emotional distress,” per the Courtauld.
By that time, the dynamic energy of Vorticism had largely fizzled. The devastation wrought during World War II by industrial technologies—mass-produced artillery, machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons—forced the group to reconsider its reverence for modern machines. Saunders turned to a more figurative style of artwork during the post-war years, and her contributions to Vorticism have been both overlooked and explicitly diminished.
“Vorticism, as [Lewis] conceived it, was essentially masculine 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 Lewis’ influence, allowing their artistic voices to be dominated by his.”
The Courtauld hopes to foster a more nuanced appreciation for Saunders’ art with a new exhibition honoring her legacy. “Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel” will spotlight 18 of the artist’s drawings and watercolors, tracing the innovations and evolutions of her work. Praxitella will also be on display, 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 Vorticists, such as Wyndham Lewis,” says Chipkin in the statement. “It also gives hope that there are other hidden Vorticist paintings waiting to be found.”
“Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel” will be on view at the Courtauld Gallery in London from October 14, 2022 to January 29, 2023.