Were Blast Magazine and the Vorticist movement a precursor to digital art that we look at today?

BLAST magazine was possibly one of the most eccentric and mind-boggling outputs of the early 20th century Modernist movement. Months before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, BLAST was published as a collaborative effort between Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and several other literary and artistic figures. All of these writers and painters had one thing in common: they all belonged to the Vorticist movement.

Blast Magazine vorticism gounesco
Cover of Blast Magazine

Vorticism emerged in the early 20th century, as a fusion of Cubism and Expressionism. It was essentially a response to Modernism, which encouraged society to look at the world as a dynamic entity, a constantly swirling vortex. In a Vorticist painting modern life is shown as an array of bold lines and harsh colors drawing the viewer’s eye into the center of the canvas.

BLAST magazine was the centerpiece of the Vorticist movement, and it has been lauded as an experimental endeavor that forms the precursor to modern digital art, by scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, who prophesied the emergence of digital media. Unfortunately, its perception by society as inherently Fascist was what led to its early demise.

Vorticist Art in 1914 Picture Courtesy: The Telegraph
Vorticist Art in 1914 Picture Courtesy: The Telegraph

In a way, long before the digital era, it was BLAST magazine that introduced the word to the realm of digital art. The pages in the magazine were composed of typography laid out in angular and slanting fashions, almost looking like they were edited on a computer.

The paintings and sketches made by Lewis that adorned the pages of BLAST were also optical and symmetrical, looking almost as if they were created using modern vectors on Illustrator or Photoshop. It is quite remarkable to look at the way BLAST was designed, because it is definitely reminiscent of modern graphic design. Even McLuhan talks of BLAST as a precursor to the digitization of artistic media itself. However, its perception by society as inherently Fascist was what led to its early demise.

Detail-from-William-Rober The Guardian Vorticism
The Vorticists Picture Courtesy: The Guardian

Thus, BLAST is definitely a magazine that was ahead of its time. The Vorticists wanted to portray BLAST to be an eccentric document in order to generate and stimulate public thought in a forward direction. Even the literature within BLAST was quite experimental. Enemy of the Stars, a play written by Lewis, forms the centerpiece of BLAST. It has been critiqued as an extremely unintelligible and experimental endeavor.

Enemy of the Stars: An Analysis

It is important to discuss the effects of digitization, rather than just debating as to whether BLAST led to the advent of digital media. According to Art historian, Amal Kazumi, “Digitization helps you to learn things at the micro level, look at even literature, and the concept of research. It’s made so much simpler through things like hypertext.”

Talking about rebellious digital art installations, Amal said, “Someone busted Google Adsense a few years ago and tampered with the cookies and ads on display. Things like these may make art more intangible, but they open it up to so many more people, since the digital world has no conceivable boundaries.”

She cited another instance of rebellious digital art installation when someone hacked into Google maps and superimposed an altered image of the India Gate and replaced the original placeholder.

Thus, digitization has an unmistakable edge to it, but needs time to be further understood for its complexities. It is necessary to look at not only the emergence of digital art, but also the factors that preceded it and led to its emergence. This helps us understand how human ideology developed over time.

  • Shantanu Tilak

    Former Editor at GoUNESCO. Currently studying Educational Psychology at the Ohio State University. I'll be gone from February, please divert your queries to ajay@gounesco.com ! New contributors will be enlisted for the next round to add to our roster of experts and students of culture.