Gabrielle Schwarz on Helen Saunders

When the Vorticist manifesto was published between the puce covers of BLAST in June 1914, there were two women among the eleven signatories: Jessica Dismorr (1885–1939) and Helen Saunders (1885–1963). However, Saunders’s name was misspelled: “H. Sanders.” It’s tempting to read this as an act of erasure—whether careless or intentional, perhaps inflected with misogyny—by the famously egotistical Wyndham Lewis, who once declared that “Vorticism was . . . what I, personally, said, and did, at a certain period.” (Saunders saw things differently, describing the short-lived movement as “a group of very disparate artists, each working out his own ideas under [its] aegis.”) In fact, Saunders had deliberately concealed her identity to spare her conventionally bourgeois family’s embarrassment from her association with a radical avant-garde. A year later, she was similarly happy to let Lewis take the credit for their collaboration on the now-lost Vorticist Room at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel in London.

This quiet subterfuge is what allowed Saunders to safeguard her artistic expression—at the expense of legibility and recognition. In “Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel,” she began to receive her due. The drawings on display were all recently donated to the Samuel Courtauld Trust by Brigid Peppin, an art historian and relative of the artist, making it the largest public repository of Saunders’s work. They show her progression between around 1913 and the late 1920s, from quasi-Cubist landscapes and portraits to Vorticist abstractions, and back again. Though small and often sketchy—squaring-up lines are visible in a few—the compositions demonstrate Saunders’s skill and style. She clearly had a keen sense of geometry and a fantastic instinct for color. The Vorticist pieces are a highlight. With their complex arrangements of interlocking forms, they splendidly deliver on the movement’s main goal: to embody through hard-edged abstrac-tion the energy, brutality, and mechanization of modern life. The display refuted Richard Cork’s assessment, in 1976, of an unfortunate “female waywardness” in her work (contrasted, we can assume, with virile discipline) that would justify the dearth of serious discussions and exhibitions.

Yet, considered more generously, Cork’s description is apt. We know that Saunders sympathized with the women’s suffrage movement, and some of her drawings can be interpreted as feminist statements on the oppression of her sex. One watercolor from ca. 1913 goes by the modern title Untitled (Female figures imprisoned). It shows seven tightly packed bodies, their breasts and hips rendered with jutting black lines, in a cave-like enclosure. Hammock, ca. 1913–14, portrays a nude woman lying on her back, her expression anguished and limbs contorted. The exhibition’s catalogue suggests that the hammock may be pinned to the back of a Queen Anne chair, an emblem of the life of middle-class domesticity that Saunders and women like her were expected to embrace.

It is difficult to square such images with Saunders’s willingness to labor semianonymously in Lewis’s shadow. But perhaps even she could not predict the extent to which, particularly after their estrangement in 1919, he would obscure her achievements. An offshoot display at the Courtauld told the story of the recent discovery of her work beneath a painting by Lewis. Student researchers were stunned to find that his Praxitella, a portrait of film critic Iris Barry from 1921, had been painted over a large Vorticist composition that exactly matched an illustration of Saunders’s Atlantic City printed in the second issue of BLAST in 1915. A reconstruction of the lost picture—which Saunders probably gave to Lewis after presenting it at the Vorticist exhibition in London—shows a kaleidoscopic urban landscape painted in bold autumnal shades. It’s on a much grander scale than any of Saunders’s surviving drawings. What other achievements of hers may still be hidden from sight?

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