Jessica Dismorr
Abstract Composition c.1915

Artwork details

Jessica Dismorr 1885–1939
Abstract Composition
Date c.1915
Medium Oil paint on wood
Dimensions Support: 413 x 508 mm
frame: 490 x 585 x 39 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1968


Abstract Composition is a medium-sized rectangular oil painting on board by the British artist Jessica Dismorr. It features a series of pastel-coloured geometric forms, reminiscent of architectural components, overlapping on a black ground. A dark yellow triangular prism with a curved side provides a vertical focus and splits the composition in two. A smaller pale pink object appears to approach the foreground, which is crowded by five more objects of different shapes and colours. The arrangement of these objects, as well as the interaction of darker and lighter colours, creates an illusion of depth and movement.

Around the time that she created Abstract Composition, Dismorr contributed six pieces of writing titled ‘Poems and Notes’ and two illustrations, Design and The Engine, to the second and final issue of Blast, a modernist magazine published by the Vorticist movement, of which Dismorr was a signatory member. Abstract Composition shares several components with Design (see Blast II, July 1915, p.29). The negative square form at the top left corner of Abstract Composition is repeated in the bottom right corner of Design. In addition, the cream-coloured angular shapes in Abstract Composition also appear in Design but on the left-hand side. Viewed side by side these repetitions accentuate the effect of movement and demonstrate Dismorr’s interest in arranging and rearranging these almost architectural-looking fragments. This parallels the concerns of the Vorticist movement, which sought to imagine the condition of the modern city as augmented by machines and new metropolitan infrastructures. Dismorr’s prose poem ‘London Notes’ describes wartime architecture evocatively yet sparely: ‘towers of scaffolding draw their criss-cross pattern of bars upon the sky, a monstrous tartan’ (Jessica Dismorr, ‘London Notes’, Blast II, July 1915, p.66). This ‘monstrous tartan’ of modernity is depicted not only throughout Dismorr’s work of the 1910s, such Abstract Composition and Design, but is evident in that of her Vorticist colleagues, for example Helen Saunders’s Abstract Composition in Blue and Yellow c.1915 (Tate T00623) and Monochrome Abstract Composition c.1915 (Tate T00622) and Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd c.1915 (Tate T00689) and Workshop c.1914–5 (Tate T01931).

Along with Dismorr, Saunders and Lewis, the Vorticist movement included Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound, William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth. Between March and June 1914 the Vorticists operated out of the Rebel Art Centre in Great Ormond Street, London, which signified their commitment to creating art aggressively stylised for the modern era – the centre was registered at the ‘Cubist Art Centre Ltd.’ – and their animosity towards Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell and corresponding aesthetic commitment ‘to render obsolete the Post-Impressionist style of Omega’ (Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900–1939, New Haven and London 1981, p.100). Historian Miranda Hickman has argued that Vorticism appealed to Dismorr as it offered her ‘the free navigation of such city spaces, at this time marked masculine … through the gestures, perspectives and qualities associated with its masculinity’. (Miranda Hickman, ‘The Gender of Vorticism: Jessie Dismoor, Helen Saunders, and Vorticist Feminism’, in Antliff and Klein 2013, p.121.) Her engagement with the masculine spaces and abstraction of Vorticism, Hickman suggests, ‘countered effects of “Prettiness” that suggested feminine weakness and inferior artistry’ (Hickman 2013, p.122).

Prior to joining the Vorticists in 1914 Dismorr had studied with the artist J.D. Fergusson and made repeated trips to France where she created representational works with ‘rich colour and the flat decorative shapes’ (Anna Gruetzner, ‘Great Britain and Ireland’, in Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1979, p.186). Between 1914 and 1920 Dismorr translated these ‘flat decorative shapes’ into non-figurative works, including Abstract Composition. Dismorr spent a period in the 1920s as a member of the prestigious Seven and Five Society during which time she produced representational works, including portraits, which one critic described as combining ‘satisfying design with inventive liveliness’ (Maurice Fort, ‘The Seven and Five Society’, Artwork, no.2, January 1926, p.98). However, in the 1930s she returned to abstraction, although her works from this period were less angular than anthropomorphic (see, for example, Related Forms 1937, Tate T02322).

Further reading
Didier Ottinger, Futurism, London 2009, p.72, reproduced p.72.
Mark Antliff and Vivien Green (eds.), The Vorticists: A Manifesto for a Modern World, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2010, reproduced no.24.
Mark Antliff and Scott W. Klein (eds.), Vorticism: New Perspectives, Oxford 2013, p.121, reproduced no.12.

Hana Leaper
March 2016

Supported by Christie’s.