Jessica Dismorr

Abstract Composition


In Tate Britain

Jessica Dismorr 1885–1939
Oil paint on wood
Support: 413 × 508 mm
frame: 490 × 585 × 39 mm
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.

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Display caption

Dismorr’s writings and art reflect her interest in the city and its architectural forms. Here, the simplified elements suggest arches, piers and girders, suspended in a darkened, undefined space. The sense of depth sets her style apart from the flatter compositions of other vorticist artists. Vorticism was unusual for an early twentieth-century avant-garde group, in that it included female artists among its core members. Dismorr and Helen Saunders both showed work at the group’s exhibitions. They also contributed to its journal, Blast, which supported the Suffragette movement for women’s rights.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

Jessie Dismorr 1885–1939
Not inscribed.
Oil on composition board, 16 1/4×20 (41·5×50·5).
Purchased from Mr George Milman (Gytha Trust) 1968
Coll: Bequeathed by the artist to R H M Ody; purchased by George Milman 1965.
Exh: Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, Tate Gallery, July–August 1956 (160); Mayor Gallery, April–May 1965 (2).

The entry in the catalogue of the Vorticist exhibition of 1956 suggests that the date of this work might be c. 1915 on the grounds of its resemblance to the artist's woodcuts in Blast No. 2 of that year (pp. 27 & 29). Certainly it is completely unlike the illustrations of 1911–12 in Rhythm in 1911 & 12, and those of 1920 (Group X) and afterwards. However, perhaps because of the different media, it appears more space-conscious, more abstract and less decorative than the woodcuts in Blast. More precisely it seems to reflect the style of Bomberg's ‘Mud Bath’ (1913–14) rather than that of Wyndham Lewis.

Although it is not yet possible to date the picture any more accurately than this, two scraps of evidence bear on the evolution of her abstract style. The three portrait studies she exhibited at the A.A.A. exhibition at the Albert Hall in 1913 are annotated in the Tate Gallery copy of the catalogue as ‘cubist’ (Lewis' works are described as ‘silly’ and Brancusi's ‘Muse Endormie’ as ‘quaint’).

In 1914 she acquired a copy of Sadler's translation of Kandinsky's ‘Über das Geistige in der Kunst’. (Information from Mr Ody, Excerpts from the same work were translated in Blast I 1914 by Wadsworth. Kandinsky showed in the A.A.A. exhibitions of 1911, 1912, 1913 and 1914.)

Published in:
The Tate Gallery: Acquisitions 1968-9, London 1969

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