‘Fit of spades’: lost vorticist masterpiece found under the portrait of a contemporary | Art

A lost masterpiece by a prominent early 20th-century abstract artist has been discovered beneath a portrait by a contemporary who may have painted over the original in a ‘fit of anger’.

Atlantic City by Helen Saunders, a member of the radical and short-lived Vorticist movement, depicts a fragmented modern metropolis, almost certainly in the vibrant colors associated with the group. A black-and-white image of the painting appeared in Blast, the pioneering Vorticist journal produced shortly before the outbreak of World War I.

Almost all of Saunders’ Vorticist paintings are thought to be lost, although drawings survive and will be exhibited at the Courtauld Gallery in London in October.

But an investigation of Praxitella, a portrayal of film critic Iris Barry by Wyndham Lewis, the founder of the Vorticists, by two Courtauld students revealed it was almost certainly painted atop Atlantic City.

Praxitella by Wyndham Lewis, founder of the radical and short-lived Vorticist movement.

Due to Praxitella’s uneven texture and glimpses of bright red through cracks in the surface paint, researchers had suspected that the 1921 portrait had been painted over another work.

The two students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, used X-rays and other imaging technologies to investigate the painting. They found an abstract composition under the portrait which was eventually identified as the previously lost Atlantic City.

“We realized that when we transformed the image of Atlantic City [in Blast] reversed, it had striking similarities to the composition seen in our radiograph of Praxitella,” Chipkin and Kohn said. “We were blown away. It took 100 years to rediscover Atlantic City. It gives hope that there are other hidden vorticist paintings waiting to be discovered.

Saunders was one of only two women to join the Vorticists. “In the pre-war years, she was one of the most radical painters and draftswomen. There were only a handful of people in Europe producing this kind of hard-edged abstract painting and drawing,” said Barnaby Wright, Courtauld Gallery assistant director and 20th-century scholar.

Atlantic City by Helen Saunders.
Atlantic City by Helen Saunders, who was one of only two women to join the Vorticists.

Vorticism was a literary and artistic movement influenced by Cubism and Futurism and whose works usually had bright colors, hard lines and sharp angles. Poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound were among the group’s supporters.

“Saunders was a really interesting figure, but she was largely overshadowed by her male contemporaries. She and Jessica Dismorr were the backbone of the band,” Wright said.

“She became close friends with Wyndham Lewis, they were extremely close emotionally, but after the war he turned his back on her and she found it hard to bear. One speculative theory is that Lewis painted Saunders’ work in a fit of spite. It’s entirely possible.

There was not much of a contemporary market for the work of vorticists, which may have contributed to the demise of the movement. “It wasn’t until later that the radical nature of the work was valued and celebrated,” Wright said.

The discovery of Saunders’ lost painting was “exciting”, he said, and the result of the students’ “research genius”. The Courtauld hopes the discovery will spark renewed interest in the artist’s work.

The gallery will show Praxitella, on loan from the Leeds Art Gallery, alongside the x-ray and partial color reconstruction of Atlantic City as part of its exhibition of 18 drawings and watercolors by Saunders, tracing his artistic development.

Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel opens at the Courtauld Gallery on October 14.

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