Thursday 7 August 2008

Whirligig of war

Wyndham Lewis Portraits, National Gallery, London

We’re used to the idea of a painter wanting to capture the character of their sitter. This exhibition shows the work of an artist, Wyndham Lewis, who wanted to do more, to get the essence(s) of his subject down on paper or canvas. How well did he do it?

Born in 1882 and educated at the Slade School of Art, Lewis started out as a founder member of the Camden Town Group, later aligning with the Bloomsbury Group and eventually falling out with its leading lights, Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Between 1913 and 1915 he founded Vorticism, a sort of geometric three-dimensional abstract art form combining Cubuism with swirling vortices, to get at and depict the full feel of a subject. This remains his main claim to fame today, though he also has claims for infamy, and we see and example of this in the exhibition. The First World War had broken out, and the cover of the Vorticist Blast Magazine for 1915,  entitiled the War Number, shows automaton-like soldiers on a balttlefield which makes us feel like we’ve been drawn into the vortex of fighting with them. Lewis knew what he was depicting: he served on the Western Front, first as an artillery offficer, then as an official war artist.

War Number: cover of Blast Magazine, 1915

Lewis’ self-portrait Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1920-1) shows the survior of the trenches as a happy yet sneering figure, his teeth barred like those of an animal about to attack, against a plain yellow-ochre background ready to take on all comers, not only in the arts, but in politics too. This contrasts with another, Portrait of the Artist as the Paitner Raphael (1921), which shows the artist carefully glancing up from the canvas at his easel, totally concentrating on the job at hand even though it may be a damningly destructive portrait he’s painting. His drawing of Edith Sitwell (1921) shows the writer and performance artist looking up, expectantly aggresive, yet his painting of her (1923-35) shows a solemn, almost ethereal figure, prefiguring the grand literary gigure of later year. Meanwhile, the drawing of her brotherSacheverell Sitweel (1922) whose book Souther Baroque Art not only helped to popularise that neglected style but reamains a classic text on the topic today, shows him as owlish rather than flamboyant as his name and reputation might lead us to expect. He was one of the members of the metropolitan art world, a mileu that Lewis, a novelist and essayist as well as a painter, would satirsie in the 1930s novel The Apes of God. Lewis’ drawing of Ezra Pound (1920) shows the poet as a swirling and waif-like, a contrast with this painting of the apologist for Fascism produced nineteen years later and showing her agressive even when resting. Lewis’s drawing of Dame Rebecca West (1932) shows the writers and one-time lover of HG Wells as alarmend yet pert, a hurt, spoiled child deprived of an expected treat. From the same year a drawing of GK Chesterton shows the writers and journalist, not with the beery boisterousness normally associated with the creator of Father Brown but instead a thoughfully enquireing look proper to the author of The Napoleon of Notting Hill and Orthodoxy.

But dominating the exhibition is Lewis’s painting of TS Eliot (1938). This is where Lewis’ desired three-dimensional effect appears at its best, with the pensive poet-patriach of Modernism seeming ready to burst out of his chair. Its subject’s tortured thoughtfulness is the best evocation that Lewis makes of the twentieth-century blues that seem to afflict all his subejcts and contrasts sharply with Lewis Study for Portrait of TS Eliot produced 11 years later, which gives the smiling poet the air of a garrulous pub bore all set to grab a victim.

Given the degree on insight shown in Lewis’ work, the question arises as to why he has received little recognition for his acheivements. The answer lies in his experiences of the First World Wars and the way they helped to shape his politics. Few today can appreciate the impact the war had on people of Lewis’s generation and background, brought up on a seemingly secure diet of Christianity, Romanticism, Liberalism and Free Trade. This is a point the exhibition might have empahasised more effectively and, even though it’s centred on his portaits, some examples of Lewis’s war work should have neen show to put his future political stance in context. For Lewis, as for many others, the war had rendered the 1914 socio-political work order irrelevant; it was the left like the ‘old battalion’ of the wartime soldiers’ song ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’. For Lewis, as for many others, the political future was to be found on the right with some form of authortarianism.

We see a copy of his book Hitler, published in 1931, compelete with elongated swastikas. In this work the nascent Fuherer was depicted as a man of peace. But by 1939 Lewis had a change of heart: his The Hitler Cult and How It will End, published that year, marked his formal recantation and predicted, accurately enoguh, that the cult would end in 1945. His book Anglosazony: A League that Works, in defence of Anglo-American co-operation, was publisehd in 1941. But his recantation was too late and came at a stage of the Second World War when the uplands of Allied victory were far from being reached. However, it’s not difficult to feel that the fattened calf of recognition was witheld from the prodigal artist, not only because of his former political stance, (his critics meanwhile, conveniently forgetting the embarrassing existence of the Nazi-Soviet pact at the begiinnig of the war) but also as is result of the (arguably all too accurate) insults he had heaped on the artist establishment with The Apes of God: Bloomsbury’s finest had not appreciated being monkeyed around by the argumentative Lewis and, now they had the chance of revenge,  took it. Lewis was relegated to pariah status, and would end his days as, in the words of WH Auden, ‘that lonely old Volcano of the Right’, dying, blind, in 1957.

It’s easy to regard Lewis as a wrong-thinking relic form the past, with Vorticism merely being relegated to the status of a footnote in art history. But the three-dimensional effect central to Voricism’s vision, which gives Lewis’ work its distinctive curvy, rather disorietated feel that sometimes almost borders on the hallucinatory, is a reminder of how the artist must almost dig into the personality, or personalities, of whoever he or she is trying to depict: surface appearances are not enough. And remembering Lewis’ output as a painter, novelist, essayist, and political commentator is a call for the resurrection of the person of ideas, ready to use any medium to express themeselves or investigate whatever aspect of society interests them. Whatever his errors, Lewis’s example is still inspirational for anybody who wishes to exprlore the socio-artisitic voices of their own time.


Till 19 October 2008


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