- Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as FascistBy Fredric Jameson
- Some Sort Of Genius: A Life of Wyndham LewisOur PickBy Paul O'Keeffe
- Wyndham Lewis: Life, War, ArtBy Richard Slocombe
- Wyndham Lewis: Painter and WriterOur PickBy Paul Edwards
Important Art by Wyndham Lewis
Plate from set of illustrations to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens
In the late summer of 1912, Lewis spent time in Dunkerque, working on a series of drawings to accompany a folio edition of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. When he presented it to the publisher Evelyn Benmar, as biographer Paul O'Keeffe observed, Benmar was appalled, stating: "'that's mania, not art!' But on closer inspection Mr Benmar [soon] recognized the artist's 'genius'".
The pen-and-ink drawing is clearly Cubist-inspired in its bold lines, fragments, and geometric shapes. At the top the text clearly states "Timon" and to the left we see "Act V". Timon himself is depicted with his arms raised in prayer, creating an "X" shape with reflecting lines, prefiguring Lewis's veneration for the form with his "Group X". (This Modernist cruciform is repeated in a smaller size across the print.) Just as Lewis was not the best known of the Modernists, Timon of Athens is not the best known of Shakespeare's plays. The title character has a lot in common with Lewis - namely his misanthropy - but Lewis described Timon as "noble and immaculate".
Lewis Biographer Paul Edwards wrote: "Our perception of fragments of figures and lettering out of these blocks, arcs and lines tends to be provisional, as the design takes on different readings with shifts in the viewer's attention [...] Typically, Lewis does not enclose the forms of his solids, and they become momentary configurations of the elements that compose them, inseparable from those elements and the transient acts of perception through which they are constructed". The work can be read in terms of Lewis's critique of Futurism, Edwards writes. Although Lewis moved in the same circles as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti - the father of Futurism - and much of the two artists' work share the same tenets, Lewis spoke derogatorily of the Italian. Marinetti demanded that Lewis was a Futurist, while Lewis vehemently denied it, even disrupting one of the Italian's lectures in London. Lewis loved the movement's dynamic qualities but dismissed what he saw as its uncritical enthusiasm for modernity. Edwards concluded: "He saw in the savage invective and brutal imagery of Timon of Athens a vehicle for his own critical attitude to Modernist fantasies of the total transformation of life".
Pen and ink drawing - Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, USA
Workshop was an early Vorticist work representing the crowding towers and architecture of a city on the cusp of war. Bold geometric lines extend diagonally across the canvas, abstracting the blocks and walls of a growing London. Ladder-like planes and patterns of squares lead the eyes around the work, bringing them up towards the distant window of blue sky in the centre top, while a rectangular overhang sends them back down, lending a note of claustrophobia to the piece. There is a sharp contrast between the blue, representing a tiny patch of nature, and the many browns, ochres and pinks of the man-made. Shapes and colors jar as the artist strived to produce an art that matched the energy of the modern world. For Lewis, art was always superior to life, and with this work he wanted to present an "attack on traditional harmony".
As art historian Michael Prodger said, "Vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery". Here Lewis wanted to represent the noise and dynamism of London - but this work goes further in reflecting how the urban landscape changed the very way the artist saw. Lewis himself wrote: "A man who passes his days amid the rigid lines of houses, a plague of cheap ornamentation, noisy street locomotion, the Bedlam of the Press, will evidently possess a different habit of vision to a man living amongst the lines of a landscape."
Despite Lewis's wish to distance Vorticism from Futurism and Cubism, their influence here is in abundance through the use of bold line and fractured shape and in the celebration of the man-made. In Blast, Vorticism's manifesto, Lewis "blasted" "bourgeois Victorian vistas" and "blessed" "the steep walls of factories" and England as an "industrial island machine". The painting acted as a vacuum, said art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon: "To look at Workshop is to see so much that had been omitted from art in Britain since the middle of the nineteenth century - bright colour, the shapes of modern engineering and architecture, a sense of visual excitement and exhilaration in the face of change - suddenly rushing into English painting".
The work shocked the British public at the time. At the only Vorticist group exhibition in Britain, in June 1915, the Daily Mirror's art critic wrote that many of the painters had enlisted in the Army, adding: "It is evident that in combat somebody has been badly knocked about".
Oil on canvas - Tate Galleries, London
The themes of Workshop are further explored in The Crowd, the only one of Lewis's Vorticist paintings to survive to this day. Art Critic Mark Hudson described it as "a quintessential Modernist city-scape, at once euphoric and slightly nightmarish, with asymmetric grid-forms offset by busier cell-like structures, all in rich oranges and yellows".
As in Workshop we see the urban setting, the grids and ladders, the earthy tones and geometric forms. But in this work humans have been introduced, albeit in robotic form. Brown and red tower blocks tussle for space in the unsettling scene. There is a heavy absence of blue sky or nature, as collections of apparent humanoids bustle up and down the work, often indivisible from the crowd in which they find themselves. People, dwarfed by the buildings surrounding them are rendered stick-like and frantic. The work was designed to examine the instinctive behavior of people in crowds and Lewis presented them climbing, scuffling and scurrying like ants in a farm. The eye is drawn to the very centre of the work where someone waves a red flag. On the bottom left however, another figure waves a tricolor - indicating opposition or protest. Indeed, the work's working title was Revolution.
Art historian Michael Prodger described the work as the purest example of Lewis's Vorticism. He said the work represented "a schematic metropolis - part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong - crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis's belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions." Indeed, the work prefigured the most disastrous century of conflict, resolution and alienation in human history.
Oil on canvas - Manchester Art Gallery, UK
A Canadian Gun Pit
Lewis described the First World War as "a black solid mass, cutting off all that went before it" and as a "stupid nightmare". This piece depicts the boredom and physical labor involved in what could also be incredibly dangerous work. Lewis drew on his own experiences in the artillery for the work, which shows ten soldiers in the foreground of the gun pit, preparing the shells to be shot from the enormous gun to the left. Lewis creates tension with the bright orange and purple palette and the sharp diagonals of the gun, the clouds and the canvas which jars with the boredom on the men's faces and the uniformity of the mortars, lined up ready to cause death and disruption. To the top left, trees have been blasted, leaving denuded trunks reaching into nowhere. A note of menace is added in the bent-over soldier's face which Paul Edwards pointed out "is suggestive of a skull with metallic sinews".
In the background meanwhile, the recurring motif of the dehumanization of man can be seen in the working figures, reminiscent of those from The Crowd, as the human figures submit to the larger architectural machine in which they find themselves trapped. Modernist scholar Dr Alan Munton wrote: "These men are all subject to the dangerous machine that they operate, and to its brutal requirements. This work shows the gunpit before firing begins: the gun is being 'laid', or aimed. We can see in the distance the destruction that has already occurred, and there will be more very soon. For the viewer this is not a moment of trauma, but rather of contemplation".
Art Critic Laura Freeman observed: "[Lewis] did not paint the war like Goya, but in the fidgety, jagged style of Vorticism. It was right for the pitted, splintered, broken landscape of France, and the shell-shocked, sleepless men who fought there". The work earned Lewis £300 from the Canadian War Memorials Committee, but a more challenging war image was yet to come.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Canada
A Battery Shelled
A Battery Shelled would not have been accepted by the Canadian War Memorials Committee, as Cubist work was deemed inadmissible. This work, however, arguably Lewis's most famous, was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee who allowed the artist greater artistic freedoms. The heavily stylized composition shows the scene from the First World War in which enemy barrages were being suppressed by counter-battery work. The three soldiers in the foreground, rendered in dark greens, blue and black, look in different directions, standing calmly before the devastation in the background. Officers beyond are reduced into robotic or marionette-like forms, working or hurrying for cover amid smoke and destruction. They are rendered insect-like and faceless, and are further dehumanized by their colors and contours, similar to the waiting crowds of mortars. The cold expressions of the three soldiers match the palette and the cold, emotionless detachment with which Lewis presents the scene.
Art critic Jonathan Jones drew attention to the differentiation between three soldiers at the front and those running in terror beyond: "A group in the foreground are more characterful. They stand pensively, reflecting on the shattered Vorticist battlefield. Why are some human and others not? This painting lets us into the psychology of war. Enemy soldiers and even comrades can seem distant, remote, unreal. In war, you save yourself by effacing fellowship with others".
The work was inspired by Lewis's own experience on the battlefield - he'd served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele. In both style and content the work was one of the most controversial to come out of the First World War. As art historian Michael Prodger explained: "When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum".
Oil on canvas - Imperial War Museum, London
In his later years, Lewis found portraiture provided a useful source of income, and produced a number of images depicting his famous friends, including TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and, in this image, the cultural luminary Edith Sitwell. The work took twelve years to complete, and it was an arduous process for the model, requiring months spent in Lewis's rat-infested room. (Although she never saw a rat, she complained of rustling in the rubbish that covered the filthy floor.) Sitwell later wrote: "The studio [...] was very large, and the floor was crowded with old newspapers, books, drawings, housemaids' worries, pots, pans, kettles, a tea pot, tins of milk and Mr Lewis's discarded undergarments".
The domestic reality of the situation is not reflected in Sitwell's serene pose, however. The calming blues and greens of Sitwell's coat and the background are echoed in her expressionless face, as she looks down in "Zen-like" contemplation. The books to her right symbolize her role as a poet and critic in a practice that uncharacteristically looks back to Lewis's artistic forebears. Sitwell's hands are hidden, however, in a move that predicts the pair's eventual conflict. (Sitwell was notoriously proud of her slender wrists). Lewis later went on to lampoon Sitwell and her entire family in his 1930 book The Apes of God.
Art critic Laura Cumming wrote: "Lewis's portraiture has a look as distinctive as Cubism, and not unrelated, in that he fits a face together from two or three different perspectives". Art critic Michael Glover said, meanwhile, that the use of geometric lines served to dehumanize his sitter. He wrote: "in spite of the fact that the human creature under scrutiny here looks taut, pent, almost squawkily bird-like, it also looks faintly mechanised, faceted by the severity of the geometry of its lines. So if Dame Edith is indeed a bird of sorts, she is undoubtedly a mechanised bird - rather like those war planes that had so recently been menacing the skies".
Oil on canvas - Tate Galleries, London
Influences and Connections
- David Bomberg
- Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
- William McCance
- Edward Wadsworth
- Cuthbert Hamilton
- Lawrence Atkinson
- Sturge Moore