Review of Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War at Imperial War Museum North (Exhibition and Catalogue)
One of the most intriguing artefacts included in the Wyndham Lewis exhibition that was held at the Imperial War Museum North in Salford from 23 June 2017-1 January 2018 was some timeworn Movietone News footage from 1938. It features a somewhat disquieting-looking character who, with his broad-brimmed hat, small round spectacles and disdainfully wielded pipe appears, at first glance, to be a strange amalgam of John Christie in his sinister prime and a haughty Eric Morecambe. He stands next to a portrait of T.S. Eliot whilst pronouncing upon the “atrocious silliness” of the Royal Academy, which has just refused the work a place in its annual exhibition. This snaggle-toothed, waxy-complexioned deprecator of the English art establishment is none other than Lewis himself, in typically pugnacious mood, ready to defend his painting of Eliot to the hilt in the face of the Philistinism and conspiratorial perfidy which —so far as he was concerned— had plagued him throughout his career. Such resolute belligerence was an intrinsic aspect of Lewis’s character: as Richard Slocombe puts it in the title of his exhibition catalogue essay (which in turn quotes art historian John Rothenstein), here was an artist, author and critic who was “always on a war footing.” This idea of Lewis engaged in continuous battle with his actual and perceived adversaries throughout most of his life (allied to his personal experiences and depictions of warfare as an artillery officer during the First World War) constitutes an approximate premise for this significant retrospective of one of the most important, if underestimated, artists working in the first half of the twentieth century. As fitting as such thematic associations might seem for an exhibition held at the Imperial War Museum, the fact is that the scope and variety of Lewis’s work on display, covering not only his art but also his career as a prolific and highly controversial author, mean that there is no particular need for an overarching leitmotif with the result that, at times, the martial framing can seem a little forced.
The exhibition and catalogue undertake a chronological journey through Lewis’s career, starting with some early life studies that he made at the turn of the twentieth century when he was a student at the Slade under its fearsomely hawkish drawing professor, Henry Tonks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite being regarded as the best draughtsman at the school since Augustus John, the recalcitrant youth would be expelled from the Slade in 1901 for poor attendance. He then spent some of his early twenties in the bohemian enclaves of Europe before returning to England, where he joined the Camden Town Group and became acquainted with the leading lights of the Bloomsbury set. From the evidence on show, Lewis’s images at this time amounted to a series of skewed quotations from those contemporary artists and movements which had made the greatest impression on him. Having said that, his output during this period amounts to much more than uninspired imitations, and already displays the suggestion of acerbic incongruity which would often characterise his mature work. A case in point is Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair from c. 1911-12. Described in the catalogue as “a dramatic early foray into Cubism” and superficially reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s contemporaneous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2., the central figure trains an unsettlingly demonic grin on the viewer as she makes her way upstairs in a long russet dress. Already rendered with the kind of pitiless angularity that Lewis would further develop in his imagery, this work surpasses mere pastiche by pointedly appropriating the Cubist format in order to produce an image of enduringly subtle menace. From here, Lewis’s path towards full-blown Vorticism, the art movement which he founded and with which he is synonymous, becomes ever more recognisably apparent in the paintings that he produced up until the group’s first appearance in 1914. In works such as At the Seaside, in which monolithic, machine-like figures pose as a ribald visual indictment of bourgeois respectability, and in Red Duet with its anti-realist display of fragmented form, the bubbling, antagonistic energy of Vorticism is already much in evidence. Included in the exhibition was an age-battered copy of Blast, the group’s short-lived periodical-cum-manifesto which acted as a kind of proto-punk fanzine to accompany all this artistic provocation: with its lurid pink cover and contemptuously scattershot contents, it still managed to convey the sense of how alarmingly dissonant this artefact in itself must have seemed when first published. Photographs of Lewis taken at this time portray him as a louche, dark-eyed reprobate in evening dress, delicately holding a cigarette which he seems capable of stubbing out, at any moment, on the dismally conformist world at which he so mockingly glares. So different does he look from the oddly disgruntled little chap seething about the Royal Academy’s puerility in front of the Movietone cameras in 1938 that at first glance one would not immediately identify them as the same person. But then again, Lewis was a naturally elusive figure who quite often adapted his moods, manner and personality to suit the occasion (usually in order to gain some reputational or financial advantage as a consequence) as well as someone who rigorously compartmentalised his private life.
With the advent of the First World War, Lewis the glowering playboy became Lewis the suave and roguish artillery officer, with carefully posed photographs to prove it. He served on the Western Front and was commissioned as a war artist for both the Canadian and British governments. The works on display in the exhibition from this period show how well-suited Vorticism’s angularity and geometric abruptness were to depicting the industrialised scale and anonymity of modern warfare, qualities best displayed in Lewis’s A Battery Shelled in which a small group of seemingly blasé and enervated officers look down on a chaotic landscape in which “gunners appear dehumanised and insect-like, scuttling for cover.” As striking as this work and other examples of Lewis’s output as a war artist are, they by no means constitute the high point of this exhibition —despite any subtle curatorial hints that they should be considered as such.
Like some other noted cultural figures who emerged disoriented from their experience of the First World War and perplexed as to how civilisation might regenerate itself following the seismic trauma of global conflict, Lewis —a virulent anti-communist— took more than a passing interest in fascism and, in particular, the rise of Adolf Hitler. Of all his contentious writings, his 1931 study of Hitler, whom he infamously portrayed as a “man of peace,” has understandably dogged Lewis’s reputation from that day to this, despite his later published condemnation of anti-Semitism and renunciation of his original views on the Führer. The volumes in which he flourished these and other opinions —evidently with a real zest for the provocation that they stirred up— were included throughout the exhibition. Notable amongst these was his 1930 satirical tour de force, The Apes of God, in which he managed to vilify a sizeable swathe of his literary and artistic contemporaries, whom he considered to be nothing more than inept charlatans and, therefore, collectively “the enemy.” Nevertheless, when it came to falling out with former friends and patrons, taking offence at the most innocuous remarks, and generally proving bafflingly refractory, Lewis seems to have been in a class of his own. It is this troubling disposition which lends an added dimension of poignant isolation to several of his works. Shades of the disdainful estrangement at the core of his character occasionally manifest in the way in which he depicts his subjects in several of the portraits that he produced from the 1920s up until the end of the Second World War, this being an artistic genre which, once he had temporarily relocated to North America, proved to be a much-needed source of income. The best of these portraits are amongst his most startling achievements, not least because of the way that they imbue the person depicted with a kind of pensive detachment, turning the viewer into an unwelcome voyeur. The portrait of T. S. Eliot referred to above is one such example, as is the artist’s depiction of another twentieth-century literary luminary, Edith Sitwell, who is so wholly absorbed in her own exquisite thoughts as to seem like some latter-day anchorite, albeit one decked out in the theatrical garb of a comedic grande dame. However, of the portraits on show at the exhibition, perhaps the most conspicuously absorbing was the one that Lewis produced of his wife, Gladys, known as ‘Froanna.’ For much of their marriage, which lasted from 1930 up until Lewis’s death in 1957, Mrs Lewis led something of a cloistered existence, moving about unseen in back rooms whenever the artist’s friends or associates came to call. As the catalogue entry suggests, in Red Portrait (Froanna) from 1937, the long-suffering Mrs Lewis is transformed into more of a liminal figure than a fully embodied person, seeming “to merge into the warm earth hues of her surroundings, a partial physical presence” drifting through her husband’s subconscious. There is an arrestingly dolorous atmosphere about this work which manages to convey the extent to which Lewis remained captivated by this woman.
If likenesses of cultural icons, business leaders, wealthy patrons and society figures became Lewis’s staple artistic output during the 1930s and 1940s, nevertheless he continued to produce and occasionally exhibit work outside the portrait genre which, in its formal and figurative vitality, retained something of his old Vorticist élan. In works such as The Tank in the Clinic, a macabre fever dream dealing with the various health issues that Lewis experienced during the latter part of his life, and Inferno, a terrifyingly prescient work in which piles of naked bodies await incineration, Lewis retains the ability to both jar and stimulate his audience’s sensibilities. Tragically, by the early 1950s Lewis was blind, owing to the growth of a pituitary tumour, but continued his literary career to some acclaim. He and the now increasingly visible Froanna lived in genteel poverty in London, with the cultural establishment occasionally bestowing some honour or handout on this frail former scourge of the Royal Academy.
In summary, then, Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War was a truly revelatory exhibition, even if, in some ways, it feels as if Lewis is still paying the price for his obdurate ways. Why is it that this important Modernist is not afforded anywhere near the kind of attention which his more feted contemporaries and one-time associates enjoy? Does Lewis’s teasing, taunting interrogation of the world, underscored by a lingering afterburn of sadness, render him still too strange and unpalatable for his own good? Would Lewis shrug his shoulders at such questions, confirmed in his conviction that the “atrocious silliness” of the art world continues to preclude him from receiving his due recognition even to this day? --Mark Jones