Thursday, 14 July 2011

Percy Wyndham Lewis

For someone regularly referred to as an overlooked figure Wyndham Lewis certainly has his fair share of exhibitions. The latest ,The Vorticists at the Tate, sees him share the bill with his fellow vorticists though in truth his were the only pictures I was interested in seeing. One other thing did catch my attention for more than a few seconds, a statue by Gaudier-Brzeska - The Singer which is better than anything else I've seen by him, and interesting from every angle.

If you're a fan of Lewis's work it's worth going along just to see his Advertisement for the Cabaret Theatre Club and several others (namely) Kermesse, The Dancers, Design for a Programme Cover - Kermesse all from 1912 and A Feast of the Overmen and Alcibiades from an unfinished series of illustrations for an edition of Timon of Athens (from 1913).

As well as being produced in the same year the first four of these pictures are very similar in content as well as style - smallish black and white (with touches of blue paint) ink drawings of dancing figures, with either blank, dead expressions or fierce grimaces. Incredibly incisive, each has more life in it than the rest of the larger abstract pieces on display put together. Sadly I can't find any decent versions of them on the internet.

My first exposure to Lewis was his Praxitella at Leeds City Art Gallery. Supposed to be a portrait of his lover Iris Barry - I've seen photographs of Iris Barry and don't see the resemblance myself. Maybe it makes sense of the title though, a reference to the story of the sculptor Praxiteles sleeping with his model Phryne. Bit of a long shot maybe, but then there must be a reason behind the name.

It's always tricky to put into words what you like about a painting, but perhaps with Praxitella part of it was a sense of anachronism - a flaking oil painting of what looked just like a sleek android (completed in 1922, ahead of Metropolis' Maria, of which it reminds me, by a few years).

Anyway, it got me interested in Wyndham Lewis - I borrowed a copy of Walter Michel's The Paintings of Wyndham Lewis from the library, had a stab at Tarr, flipped through a facsimile of Blast, went to a couple of galleries in Manchester (Portrait of the Artist as Raphael, the Lascar) and one in Sheffield (a tiny little portrait of James Joyce and a Timon of Athens portfolio). The current exhibition makes a lot of Blast - I've been through it a few times and find it quaint to be honest, but I accept it could have startled at the time.
There are a few photos of the artists involved and while the men's suits don't particularly date them, the dresses worn by the female members of the group really bring home the fact that this was all taking place in what was still an Edwardian world. There's a line in Blast that, ever since I read that Mark E. Smith was a fan, makes me smile - I can almost hear him barking it: DIABOLICS raptures and roses of the erotic bookshelves culminating in the PURGATORY OF PUTNEY.

In addition to Tarr I started The Childermass a couple of times and there's a copy of The Revenge for Love at my parents somewhere. Otherwise Julian Symons' Essential Wyndham Lewis left me decided that his writing was rather dense to the point of being, in the words of somebody whose name escapes me, unreadable. I remember reading somewhere Anthony Burgess's comparison of Mervyn Peake and Wyndham Lewis as alone (together) in the British cultural landscape as masters both of drawing and literature. While I do find Peake's writing dense (at least the Gormenghast books), it is also brilliant, somehow more controlled than Lewis's language. But I can't say I think that much of his illustration.

With Lewis it's the opposite, for me he's foremost a visual artist. I think I'll always prefer his pre-WW1 drawings but I find pictures from all his periods attractive and wish a career-spanning exhibition could be staged in the UK at some point. As it is, with his work scattered about here and there, each exhibition has its treats - this one brings the Cabaret Theatre Club poster and Kermesse from Cornell and Yale respectively. And the Portraits exhibition a while back saved me from a trip to Durban that I was never going to make to see his famous portrait of T.S. Eliot.

My opinion of Lewis's writing (based unfairly perhaps on a relatively small sample of his output) and Lewis himself changed when, most unexpectedly, I came across a copy Blasting & Bombardiering in a bookshop on a rainy day. Prior to this my take on Lewis had been formed mainly from Jeffrey Meyer's sympathetic biography The Enemy which I first read as a callous teenager, going through it again more recently it strikes me as one of the saddest stories I've ever read.

While I thought Meyer's exculpatory take on the allegations of Lewis' anti-semitism and fascism were probably fair I'd come away from the book with the impression that Lewis was a formidable character and a bit too full of himself. This was dispelled within the first few pages of Blasting & Bombardiering, by a self-deprecating comment on his book the Lion and the Fox:

Take the Lion and the Fox. That was a big book, too, all about Shakespeare's politics. You can imagine how many people read that!

This, of course, seriously makes me want to read it. Despite the fact that a large part of the book deals with the insanity of World War One it's extremely droll and, given his absence from my Penguin book of modern quotations, were I compiling entries for a book of quotations here are a couple from it that I think are worth having:

Need I say that there is nothing as romantic as war? If you are 'a romantic', you have not lived if you have not been present at a battle, of that I assure you..If your mind is of a romantic cast, there is nothing for it, I'm afraid. The likelihood that you will get your head blown off cannot weigh with you for a moment.

Lewis was part of the artillery and not on the actual front line, though on one occasion he accompanies a gung ho commanding officer into the unsettled No Man's Land immediately after a battle:

We met an infantry party coming up, about ten men, with their earthern faces and heads bowed, their eyes turned inward as it seemed, to shut out this too-familiar scene. As a shell came rushing down beside them, they did not notice it. There was no sidestepping death if this was where you lived. It was worth our while to prostrate ourselves, when death came over-near. We might escape, in spite of death. But they were its servants.

But they were its servants - what a line.

I never studied WW1 at school (at least not for O level or A level) so I don't know if Blasting & Bombardiering is generally on reading lists. It should be. While it seems to be his doom to be of marginal interest only every now and again, to have produced such a riveting (and uncharacteristically straightforward) eyewitness account of one of the seismic events in world history should ensure that every school child knows his name, if only through this one book.


  1. Fascinating, as always.

    For WW1 research, look no further than this man. How to stop war? Give the leaders a shovel and a bucket of lime and get them to bury the dead.

  2. Cheers John, inevitably the book is scathing about the the high commands's strategy and the senselessness of all the death.

    I seem to remember being horrified at the thought of WW1 from a very early age, I don't know whether I saw a film or if it was just Charlie's War in Battle comic. I just couldn't see how anyone came out of it alive.

    Years later learning about my own family history I was told that six of my great uncles enlisted and all of them returned intact (physically at least). Ironically one of them was recalled because of his occupation (he was a gasworks inspector) only to die in an accident at work while the war was still raging.

  3. Really interesting post - I might pop along to that Vorticists exhibition if I get a chance.

    Re: Lewis's writing, I'd highly recommend digging up "The Revenge For Love" - like "Blasting.." it was written in the '30s, and is a lot more, well, uh... better, in short, than his earlier work. In fact it's probably one of my favourite 20th C. British novels. Definitely one I think deserves to be more widely read.

    Reading it a few years ago set me off on an immediate "this guy is an under-appreciated genius" kick... one I swiftly had to recant as soon as I tried making it through some of the earlier stuff.

    I'd love to pick up his two autobiographies and other post-WW1 stuff, but sadly his books are pretty scarce on the second-hand market...

  4. Really enjoyed the BBC doc 'British Masters - We Are Making A New World' the other day - did you see it? It's on the iPlayer.

  5. Cheers Ben, next time I'm at my parents I'll grab The Revenge for Love. I've had The Lion and the Fox sat in my Amazon basket for ages - it's only £9.55 but there have been a stack of albums that I've wanted more.

    Another thing I'm really interested in is The Enemy Speaks, a cd of Lewis reading out some of his stuff, poems mainly - I'd like to have a listen before buying but that doesn't seem to be an option. Happy to give you a lend of Blasting.. if you want to get in touch.

    Davy - I didn't see it but I did read a write up in the Guardian's Last night's TV and saw its mention of Lewis. As I said, we only get to see his work presented piecemeal - if there was an exhibition showing things from, say, 1912 up to the end of the Forties I think it'd pretty much seal his reputation. Anyway, I'll definitely give it a watch.

  6. Great post. I find the First World War endlessly grim and endlessly fascinating. Try Paul Fussel's The Great War and Modern Memory for a interesting read.

  7. Davy - Just watched the documentary you linked to. I didn't know they had Wyndham Lewis's brain stashed away in a jar - lovely!

    I thought the description of Lewis as fascist, anti-semitic and misogynist, while perhaps accurate, was two dimensional. I don't think I'm letting the fact that I like his pictures sway me unduly. Lewis just doesn't come across as such a demonic figure in the books I mention.