British-Canadian Painter, Novelist, Social Theorist
Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada
Summary of Wyndham Lewis
Wyndham Lewis was an English artist and writer best known as the founder of the Vorticist movement. Having travelled to Paris to study painting in the early years of the twentieth century, he returned to London in 1908 where he was amongst the first British artists to champion the virtues of Expressionism and Cubism. Soon, he would be creating paintings that borrowed the geometric forms of Cubism which he applied to images of machines and architecture. The name Vorticism, meanwhile, was derived from the idea that the tumultuous modern world should be viewed through the prism of a spiralling vortex. Lewis published two editions of Blast, a Vorticist journal that attacked the values of Victorian England and featured Imagist (anti-romantic) poetry and radical graphic design. He then served in the First World War as an artillery officer before being commissioned as a war artist (though his finished paintings were not to everyone's tastes). Lewis continued to paint after the war, moving into portraiture. He also devoted more time to writing and published a collection of books, short stories and essays. Lewis was a socialite and one of the true personalities of early-to-mid twentieth century British art. But his cavalier attitude towards modern life and human relationships, not to mention his early support for the Nazi party, mean that it has often proved difficult for critics to separate Lewis "the personality" from his art.
- Though sometimes labelled a Futurist (probably because of his close friendship with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti), Lewis was scathing of Futurism and its naïve glorification of modernity. His ink drawings and paintings were, like the Futurists, full of dynamic, angular, movements but Lewis's work revealed a much more balanced and circumspect view of the machine age.
- Lewis was a radical and wanted to challenge compositional harmony in painting. His Vortist cityscapes, represented as bold geometric lines that criss-crossed his canvases at sharp angles, were perfectly matched to the noisy, chaotic and claustrophobic London in which he was living. Indeed, Lewis can take credit for representing a picture of modern living that was unlike anything British painting had ever seen before (or since).
- Neither decorous nor commemorative, Lewis applied his inimitable Vortist style to war painting, producing what would be some of the most controversial art to come out of the war (certainly in Britain). Using a non-naturalistic palette to heighten contrasts, his jagged and jarring Vortist style was suited perfectly to representing the killing machines or war and the unforgiving landscape on which he himself had fought.
- A committed socialite, Lewis was commissioned to produce portraits by several of his eminent friends (including T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound and Edith Sitwell). Of all his works, his portraits owed most to the great artists in whose footsteps he was following. There are obvious nods to Cubism in his faceted geometric lines, for instance, yet his portraits brought something unique to the genre in the way that he imbued his sitters with an almost robotic machine-like quality.
Biography of Wyndham Lewis
Lewis powerfully utilized the ideas of Cubism and Futurism to create truly original art - such as this scene A Battery Shelled (1919) which depicts the difficulties of the battle front.
Important Art by Wyndham Lewis
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".
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".
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.
Influences and Connections
- David Bomberg
- Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
- William McCance
- Edward Wadsworth
- Cuthbert Hamilton
- Lawrence Atkinson
- Sturge Moore
Useful Resources on Wyndham Lewis
- 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
- Rude Assignment: An Intellectual AutobiographyBy Wyndham Lewis
- TarrBy Wyndham Lewis, Scott W. Klein
- The Revenge for LoveBy Wyndham Lewis, Paul Edwards
- The Wild Body: A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)By Wyndham Lewis, Paul O'Keeffe
- A Different Habit of VisionOur PickBy Michael Prodger / Standpoint / May 24, 2011
- A most modern misanthrope: Wyndham Lewis and the pursuit of anti-pathosOur PickBy David Trotter / The Guardian / January 23, 2001
- Flappers, futurists, Bloomsbury and Putney - Wyndham Lewis's many enemiesOur PickBy Laura Freeman / The Spectator / July 1, 2017
- Great Works: Edith Sitwell(1923-35), Wyndham LewisBy Michael Glover / The Independent / October 22, 2010
- How do you reassess the art of a Nazi sympathiser?By Gareth Harris / Financial Times / July 21, 2017
- Misanthropes: Wyndham Lewis and Timon of AthensBy Staff Writer / Shakespeare and Beyond / May 23, 2017
- Poignant display of a huge talent never quite fulfilled - Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War, IMW North, reviewOur PickBy Mark Hudson / The Telegraph / June 22, 2017
- Why Robert Montgomery's Estuary Poem is a warning for Canary Wharf workersBy John Massey / In Your Area / January 19, 2018
- The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignoreOur PickBy Michael Prodger / The New Statesman / June 29, 2007
- Timon of Athens: nine not-actually-lost drawings by Wyndham LewisBy Erin Blake / The Collation / May 20, 2014
- Wyndham Lewis: a monster - and a master of portrait paintingBy Richard Dorment / The Telegraph / July 8, 2008
- Wyndham Lewis: overlooked scourge of mediocrityBy Nigel Beale / The Guardian / April 17, 2008
- Wyndham Lewis's TS Eliot: a jigsaw puzzle of rebellion and radicalismBy Skye Sherwin / The Guardian / July 7, 2017