Rise, fall and rise of an artist
Wyndham Lewis Olympia, from 1–6 March
It will be interesting to see if next week’s full-scale Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) exhibition at Olympia will help, as previous Olympia shows have done, to cement the artist’s reviving reputation. Certainly the timing is good in relation to last month’s scholarly symposium and the excellent recent exhibition concentrating on his works on paper, both at the Courtauld, where the growing number of his pictures controlled by the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust are stored and available to researchers.
Angus Stewart, curator, together with Matthew Hall, of the Olympia exhibition, contribute a spirited re-assessment of Lewis to the catalogue, which has been printed by Apollo and has a preface by its editor suggesting that Lewis’s reputation has been at least partly held back by his admiration for Hitler.
I’m not sure that this is entirely valid. No one fails to extol T.S. Eliot, whose antiSemitism was manifest and, so far as I know, was neither withdrawn nor recanted. Pound, while recognised as conveniently dotty for his fascism, is still read and prescribed widely. Lewis at least, by the end of the 1930s, had seen the catastrophic error of his early enthusiasm for the Führer and recanted, as publicly as a writer can, by publishing no fewer than two characteristically pugnacious anti-Hitler books in 1939. It’s also interesting to note that the painter and sculptor Michael Ayrton, himself a Jew — he was related to the Zangwill family — and sometime art critic of this magazine, was, in the years of Lewis’s decline into blindness, his amanuensis, and Ayrton could detect an anti-Semite at a hundred paces.
Be that as it may, it is one of the many ironies of Lewis’s rise, fall and rise that he has left us the defining images of the two right-wing geniuses of the modern movement. The great portrait of Ezra Pound in an armchair can be relished at Olympia, but, sadly, even the indefatigable Stewart could not winkle the oil painting of Eliot out of Durban, so that Olympia visitors won’t be able to test my favourite quotation from Ayrton’s writings:
In the Redfern Gallery, during his 1949 show ... I wandered in to find two silent figures contemplating the exhibits. One of these was Mr T.S. Eliot dressed with quiet elegance in a blue business suit, stooped like a benevolent osprey and gazing intently at Lewis’s early self-portrait. This imposing picture shows the artist gazing stonily out from the canvas and wearing a large, fierce hat. The sole other occupant of the room was Mr Lewis himself, wearing a large, fierce hat and gazing stonily at his own portrait of Mr Eliot, a picture in which the poet is dressed with quiet elegance in a blue business suit.
Still, you will find two versions of Edith Sitwell, the oil from the Tate and an exquisite pen-and-wash drawing, and there is an excellent Eliot sketch on paper. You can also see what is perhaps the finest of all Lewis’s portraits, the so-called ‘Red Portrait’ of his wife Froanna, a classic combination of his severe angularity and his dramatic use of straight lines, all setting off, with an uncharacteristic sweetness, even tenderness, a luminous study of a beloved wife sitting peacefully in her armchair at home.
All this is a far cry from the convoluted violence of his Vorticist paintings, well represented here, notably by the almost sinister ‘Sunset among the Michelangelos’ of 1912 and some of the dazzling ‘Timon of Athens’ graphic works. All in all this is a core selection in which one can readily see most of Lewis’s quirks and tics, his predilection for immensely elongated skislope noses, his women’s hair turned into helmets and, despite his finely voluptuous nude female paintings and drawings, some oddly androgynous naked figures.
Olympia also gives us good examples of his instinctive grasp of design, as set out in his magazines such as Blast and The Enemy and his remarkable jackets for his books, so that you wonder how his many publishers could have been so dim as frequently to produce dull typographical jackets instead of using his own dramatic — and surely more saleable — compositions. My only cavil at an otherwise judicious and stimulating selection is the absence of any of his superb war paintings, whether from the first world war or the Spanish Civil War. These were even more powerful as polemic than his most provocative writings.
Lewis has attracted more than his fair share of abuse, both critical and personal. (Ernest Hemingway once described him as a man ‘with the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist’.) Yet, as this exhibition makes clear, he was, as a visual artist, no tyro. He may have been kicked out of both Rugby and the Slade — surely a badge of honour but he did, despite his Canadian birth, found and inspire, in Vorticism, Britain’s only revolutionary and cohesive 20th-century art movement.