Wyndham Lewis, Visual Artist as Writer

This intended to be part of a series on Modernist writers. I will write on the poet Ezra Pound next.

Mr. Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, 1921 self portrait in Vorticist style

Wyndham Lewis has long disappeared from the public consciousness, or even the academic consciousness. He was a reactionary who loathed the establishment in his time and sought to create new art forms in order to, as Johnathan Bowden explains in his lecture on Lewis, raise up the masses. Lewis and the other Modernists saw the culture of mass entertainment as repugnant, lacking in any kind of intellectual or artistic value. Wyndham Lewis would go on to Blast the artistic establishment. He flirted ideologically with far-right politics. Following the Second World War, he renounced these views but remained critical of the establishment still.

Blast_Manifesto

Page from BLAST

Lewis was born off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1882 to an American father and British mother. His parents divorced a few years later, and the young Percy Wyndham Lewis (he dropped the ‘Percy’ later in life) went to England where he spent most of his childhood. During the 1900s Lewis turned to art; he found Cubism appealing but applied his own ideas to the movement, creating Vorticisim. The new art was highly experimental, favoring hard angles and abstraction while retaining some elements of realistic painting. Lewis’ war art is an excellent example, showing the integration between traditional representative art styles and Vorticist abstraction. Lewis’ is interesting as he was both a painter and a writer; his literary debut was the magazine BLAST published in July 1914. The journal had Vorticist art, Ezra Pound poems, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, and manifestos from Lewis ‘blasting’ and ‘blessing’ societal institutions. Prior to the war, Lewis completed his first novel, Tarr in case he would die during the war (he was convinced he would).

Tarr is set in pre-WWI Paris. The principle characters are Frederick Tarr, an English artist (presumably a stand-in for Lewis) and Otto Kreisler, a failed German artist. The book is a satire of the Continental art scene prior to the war, as well as a satire of romantic relationships. Tarr is not very exciting reading; however, it does work as satire. The Oxford edition has explanatory notes that clarify some the references that confuse a modern reader. In one passage, the fastidious Tarr mocks a friend for looking like someone out of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group:

The art touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable. Hobson’s Harris tweeds were shabby, from beneath his dejected jacket emerged a pendant seat, his massive shoes were hooded by the superfluous inches of his trousers: a hat suggesting that his ancestors had been Plainsmen or some rough sunny folk shaded unnecessarily his countenance, already far from open. (Tarr, 9).

The novel is very dense, written in a nineteenth century style like the above excerpt; long sentences, long paragraphs, and an impressive diction. Tarr is a highly intellectual novel. I had trouble understanding sections of it, but Frederic Jameson’s book Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist gives an excellent and accurate analysis of the novel. Tarr is fundamentally an intellectual (and later physical) duel between the ego of Tarr and the id of Kreisler. I read the novel once, but it warrants multiple readings to understand the numerous allusions and satire.

After Tarr, Lewis continued writing and painting in the 1920s. He met or befriended a number of major modernists from Pound to T.S. Elliot to Hemingway, although Hemingway did not like Lewis. “‘I met the meanest man I’ve ever seen today.’ I told my wife.” (A Moveable Feast, 89). Hemingway’s description of Lewis is uncharacteristically funny:

Hot or Not?

Lewis c. 1913

Wyndham Lewis wore a wide black hat, like a character in the quarter, and was dressed as someone out of La Boheme. He had a face that reminded me of a frog, not a bullfrog but just any frog, and Paris was too big a puddle for him…Lewis wore the uniform of a prewar artist. It was embarrassing to see him…(A Moveable Feast 88-89)

Later in his life he moved away from the radical right wing politics that defined him in the interwar period-he had a brief flirtation with National Socialism, authoring a book called Hitler. Lewis wrote on his impressions of the early Third Reich in 1930-31 and was impressed by the National Socialist government; however, given the grim economic situation in Europe and the rest of the world at this time it would not have been difficult to impress someone with the German economic miracle. Lewis evolved in his ideology over time.

 The Writer and Absolute is one of his later works and an excellent book on literary philosophy. He addresses the relationship of the writer toward society and the truth, and questions of a writer’s ability to pursue truth; his assessment was grim at the time of his writing in 1952 that a writer’s freedom to pursue truth was hampered by the political climate at the time. Much of the book is also dedicated to an in depth analysis and critique of Jean Paul Sartre and George Orwell. While not as reactionary as his work from the 1910s and interwar period, Lewis opposed the postwar social order. He published two other volumes of The Human Age were published in the fifties.

Lewis died in 1957 with an immense number of books in his name and some published posthumously. His work, both literary and artistic, has gone down the memory hole. I only hope more of his books return to print. His art was revolutionary and a break from the establishment, but was not meant solely for shock value like so much of modern art. His art and writing were intended to have intellectual content and meaning raise the level of the masses.

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Further Reading:

Wyndham Lewis Society

Yale Modernism Lab Wyndham Lewis entries

Footage of Lewis from 1938

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4 thoughts on “Wyndham Lewis, Visual Artist as Writer

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