Infuriating and erratic, but brilliantly creative, the Canadian-born British artist and writer Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was an always controversial presence in the British cultural scene for much of the first half of the twentieth century.
Lewis's talent ranged across painting, fiction, criticism, and social thought. He had a knack for finding sheer celebrity, as a troublemaker who consistently made himself into a topic of informed conversation. His output as a whole is difficult to summarize, for he developed, espoused, and then rejected quite a number of ideas over his long career, both in his visual and his verbal productions. “Contradict yourself,” he wrote, according to the Flux Europa Web site. “In order to live, you must remain broken up.” As an artist, Lewis introduced abstract styles to Britain with his so-called Vorticist style, and he is considered one of Britain's most important visual artists of the Modernist period. He was a brilliant satirist who attacked what he saw as negative trends in modern society, and he had an obsession with greatness that, perhaps, prevented him from really achieving it. In the decade preceding World War II, Lewis made a crucial political misjudgment in praising Adolf Hitler, and his reputation suffered as a result. He soon renounced his pro-Fascist ideas, however, and in the late twentieth century his fragmented but aggressive personality began to assert its attraction over readers and visual artists once again, and his popularity grew.
Off to London
Percy Wyndham Lewis was born November 18, 1882, on a ship anchored off Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada. Although he retained a Canadian passport, his upbringing had little to do with that country. His father, Charles Lewis, was an American military officer, while his mother, Ann, came from south London, England. An only child, Lewis was sent to England for the best private school education available at the time.
The plan did not work out as intended. Enrolled at the posh Rugby School in Britain's Warwickshire region, Lewis caused trouble from the start. According to William Scammell of the London Independent on Sunday newspaper, he later bragged to Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan that he was “the only Rugby man until his time who had ever been given the ‘sixth licking’—six full-scale lashings by a prefect in one day.” Lewis moved on to the Slade School of Art, University College, in London, attending classes from 1898 to 1901 and receiving strong basic training, but he was eventually asked to leave that institution as well.
Most of the period between Lewis's late teens and his mid-twenties was spent in Paris, where he lived the stereotypical life of a young bohemian artist. He wrote sonnets about lust and pursued it in real life as well, becoming involved with a long series of mistresses. Lewis would marry Gladys Anne Hoskyns in 1930. That marriage produced no children, but Lewis had at least five illegitimate children by other women. In 1909 he returned to England, where he created paintings that began to spread his name around the art world. At first he was associated with the Bloomsbury Group of artists that followed French Post-Impressionist developments, but soon he went his own way. Among his first distinctive works was a set of drawings intended for a production of Shakespeare's play Timon of Athens. In place of the realistic quality of most theatrical drawings, Lewis provided figures that had a mechanical look and the twodimensional quality of African masks.
Around 1914 Lewis became associated with the artistic movement known as Vorticism. Later in life he sarcastically defined Vorticism as whatever it was he had been doing around that time, but the term “Vorticism” was actually coined by Lewis's poet friend Ezra Pound, and it involved other artists as well. Allied in its harsh look with the Italian Futurist movement but lacking the focus on machinery of that school, Vorticism was a semi-abstract style that used bright colors and angular geometric forms. The “Vortex” was an abstractly conceived focus of primal energy. In 1914 Lewis and Pound founded a Vorticist journal called The Blast. It lasted for only two issues, but the influence of its aggressively irregular block typography and daring use of color has continued to resonate for nearly a century. The Blast published a Vorticist manifesto, quoted by Tom Lubbock in the Independent on Sunday, that contained, among others, these proto-punk broadsides: “Our Vortex is fed-up with your dispersals, reasonable chickenmen …. Our Vortex rushes like an angry dog at your Impressionistic fuss …. Our Vortex is white and abstract with its red-hot swiftness.”
Took Artillery Fire
Lewis enlisted in the British army during World War I, and in 1917 he was sent to the front in France and joined an artillery unit. He saw fierce fighting in action around Ypres, but unlike other artists he did not seem overly dismayed by it. “I am here (in the firing line) since yesterday,” he wrote to Pound, as quoted on the Spartacus Web site. “Battery split up, and I have come as reinforcements. Whizzing, banging and swishing and thudding completely surround me, and I almost jog up and down on my camp bed as though I were riding in a country wagon or a dilapidated taxi. I am in short, my dear colleague, in the midst of an unusually noisy battle.” Lewis was made an official War Artist by the Canadian army and produced one of his most renowned paintings, A Battery Shelled. Lewis's war paintings anticipated the theme of dehumanization that ran through much of his later work. He later wrote extensively about his war experiences in his autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering.
In 1918, Lewis's first novel, Tarr, was published. It looked back to his youthful experiences in Paris's hip Montparnasse neighborhood, but it also looked forward to one of the themes of his writings in the 1920s: the position of the artist in a contemporary society ruled by mass culture. Lewis found after the war that his Vorticist style had run its course. He withdrew from the cultural scene for several years, although he continued to associate closely with Pound, James Joyce, and other writers, and he read extensively in the fields of philosophy and literature. He emerged around 1925 with a series of fiction and nonfiction works that expressed criticisms of modern society. His first broadside was the 1926 nonfiction book The Art of Being Ruled, which imagined an authoritarian society that gave artists special status. The book touched on other strikingly modern topics: homosexuality, the cult of youth, and racial conflict. Although Lewis's views were generally retrogressive, he displayed a keen grasp of emerging social trends.
One of Lewis's most extensive books of the 1920s was Time and Western Man, published in 1927. The book was an attack on various targets, including many of Lewis's fellow writers, as well as on advertising, cinema, and other manifestations of modern mass culture. Many of Lewis's writings could be classified as right wing but had an iconoclastic flavor that set him apart from other conservative thinkers. Lewis further explored some of the ideas from Time and Western Man in his 1928 novel Childermass, intended as part of an allegorical fantasy trilogy to be titled The Human Age.
In 1927 Lewis founded another new periodical; this one was called The Enemy, and indeed he made enemies galore with his vituperative attacks on fellow writers, many of whom had been supportive of him in the past. Likewise irritating to the British cultural establishment was his 1930 novel The Apes of God, a 625-page book for which he furnished his own illustrations. The central figure was a young man on the point of entering modern literary society, but its real focus was a set of thinly disguised and savagely satirical portraits of other writers of the day, this time including T.S. Eliot, ironically one of his biggest admirers, and Gertrude Stein. Whatever hopes Lewis had for the rehabilitation of his reputation were dashed with the publication of Hitler in 1931; the book unwisely suggested that Hitler's National Socialist party represented the best hope for future peace in Europe.
Renounced Fascist Ideas
It should be noted that Lewis was not alone among British writers in his flirtation with fascism; Pound expressed longer-lasting fascist sympathies, and such views were by no means uncommon in Britain in the early 1930s. By the end of the decade, Lewis realized the error of his ways and published two anti-Hitler tracts, The Hitler Cult and The Jews: Are They Human? a tract critical of Nazi Germany whose title satirized that of an earlier book, The English: Are They Human? Lewis returned to painting in the 1930s and 1940s, creating several well-known works including The Surrender of Barcelona, a Spanish Civil War counterpart to Picasso's Guernica, and also sympathetic portraits of many of the literary figures he had treated so roughly in prose. His portraits were slated for a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2008.
Low on funds, in 1939 Lewis was stranded in the United States, where he had gone to paint a commissioned portrait. He spent most of World War II in Canada, living in Toronto, a city he detested and later satirized mercilessly in his novel Self-Condemned (1954). He also taught at Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, where he enjoyed debating the school's priest administrators and flirted with Catholicism, although he never converted. At Assumption Lewis met the young Marshall McLuhan; the future author of Understanding Media was heavily influenced by Lewis's views on the nature of mass culture.
Lewis and his wife (whom he married in 1930) took the first boat back to London from New York after the war ended in 1945. Suffering vision problems as the result of a slow-growing brain tumor, he was forced to give up his new career as an art critic for The Listener. He continued to write fiction, sometimes using a dictation device in later years. Lewis died in London on March 7, 1957. His reputation was temporarily eclipsed, but British museums mounted several major retrospectives of his artworks in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and even his fiction found new readers. According to Flux Europa, “He is now quite widely acknowledged as England's greatest and most original artist of the first half of the twentieth century.” Lewis also wrote nine novels, three books of short stories, a play, two collections of poetry, and some 30 nonfiction books on topics ranging from America to architecture.
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Edwards, Paul, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, Yale, 2000.
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Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Athlone, 1980.
Design Week, February 24, 2005.
Evening Standard (London, England), March 1, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), July 23, 1992; November 18, 2000; February 26, 2005.
Independent (London, England), December 4, 2001; October 26, 2004.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 15, 2000; February 13, 2005.
“The Art and Ideas of Wyndham Lewis,” Flux Europa, http://www.fluxeuropa.com/wyndhamlewis-art_and_ideas.htm (February 5, 2008).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 5, 2008).
“Percy Wyndham Lewis,” Spartacus, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ARTlewis.htm (February 5, 2008).
Wyndham Lewis Society, http://www.time-space.net/wyndhamlewis (February 5, 2008).