Wyndham Lewis was a painter, poet, publisher and picker of fights. No target was too grand or too trivial: sentimental Victorians and the modern man of government; shark art dealers and the ‘atrocious’ Royal Academy; compilers of honours lists and editors of literary reviews; thin flapper girls and the fat ‘Belgian bumpkins’ of Peter Paul Rubens; men who read detective stories and women who liked bowl-of-apple paintings by second-rate Cézannes. People who lived in Putney.
The poet Edith Sitwell, who sat for an unfinished portrait by Lewis, was one of his ‘most hoary, tried and reliable enemies…I do not think I should be exaggerating if I described myself as Miss Edith Sitwell’s favourite enemy.’ Sitwell was a fierce opponent. ‘When worsted in argument, she throws Queensberry Rules to the winds. She once called me Percy.’ He had been born Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957), but was Wyndham by the time he was old enough for Rugby and the Slade.
His best enemies were the Bloomsbury Set, those ‘Fitzroy tinkerers’ and conscientious objectors, who spent the war pruning trees and planting gooseberries in Sussex, while he watched rats bicker for cheese at Passchendaele. The Bloomsbury grievance kept him going for decades. Roger Fry, director of the Omega Workshops, was a Pecksniff, a hypocrite, a shabby trickster, whose chairs stuck to the seat of one’s trousers. The critic Raymond Mortimer was a ‘middle aged man-milliner’. Virginia Woolf was a timid ‘peeper’ at the lives of others; her A Room of One’s Own a ‘highbrow feminist fairyland’. A Lewis review never failed to give Woolf one of her headaches. ‘I’ve taken the arrow of W.L. to my heart,’ she wrote after one attack in 1934. She was ‘decapitated’ by him in 1938, and awaited his ‘poisoned dart’ in 1940.
He styled himself ‘The Enemy’ and imagined swaggering out in a Stetson, a cigar between his teeth, swinging bandoliers loaded with vitriol. After breakfast — raw meat, blood oranges, a shot of vodka — he talked of taking pot shots at the ‘sub-Sitwells and sheep in Woolfe’s clothing’ of literary London.
A picker, too, of the wrong side: Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain. Having fought in the first world war, he didn’t want a second and thought these men were the ones to stop it. ‘That lonely old volcano of the Right,’ W.H. Auden called him. Nothing fired him up like a quarrel, a squabble, a skirmish. But war was another matter.
In this, the centenary year of the Battle of Passchendaele, the ‘battle-bog’ in which Lewis saw his fellow gunners shelled and drowned, the Imperial War Museum North has mounted a superb retrospective of the artist’s life and work. It makes no apology or excuse for him. The exhibition opens with broadsides from choice enemies. ‘A malicious, thwarted and dangerous man,’ said Sacheverell Sitwell, brother of Edith. ‘A curious mixture of insolence and nervousness,’ said E.M. Forster. We do not have to like him for his writing, painting, pamphleteering, to think he’s worth remembering.
The war, wrote Lewis, was a landmark as ‘tremendous’ as the birth of Christ: ‘We say “pre-war” and “post-war”, rather as we say BC or AD.’ Pre-war he had been a troublemaker. He had fallen in with Augustus John at the Slade and travelled to Holland, France, Germany and Spain on his allowance. He returned in 1908 with an exotic wardrobe, an absurd haircut and a moustache. He fired his first shots, made early enemies: ‘I am all in favour of a young man behaving rudely to everyone in sight. This may not be good for the young man, but it’s good for everyone else.’
England was in a ‘somnolent’ state, still mooning over the pale aestheticism of Oscar Wilde and Kate Greenaway’s syrupy infants. In July 1914, he launched Blast — a ‘battering ram’ of a magazine — and with it the vorticist manifesto — ‘a mass of excited thinking’, of ‘wild and whirling words’. Vorticism was a queasy, uneasy art. Paintings were tipped on their axes, the viewer left motion-sick and dizzy. Bodies and landscapes were angular and abstracted. The mathematician Euclid was one hero, Andrea Mantegna, with his crisp, etch-like outlines, another.
Eleven artists, among them the poet Ezra Pound and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, signed the vorticist manifesto. Lewis would later claim the movement was all down to a ‘very vigorous One’.
Vorticism was written up as an English off-shoot of Italian futurism, but Lewis was against Marinetti and his gang. He wouldn’t dignify them with the name ‘futurist’. They were ‘Milanese automobilists’ obsessed with speeding cars and aeroplanes. When Marinetti lectured in Bond Street, Lewis went to heckle. Never had he heard such a lot of hot, noisy air: ‘a day of attack upon the Western Front, with all the “heavies” hammering together, right back to the horizon was nothing to it.’
Blast and vorticism had short lives. ‘Wars have made it impossible to get on with anything for very long, but I am glad that I got in, at the very beginning, a resounding oath.’ The blast was heard beyond London’s squares and salons. Drilling his squad at Mentsham Camp, Lewis was called over by the adjutant and sergeant-major. ‘Bombardier,’ said the adjutant, ‘what is all this futurism about?’ They thought it a great joke. Was this funny gunner really the revolutionary they had read about in the papers? In his war memoir, Blasting and Bombardiering, Lewis noted that the sergeant-major was killed within a fortnight of being sent to the Front.
The war was a ‘stupid nightmare’. He had a row with the war artist Sir William Orpen, who insisted: war is hell. Lewis wouldn’t accept this ‘infernal cliché’: ‘I said it was Goya, it was Delacroix — all scooped out and very El Greco. But hell, no.’
He did not paint the war like Goya, but in the fidgety, jagged style of vorticism. It was right for the pitted, splintered, broken landscape of France, and the shell-shocked, sleepless men who fought there. He could not, he said, have begun to paint a milkmaid in a field of buttercups, ‘but when Mars with his mailed finger showed me a shell-crater and a skeleton, with a couple of shivered tree-stumps behind it, I was still in my “abstract” element.’ In paintings like ‘Shell-Humping’ (1918), ‘Officers and Signallers’ (1918) and ‘A Battery Shelled’ (1919) the men aren’t quite human. They are metallic and riveted with howitzer arms and bayonet legs.
The war ended but Lewis carried on fighting with pen and in paint, prolific and furious. He wrote 50 books and left more than 100 paintings and 1,000 drawings. Even after he lost his sight in his late sixties, he wrote polemics by dictaphone. Blindness was like being ‘pushed into an unlighted room, the door banged and locked for ever’.
A ‘Self Portrait’ of 1932 has him scowling under a hat. Who next for a blast? A Woolf, a Sitwell, an Academy stooge? Rage made him bitter and isolated. He was often wrong, occasionally brilliant — and always his own worst enemy.
Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War is at the Imperial War Museum North until
1 January 2018.