Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Note on Wyndham Lewis

A Note on Wyndham Lewis

The years between 1912 and 1915 were important in the history of British art. In lieu of an authentic avant-garde artistic style, British artist Wyndham Lewis formulated and maintained the energy behind “Vorticism”. Lewis’ contemporary Ezra Pound invented the word Vorticism in 1913 which Lewis would remain linked to until 1915 when he joined the army, after which Lewis’ work had a definite sense of the anxieties of war and destruction.

The etymology has been the subject of some confusion amongst academics and critics. The strongest claims highlight the word ‘vortex’ emphasising Lewis’ imagery of the descending whirlwind of ideas with a concentration of artistic energy at the centre. Otherwise the term vortex conjures images of art finding its referent in the eddy of emotions. Whatever one fancies there is a definite sense of an organisation of artistic and creative energy that may have hitherto been lacking in the British art scene, something that the Vorticist movement had the potential to fill.

An understanding of ones communication with the external world made a deep impact on the materialism of Vorticism to the extent that the style itself as could be perceived as being “dogmatically external”. Although this might appear to be Vorticism’s trepidation of nature this wouldn’t be quite true. Indeed Lewis had a terrific respect for, and anxiety over the artistic recreation of, the natural world. For Lewis, an affirmed humanist, there is a real risk for artists when they take to a recreation of nature and the sense of its conveyed emotion. The true essence of nature cannot simply be found in its representation alone.

Vorticism was able to demand more legitimacy in its short-lived magazine Blast written and edited primarily by Lewis. The first edition opened with the Vorticist Manifesto detailing the elements that needed to be either ‘Blessed’ or ‘Blasted’. The second (and final) edition of Blast was entitled The War Number and dealt further with Vorticism’s epochal aesthetic.

The post-Blast Lewis developed a style that was more intimate and more becoming of an era ravaged by world war. Lewis would still stick to his guns in the main elements of his art namely a style which is “[n]ot vulgar, not bourgeois, not parochial”. It was only so long before his intimacy would find expression in portraiture. He dealt explicitly with critiques of portraiture in his writings and demanded of himself and his audience a proper understanding of the surroundings of portraits. Lewis had said of this subject “accessories in portraiture … involve special problems” and the artist himself should go to lengths in order to take “particular care over them”. It was clear that for Lewis ones surrounding environment and the “line, rhythm and volume” meant just as much as the subject himself in its ability to convey meaning and direct the particular essence of that painting.

Early on in Lewis’ writing life he felt the need to express his thoughts on the definitive relationship that should exist between a work of art and its critic. Everything crucial to the genesis of an art piece, its essence and self-enclosed homage to its environs, has the potential to be translated by a competent critic if that critic extracts elements of that art as though they were objects to be found in everyday life (which is what the production of art should definitely focus upon). The artist, however, should not attempt their own translation because of the intricacy one has with the essence of the thing, which is potentially unattainable even by ones own senses.

These propositions may not be totally original (which was the Vorticist’s primary raison d’etre) but they do give a certain insight into the hubris that was to permeate the future of art in general. Indeed Lewis’ deep feelings towards art and environment did predict some of the problems with art in the post-theory age, namely the illusion that the artist enjoys the mastery over the symptomatic readings of his own work, which simply has no consideration of an individual’s own relationship with the essence of the thing. In our present historical situation where it is widely considered that appeals by hard materialists to the physical dynamics of the brain meat which can function and alter at the level of psychosis in a much more concrete way than the abstractions and speculative activity of Freudian psychoanalysis, there is a big mistake among artists to perceive analysis itself as self-enclosed, that it is possible to properly know thyself relative to the environs that inhibit oneself. This, I assert, is the true lesson (or, rather, reminder) of Wyndham Lewis; that it is entirely the case that nature’s imposing manner unto its human subject is defiant of sense-perception of that subject himself and the only way to truly quantify oneself with ones environs is the put oneself up for scrutiny in the same way as one might translate and extract from a piece of art.

One hopeful appeal to academia in this argument is perhaps directed towards Thomas Kuhn; the interplay and acceptance of scientific theories are paradigmatic, but truth itself is not paradigmatic, rather, beyond human clarity. Our pursuit of truth emanates from hypotheses both sound and unsound, still truth remains indefinitely whether apparent or not. This, I argue, is the lesson against the artist’s futile attempts at self-translation, and here we should not forget its relevant root viz a viz Wyndham Lewis.


Handley-Read, Charles (1951) The Art of Wyndham Lewis, Great Britain: Faber and Faber

Wilhelm, J.J (2008) Ezra Pound in London and Paris, 1908-1925, US: Penn State Press

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