Review of ‘Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War’

Exhibition at Imperial War Museum North, until 1 January 2018.

This exhibition is a major event. Superbly curated by Richard Slocombe, and impressively staged by all those involved at the Imperial War Museums, ‘Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War’ allows viewers to see some of the artist’s major achievements in one venue and in a space that reflects physically the jutting angles and geometrical stylizations of his most imaginative canvases. As Paul Edwards notes in his ‘Preface’ to the exhibition catalogue: ‘The Vorticist pictures are a magical equivalent of life in the modern city – or “pictorial spells”, as Lewis called them – designed to illuminate a reconstitution of our being in the world. Immediately after the First World War, Lewis proposed that this vision should become real in a kind of zestful architecture based on Vorticist abstraction (as it now seems in such buildings as Daniel Libeskind’s). It is appropriate that Lewis’s work should be exhibited in Libeskind’s IWM of the North.’[1] For Lewis specialists and general exhibition-goers alike the space’s diagonals and verticals offer a pleasingly congruent echo of the lines and forms of works like Lewis’s The Vorticist (1912), At the Seaside (1913), and Red Duet (1914), or the major painting The Crowd (1914-15). Other images, like Lewis’s portrait paintings and his 1930s ‘history’ compositions, benefit from the contrast between their compassionate humanism and the IWMN’s austere geometrics.

Photo 22-06-2017, 20 28 27

I hadn’t seen many of these works ‘in the flesh’ before. In consequence, until going to the IWMN exhibition I hadn’t understood just how differently they look when you can scrutinize the details of Lewis’s brushstrokes and palette knife-scrapings up close. The other major revelation, for me, was being able to see the larger canvases in a space of sufficient size to allow ‘distant’ viewing. A work like the masterful A Battery Shelled (1919), for example, needs to be seen in person and up close as well as from far away, its modernism a matter simultaneously of totalizing schema and granular textures. It’s very difficult to get an accurate sense of this interplay between the large and the small in A Battery Shelled from a reproduction, either in print or online, so I urge fans of this painting in particular to attend the exhibition if they can. The same point holds for images like The Surrender of Barcelona (1936) and Inferno (1937), both of which are near-overwhelming triumphs of concept and textural finesse. And very familiar images like The Vorticist or Officer and Signallers (1918) are no exception. I never really appreciated just how vibrantly in paint Lewis could capture what he called, in a review of Alexander Calder’s work, the ‘extra-ordinary machine’ quality of ‘Man’ until now.[2] This quality takes on quasi-comic dimensions in a work like The Vorticist, whereas it hovers uneasily between tragedy and resigned black humour in A Battery Shelled, which draws on the same tension Lewis put to such good use in his memoir Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). Given the centrality of that tension in Lewis’s output as a whole, I’m extremely grateful to the exhibition’s organizers, and particularly to Richard Slocombe, for bringing all of these images together so that Lewis’s fascination with the machinic nature of humanity can be witnessed first-hand.

Inevitably (and appropriately, given the remit of IWMN), Lewis’s war images take a central role in the exhibition and in its catalogue. The transition between Lewis’s Vorticism of the 1910s and his 1930s ‘history’ paintings is particularly noticeable in these works, which reveal, to quote Slocombe, the ‘greater regard for subject matter and narrative’ Lewis developed in the wake of his experiences in the First World War trenches.[3] A Battery Shelled is undoubtedly the magnum opus here, but when it’s viewed in relation to images like Shell-Humping (or Howitzers) (1918) and Battery Position in a Wood (1918) it becomes increasingly clear that A Battery Shelled gains in significance when viewed as a major component in a series of Lewisian responses to war’s mechanizing reconstitutions of the self. It’s hard not to interpret Lewis’s autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael (1921) as a commentary on exactly this kind of mechanical ‘transformation’, the impassiveness of his projected self-image apparently conveying an anaesthetized sensibility in the wake of war. And yet, how vividly that sensibility returned in later works like the portraits of T. S. Eliot (1938), Stephen Spender (1938), and Naomi Mitchison (1939). One of the implications of the exhibition is that we have to understand each of Lewis’s works in relation to their counterparts, as units in a developing trajectory of response to industrial-capitalist modernity and to the human subject’s precarious footholds within it.

In managing to capture the variety and complexity of this trajectory, the IWMN exhibition should, be judged I think, a categorical success. It has been curated sympathetically, with excellent notes and an informative, readable catalogue. It presents a ‘rounded’ view of Lewis by placing his paintings and drawings alongside his books, copies of which feature plentifully throughout the exhibition space. It situates Lewis’s major works in relation to his lesser-known efforts, that juxtaposition mirrored in the fact that included here are relevant paintings by other figures in the Vorticist network. Given my interests, I was especially pleased to see some of Lawrence Atkinson’s work (his Abstract of c.1915-1920) included in the exhibition, though it was all too clear, in person, how Atkinson’s work falls short of the Lewisian exemplars he imitated. William Roberts’s The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915 (1961-2) also features. In short, there is so much to enjoy here. It’s really gratifying to learn that the exhibition is getting such good reviews across the British media, and I for one can’t wait to go back to see it again at some point later this year.

[1] Paul Edwards, ‘Preface: Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957’, in Richard Slocombe (ed.), Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War (London: Imperial War Museum, 2017): pp. 7-11, at p. 8.

[2] Wyndham Lewis, ‘Round the Galleries: Alexander Calder (18 January 1951)’, in Wyndham Lewis on Art: Collected Writings, 1913-1956, eds Walter Michel and C. J. Fox (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969): pp. 394-6, at pp. 394-5.

[3] Richard Slocombe, “Always on a war footing”: Lewis and an Era of Conflict’, in Slocombe (ed.), Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War: pp. 13-17, at p. 15.

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