Wyndham Lewis

(2489 words)
  • Andrzej Gasiorek (University of Birmingham)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was born on November 18th, 1882. He was educated at Rugby, where he gave little indication of his future talents, before enrolling at the Slade School of Art in London, studying there between 1898 and 1901. After leaving the Slade, where he had gained a reputation as a first-rate draughtsman, he went abroad, where he stayed until 1909, living mainly in Paris but travelling to Holland, Germany, and Spain. During these years of study, reading, and painting he came under the influence of Bergson and Nietzsche–especially the light, aphoristic Nietzsche of works like The Gay Science (1882). Having returned to England, he began to establish himself as a writer and painter, publishing early stories (later to be rewritten for the collection titled The Wild Body (1927)) in Ford Madox Hueffer's (Ford's) English Review and Douglas Goldring's The Tramp, and exhibiting early paintings in 1911. Lewis in this period became active in various artistic ventures, such as the Camden Town Group, the London Group, the Omega Workshops, the Rebel Art Centre, and finally Vorticism, launched in 1914 in the journal Blast.

Lewis had by now joined forces with Ezra Pound, still actively promoting innovative art, whom he described in Blast as a “Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters.” Pound and Lewis were a formidable duo; Pound provided the name of Vorticism, and Lewis supplied most of the ideas and the writing. Blast experimented with type-face, published polemical manifestoes, “blasted” and “blessed” the things and people it respectively contemned or favoured, and included poems, paintings, stories, and reviews by some of the most original figures of the day, such as T. S. Eliot, Jacob Epstein, Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound, Edward Wadsworth, and Rebecca West. It assaulted the remnants of Victorian culture; attacked academicism and salon art; introduced avant-garde experimentalism to a philistine public (exemplified in the dictum “Kill John Bull with art”); differentiated Vorticism from competitor movements such as F. T. Marinetti's Italian Futurism and the Cubism of Picasso and Braque; presented machinery as the appropriate subject matter of the contemporary age, while ridiculing Futurism's exaltation of speed and movement; and heralded a hard new geometric and abstract art that drew on the ideas of T. E. Hulme, Allen Upward, and Wilhelm Worringer, urging a clear distinction between the values of 'art' and 'life'. Vorticism sought to combine dynamism with control, and energy with stasis. It stressed the transmuting activity of the artist, defending an aesthetic in which primitive energy was harnessed and impelled into form. Destructive and creative, it looked to sweep away an obsolete culture so that a more conscious, artistic, civilised, and modern world could be brought into being. Lewis was later to describe it as envisaging “an absolute revolution in the principles that govern the visual arts, in response to a fundamentally altered world”, and utopian rhetoric is certainly a marked feature of Vorticism.

Only two issues of Blast appeared (in 1914 and 1915) before it was itself swept away by the much louder blast of the Great War. Lewis enlisted in 1916 and fought as a bombardier in the Royal Artillery before he gained a commission as a war artist in 1917, and in this role he produced major paintings such as A Battery Shelled and A Canadian Gunpit. His first full-length novel, Tarr, which he finished before he enlisted, was published in 1918. A semi-autobiographical account of Lewis's years in Paris, which satirises the world of artistic bohemia with a merciless eye, Tarr describes the emotional perplexities of an aspiring artist, contrasting his espousal of a cold, masculine, and anti-naturalist aesthetic with the hot and confused passions of the doomed German student Kreisler. Written in a jagged and rhetorically charged manner, which draws attention to its performative textuality, the novel depicts a reified society characterised by persistent role-playing and by a brutal struggle for the preservation of identity. After the war Lewis to some extent retreated from public life, interring himself in the British Museum, where he began working on a huge revaluation of European culture and society, provisionally titled The Man of the World. He wrote several key essays during this period, of which The Caliph's Design (1919) is the most important; held a one-man show (Guns) in London; helped to create the X-Group, an association of painters committed to the continued development of avant-garde art; started another journal – The Tyro – and painted a series of forbidding satiric portraits, in which the elemental figures he named Tyros (cousins to the “puppets” of the early “wild body” stories) displayed their grotesque appetites.

By the mid-twenties, Lewis had turned to social criticism and philosophy. In a period of extraordinary productivity, he published a series of works analysing contemporary intellectual, political, and literary currents – The Art of Being Ruled (1926),Time and Western Man (1927), three issues of his new journal, The Enemy (1927-29), and Paleface (1929) – a book on Shakespeare, The Lion and the Fox (1927), and two novels, The Childermass (1928) and a satire on the post-war bohemian artistic elite, The Apes of God (1930). In these books Lewis distanced himself from his pre-war persona. The Art of Being Ruled explored the impact on post-war life of science and revolutionary socialism. It concluded with an argument in favour of centralised political power, which Lewis saw as a combination of fascism and sovietic communism; an anti-hereditary and anti-class caste system, which was to be based on individuals' aptitudes and was to help develop a natural aristocracy; and a declaration of faith in the civilising power of the intellect. Time and Western Man, one of Lewis's most significant critical books, assessed the influence on contemporary art of various philosophies of time (especially those associated with Bergson and William James). Lewis argued that these philosophies disintegrated the concrete world of external phenomena into a subjectivist mentalism that encouraged solipsism; in contrast to modernist versions of the self that explored the “stream of consciousness”, he urged a visual and spatial aesthetic that respected the static reality of a common-sense, objective world. At the same time, he attacked two tendencies that for him compromised art's capacity for impartial reflection and synthesising vision: a false avant-gardism, which he believed had become an integral part of the accepted cultural life of a “gilded bohemia” and had lost all power to shock and transform; and the politicisation of art, which turned it to propaganda and encouraged the ethos of the collectivity rather than that of the independent individual. His self-declared task was to sift the trajectories and movements that were genuinely new and creative (revolutionary) from those that were derivative, safe, and insipid. This task required him to clarify the nature of his disagreements with former allies such as Eliot, Joyce, and Pound; he criticised Joyce and Pound in The Revolutionary Simpleton (first published in his journal The Enemy) and then worked into Time and Western Man, and he took Eliot to task in Men Without Art (1934). Above all, he criticised art that threatened the ratiocinative powers of the mind, arguing that it either extolled the views of the naif, thereby leading to the hegemony of infantile values, or urged a dionysian merging of art and life, thereby confusing the respective merits of two realms that should be kept apart.

By the late twenties, Lewis had almost entirely abandoned his earlier utopianism, and his work moved for a time more firmly into the orbit of destructive satire. He argued that politically the world was polarised between the two 'blocs' of fascism and communism, so that there was no possibility for the individual to take up any effective stance outside these monolithic ideologies, with the result that the public sphere was being destroyed. He believed society was increasingly being administered by a technologised economy in the hands of huge cartels and that the public, duped by democratic sentiments, was being tranquilised by an all-embracing media machine; and he argued that art had been betrayed into the hands of moneyed amateurs who debased its high calling by writing for coteries, thus destroying cultural standards. Particular targets were Bloomsbury and its acolytes, and the circle around the Sitwell family. Lewis's assault on these tendencies came together in the huge satire The Apes of God, a multi-layered and self-consuming text, which lambasted an entire culture for its capitulation to decadent values. The novel depicts a moronic naif, Daniel Boleyn, as he makes his way through the various echelons of London's artistic bohemia under the guidance of a mentor, Horace Zagreus, himself an ambiguous trickster figure who is the mouth-piece of a hidden puppet-master (Pierpoint) whose views resemble Lewis's but who never appears in the text. A wide range of figures (many of them loosely based on real writers and artists) and styles are satirised, and the novel ends symbolically in a stricken London during the General Strike of 1926, the event that for Lewis signalled the end of the interregnum that had begun in 1918. The novel caused a minor furore when a positive review of it written by Lewis's friend – the poet Roy Campbell – was suppressed by the New Statesman, and Lewis wrote a pamphlet, Satire and Fiction, detailing what had occurred. Parts of this pamphlet found their way into Men Without Art (1934), a pessimistic book in which Lewis envisaged a world from which culture has virtually been expunged, included his critiques of Faulkner, Hemingway, Eliot, and Woolf, and defended his version of a non-moral, metaphysical satire whose goal, in a fragmented, post-historical world, was to treat contemporary society with scorn.

Throughout the thirties Lewis was primarily concerned with politics, and especially with the impending war, although he also wrote two important novels during this period: Snooty Baronet (1932), mainly a satire on behaviourism but also an entertaining comic work, and The Revenge For Love (1937). In this work, set against the background of the Spanish Civil War, Lewis explored the clash between the world of professional revolutionaries and that of the simpletons who seek to live out a life free from political involvement. The bluff, natural man Victor Stamp and his devoted, fey wife Margot are caught up in a mixture of political and business machinations which they are unable to understand and which bring about their deaths. The novel is sceptical about all human motivation and action, but it is particularly critical of communist politics, for which it reserves its greatest contempt, and has on these grounds been accused by critics of bad faith. A trip to Germany in 1930 led Lewis to write a series of essays for the journal Time and Tide, and these were published in 1931 as Hitler, the work that more than any other tarnished Lewis's reputation. The book set out to offer an impartial account of Hitler and National Socialism, and Lewis stressed in it that he was not a fascist. Yet his sympathy for Hitler, whom he misread as a man of peace, and his blindness to fascism's darker proclivities, were very much in evidence. Hitler was followed by two books on the impending war, Left Wings Over Europe (1936) and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937), in which Lewis, desperate to prevent another conflict, cast himself in the role of an appeaser. By the end of the thirties he had realised how mistaken he had been, and he wrote The Jews: Are They Human? (1939), which parodied a recent book under the title The English: Are They Human?, and The Hitler Cult (1939) to distance himself from his earlier views. His politics had become more liberal, humane, and democratic, and two works – The Vulgar Streak (1941), a novel, and Anglo-Saxony: A League That Works (1941) – disclose his altered sentiments. He subsequently moved to the Left, supporting the recommendations of the Beveridge Report and the post-war Labour administration. During the late thirties Lewis had also moved further away from the anti-naturalism of the Vorticist phase, eventually championing a return to nature, not in the sense of imitation but as a transformation of its latent potential by “burying Euclid deep in the living flesh”.

Lewis sailed for America just before the Second World War broke out and spent the war years in the United States and Canada. These were bleak years in which he struggled to make a living and in which he felt isolated intellectually and culturally, but he was able to transmute these experiences into art when he later came to write his major post-war novel Self-Condemned (1954), the work that, together with The Revenge For Love, is generally considered one of his major achievements. It is in this text that he subjects his own views and personality to anguished self-scrutiny. On his return to England, he was made art critic of The Listener, a position he held between 1946 and 1951, writing incisive reviews on artists who were then little-known but many of whom went on to make major reputations. The early fifties were again a time of great productivity. Lewis, who had progressively been losing his sight as a result of a tumour that was pressing on the optic nerve, went blind in 1953, but even as he was losing his sight he managed to write several books, notably an intellectual autobiography, Rude Assignment: A Narrative of my Career Up-to-date (1950); a collection of short stories, Rotting Hill (1951); two books of criticism, The Writer and the Absolute (1952) and The Demon of Progress in the Arts (1954); and four novels, Self-Condemned (1954), Monstre Gai (1955) and Malign Fiesta (1955) – the last two volumes of his trilogy The Human Age, which he had begun in 1928 with The Childermass but had left unfinished – and The Red Priest (1956). In The Writer and the Absolute he took issue with Sartre, Malraux, Camus, and Orwell, singling out Sartre's account of engagement, as outlined in What is Literature? (1948), for attack; in The Demon of Progress in the Arts he praised the work of the contemporary painters he admired, argued that the fetishisation of innovation eventually leads to meaningless art, criticised the post-war drive to abstraction as an example of such art, and excoriated the various “pundit-prophets” who interfere with the artist's independent creativity.

Lewis made a massive contribution to Anglo-American modernism as editor, organiser of avant-garde movements, polemicist, propagandiser, critic, and, above all, as a painter and writer. Something of an outsider in British cultural life for most of his career, he was a prickly, combative, oppositional presence whose intellect and independent spirit led him almost always to follow a solitary path. Styling himself the “Enemy”, he presented himself (often self-mockingly) as society's scourge, and this aggressive stance, when coupled with his redoubtable aesthetic, contributed to his neglect during his lifetime. His importance and impact are now being acknowledged, and his reputation as a major twentieth-century figure is secure. He gained some measure of recognition at the very end of his life when The Human Age was dramatised by the BBC on Radio 3 and when he was given a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1956. He died in March 1957 of the tumour that had rendered him blind and caused him much suffering in his final years.

Gasiorek, Andrzej. "Wyndham Lewis". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 January 2001
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2725, accessed 27 August 2016.]

Articles on Lewis' works

  1. The Childermass
  2. The Revenge for Love
  3. Time and Western Man

Related Groups

  1. Experiment and Avant-Gardes