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January 14, 2005

Wyndham Lewis and the Doom of Truth: The Bone Beneath the Pulp: Drawings by Wyndham Lewis at the Courtauld

Posted by S. J. Masty

The Bone Beneath the Pulp: Drawings by Wyndham Lewis
Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London
14th October 2004 - 13th February 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Last admission 5.15pm)

The earth and the sky and the attic are cold and gray. Six people shuffle from one foot to another in the Courtauld Gallery listening to the fifteen minute midday lecture. A grim-faced, middle-aged couple (who for some reason strike me as Dutch) sport matching magenta hair and identical pink clothes. Desperately overcoated, wound up in a mile of scarf and jammed under a tea-cozy until she resembles a talking laundry basket, an older woman has clearly swotted up on the artist's biography but now she haltingly improvises, faking, busking on the pictures themselves. The squiggles beyond the Archangel remind her of worms symbolizing how 'he' comes to a bitter end in the grave. She refers to Jesus depicted as an infant on the other side of the drawing - the same Jesus who, um, arises from the dead and cheats the worms. Never mind. She half apologises - the works mean little to her, she never read any of the artist's writing but he is somehow an 'historic figure'.

With his strong stomach for irony, Wyndham Lewis was probably laughing from up on his cloud. Poet, playwright, novelist, critic, philosopher, pamphleteer, painter and draughtsman, he remains Britain's most mentally powerful artist-as-intellectual. He was the kind of polymath better appreciated on the continent than by England, an England which remains ever-safe and ever-stolid even when she plays at being radical.

Look over the speaker's shoulder at two dozen lines of stark charcoal, Reclining Nude (1919 - 20). Was there ever a Japanese sumi-e Zen master who did more with less? It might have been drawn with a razor and the certainty and strength and economy of the strokes made me shiver. Same too with Nude (1919 - 1938), or his portrait sketches so restrained and stylish yet packed with the personalities of his subjects. Further along in stark, black, mechanical modernist ink is a proletarian couple at the seaside, and the man's three buttocks flap over the back of his wooden stool as he peers stupidly at the waves with his bird's head and parrot's beak. Meanwhile the artist watches you from his Self-Portrait (1911) reproduced on the poster and the cover of the catalogue. It is a most unsettling likeness: feline, feral, menacing (frame that fearful symmetry if you dare).

This is an artist in control, and when he wants to be, he is a supreme draughtsman. When he wants to be.

Do Control Freaks Permit Accidents?
That is the point of Lewis's drawings, including the majority which are hesitant, graphically uncertain. If they are imperfect, he had his reasons.

In contrast, nip around the corner where the Courtauld hides his Red Portrait (1937), a tidy, tightly-painted little domestic scene of his wife at the family fireside. Did 20th Century Britain produce a more pregnant portrait? Even from Bacon (whom, late in life, Lewis admired)? The subject is Dullsville, nearly Whistler's Mother, but the treatment is the message. Look at the palette -all in red. Give it a minute until the colours turn unnerving. Notice the hard, sad, tense look in her eyes. Take in the unsettling reflection over the mantle and the fine, dark, jarring, overly-precise edges of everything in the picture. You start to back off, pulling away from it. Something is alive in there and it is ready to come out.

Red Portrait isn't a happy accident painted by an artist who was on form some days and off on others. Most of Lewis's estimated 1000 drawings are lacklustre because they weren't for show. He left them in heaps on the floor, occasionally stuffing a few dozen into a satchel to flog for rent money, but otherwise he drew 'em and dropped 'em. Again and again he started one, stopped, then returned to it years later - viz. Nude (1919 – 1938). He would return to a drawing, cut out the face and redraw it, or ink-in a new figure in a completely different and inappropriate style. Apart from the portrait sketches, these clearly weren't ever finished or meant for display. They were rehearsals but not for paintings. They were rehearsals for prose. They were probably exercises, totems, fetishes, icons in-the-making, graphic representations of thought.

So you cannot track Lewis's drawings unless you track Lewis's thought and that's not easy.

Stalking the Perfect Ideology
Lewis was briefly at Rugby and then slung out of the Slade for laziness - an autodidact who spent too much time abed with Neitzsche, scorning the bourgoisie, obsessed with the artist as Ubermensch and suffering the mental dyspepsia of dualism. Blame Darwin or Engels or Hegel's dialectic, but in the Age of Ideology progress was a product of conflict and revolution, leaving no room for Aristotle's Golden Mean or Buddha's Middle Way – and it suited the combative young Lewis perfectly.

In drawings and pamphlets, see him grasp for the artistic Big Idea that bedevilled all young artists. Notice the influence of Fauves and Expressionists and Cubists and Futurists, and his fellow Vorticists with whom he also argued. Then Lewis took a radical turn after the Great War, when all these quaint, optimistic, little artistic ideologies collapsed in the mud of the Somme, and young theorists such as T. E. Hulme and Gaudier-Brzeska lay face down and gut-shot, decomposing beside them. Here his thinking turns original and the rest of us lose the plot.

Joining the Enemy
Once he turned in his machine-gun and shed his uniform, Lewis like everyone else thought that Western Civilisation had failed, and the future needed to jettison capitalism and class and the hereditary generals responsible for Gallipoli. A brighter world would entail the more meritocratic aspects of fascism and communism. But he soon realized that there was precious little meritocracy in either, run by faceless bureaucracies even thicker and more wicked than the assembly-line that fed young men into the meat-grinders of Verdun.

For Lewis the enemy became ideology itself, and in opposing both right and left, both fascism and communism, he was virtually alone. In Time and Western Man (1927), Lewis warns that any ideology leads inexorably to a subjective and inaccurate view of reality, and ultimately to solopcism, isolation and cultural death. Ideology numbs artists, turning them from society's necessary critics into lackeys of a false and shallow avant-gardism. His was a trenchant and pure conservatism worthy of Burke - but this came as Bloomsbury made cow-eyes at Stalin.

Combative as ever, Lewis's The Apes of God (1930) was a satirical roman-a-clef portraying the English intelligentsia as shallow followers of ideological fashion. The Doom of Youth (1932) argues that once we stop believing in an afterlife there is no reward later, only youth now - he predicts the rise of the socio-political youth-cult from Hitler and Soviet Young Pioneers to the modern poses of New Labour. In his novel The Snooty Baronet (1932) Lewis pillories behaviouralism, the theoretical means of enforcing ideologically-approved behaviour. In Men Without Art (1934) he warns that downplaying rational, analytic artistic thought in favour of the subjective and naieve leads to a 'hegemony of infantile values' (although useful to rulers). In other words he provides a cultural road-map to Animal Farm. This was not well-received by Britain's dominant bien pensant socialists, nor was a foolish, contrarian book which in 1931 dismissed the threat of Hitler, which he soon recanted.

Alone Again, Unnaturally
By 1945 he had few friends left save Roy Campbell and T. S. Eliot, and by 1951 a brain tumour robbed him of his sight and he drew no more. His final sketches included the Nativity and absurdly uniformed generals in a graveyard. His last book, The Demon of Progress in the Arts (1956), warned that:

the fetishisation of innovation eventually leads to meaningless art.
Lewis died in 1957 and his distaste for ideology led him far from his youthful Nietschean hubris - in his final novels he wrote that:
God replaced the intellect as the final good.
His thought remains forgotten, partly because as an autodidact he left few quotes, footnotes or references that allow lazy critics to categorise him. There is hardly anything that critics like less than thought. But mostly he lost the argument. Hung on a cross of subjectivity and innovation (well-described by Duncan Willams in Trousered Apes, 1971) Western art is still driven by relentless ideology, aesthetic if not political – and post-war painting remains what Tom Wolfe derided as the 'Painted Word'. We are the New Jacobins, and the only aesthetic value that we conserve is an insistence on the convenient disposability of values.

Going blind, Lewis wrote:

Pushed into an unlighted room, the door banged shut and locked forever; I shall…have to light a lamp of aggressive voltage in my mind to keep at bay the night.
Alone in the hollow dark, taught little more than modern art that is itself little more than ideological fashion, how much voltage do we leave our children?

S. J. Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communications.


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