Percy Wyndham Lewis
Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)
The cover of the second (and final)
Portrait of poet TS Eliot (1938)
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A dynamic, idiosynchratic figure in British avant-garde art in the years leading up to World War I, Percy Wyndham Lewis was one of Britain's leading abstract painters and co-founder (with Ezra Pound) of the Vorticism movement - one of the few abstract art movements launched in Britain - whose literary magazine (BLAST) he edited. The Vorticist idiom of abstract art, based on modernistic machine and architectural forms, had numerous philosophical and optical features in common with the two main European styles of modern art - namely Cubism (flourished 1908-14) and Futurism (1909-1914) - but agreed with neither. Other notable Vorticists included the short-lived French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), while those close to the movement included the outstanding American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and the greatly underrated painter David Bomberg (1890-1957). Wyndham Lewis (he dropped his hated first name) was also a prolific writer of essays, polemical leaflets, autobiographies - Blasting and Bombadiering (1937) and Rude Assignment (1950) - as well as novels - notably, Tarr (1918). Although his reputation was later tarnished by his association with the British Fascist Party, he remains one of the most original and best English painters of the early 20th century.
Born on a yacht off the coast of Amehurst, Nova Scotia, he was 11 when his parents separated, whereupon he stayed with his mother who left the United States and returned to her native England. After demonstrating an ardent interest in drawing and painting, he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London between 1898 and 1901, before moving to Paris where he stayed for several years. Encouraged by his friend, the independent and rebellious Augustus John (1878-1961) - later invited to Picasso's studio to see the latter's masterpiece Les demoiselles d'Avignon - he began to take painting more seriously, although at this stage his first preference was still to become a full-time writer.
Around 1909 he returned to England where he became an active member of the literary and artistic avant-garde. It was about this time that he developed his characteristic angular, semi-abstract style of painting based on forms similar to those employed by Futurism and Cubism. In 1911 he joined the Camden Town Group of British Impressionists, alongside other modern artists such as Walter Sickert, Spencer Gore, Henry Lamb, Augustus John, Adrian Allinson, John Nash, Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot and Harold Gilman. He also became friends with Roger Fry (1866-1934), a member of the Bloomsbury Group and one of the most influential art critics since John Ruskin (1819-1900). He was also an authority on modern art movements in France, for one of which he invented the term Post-Impressionism (c.1880-1905). Fry went on to curate the major art exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries (Oct 1912-Jan 1913) entitled "British, French and Russian Artists" which featured works by Fry himself, Wyndham Lewis, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Spencer Gore, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Wassily Kandinsky.
In 1913, Fry together with Wyndham Lewis, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, founded the Omega Workshops, a decorative arts company, designed to improve the standard of abstract design in Britain, provide a workplace and income for poor but talented artists, and hopefully to act as a practical forum to encourage cross-fertilization between fine art and applied art across a variety of disciplines. In many ways it was a modernist form of Morris's 19th century Arts & Crafts movement. Other artists associated with the project included Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells and the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Before long, however, Wyndham Lewis began to object to Omega's focus on modern French art. He was also unwilling to play second fiddle to Fry. The pair quarrelled and Lewis abruptly left to form his own organization, along with Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton and Edward Wadsworth. The new organization appeared in the form of the Rebel Art Centre - a venue for artists to discuss revolutionary ideas and non-objective art - based at 38 Great Ormond Street in London. Lewis himself was busy refining his abstract paintings, creating a militant style of cubo-futurism which incorporated geometric forms as well as references to machines and urban architecture. He christened his style Vorticism, believing that artists should observe the kinetic energy of modern society from a fixed vantage point at the centre of the vortex, so to speak. Little collective art was ever made at the Rebel Art Centre, but it served as the early headquarters of the Vorticist group and its radical art magazine BLAST.
The movement's formation and ideological manifesto was announced in the first of two numbers of "BLAST: Review of the Great English Vortex", edited by Lewis, which criticized the Victorian sentimentality of 19th century art and attacked the arts world in Britain for its old fashioned values. The first issue also proclaimed the new Vorticist aesthetic: "The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the Present: we produce a New Living Abstraction". Contributors to the magazine (it appeared only twice: the first time on 2 July 1914, the second on 15 July 1915 - both issues largely written by Wyndham Lewis) included the American poet Ezra Pound, and the sculptors Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Lewis's innovative typography and graphic designs, marked by violent and dramatic shapes, were closely related both to the motifs used by Futurism (the Italian-based movement that championed speed and the machine), and the sharp angles and planes featured in Picasso and Braque's Analytical Cubism (c.1909-12).
The First World War effectively destroyed Vorticism. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed at Verdun; David Bomberg lost his faith in modernism; while the "machine" aesthetic would never recover from the horrors of mechanized warfare and the machine gun. Following the Vorticists' only British exhibition in 1915, the movement broke up, although one Vorticist art show was staged at the Penguin Club in New York in 1917 by Lewis's patron, John Quinn.
Lewis himself served at the western front as an officer in the Royal Artillery (1915-17), before being commissioned as a war artist (1917-19). During this time he produced several memorable paintings and drawings of battle scenes, such as A Battery Shelled (1918, Imperial War Museum, London).
In 1919, in a bid to revive Vorticism, Lewis founded a group of avant-garde artists - known as Group X - for whom he organized an exhibition at Heal's Gallery in MarchApril 1920. He also published a new magazine, The Tyro. But the new group failed to prosper, and only two issues of the new magazine appeared. And a much trumpeted third issue of BLAST failed to appear. By 1920 even Lewis conceded that the movement - and his career as one of the most inventive twentieth century painters - was over.
During the 1920s Lewis became better known for his writing than for his visual art, although he continued to produce excellent portrait art and a quantity of abstract watercolour painting. His books included The Art of Being Ruled, Time and Western Man, The Lion and the Fox, and The Wild Body. In 1930 he wrote his controversial satirical novel, The Apes of God, in which he attacked wealthy dilettantes.
During the 1930s, as Fascism and Communism dominated the news, Lewis encountered widespread opposition to his authoritarian political views which championed fascist agenda. At the same time he produced some of his greatest portrait paintings, including Portrait of TS Eliot (1938, Durban Art Gallery), which was rejected by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in London, causing Augustus John to resign his RA in disgust. Other impressive works by Lewis included The Surrender of Barcelona (1936).
In 1939, Lewis went to the United States
with his wife, hoping to recoup his fortunes with a lecture tour and some
portrait commissions. After a brief, unsuccessful stay in New York City,
they went to Canada, where they lived in poverty for three years in a
run-down hotel in Toronto hotel, living off his paltry earnings as an
artist - an experience which he fictionalized in his 1954 novel Self-Condemned.
He returned to London in 1945, unaware that a tumour was destroying his
optic nerve: a condition which led to complete blindness six years later.
He got a job as art critic for The Listener, printed by the BBC,
which he used to comment on British
contemporary painting, praising a number of young British artists,
including Francis Bacon
and Michael Ayrton. In 1956 he was given a retrospective exhibition of
his art at London's Tate Gallery.
He passed away at Westminster Hospital in March 1957.
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