A hard look
In both his writing and his painting Wyndham Lewis explored that part of us and our world which we often leave unexplored; that is our "shells." He was interested in the hard externality of things. Romantics will cringe and ascetics may frown, for his work leaves little room for them. He was a man of intellect rather than heartfelt feeling, of hardness rather than nerves.
A glacial picture emerges of the man.Though he spent a fiery and intolerant life, his work often reflects a sense of stillness. It is the stillness of great watchful mountains, content in their massiveness.
Upon leaving the Slade (where he was described by Professor Tonks as having the finest sense of line of any student there), he began his friendship with Augustus John. Anyone who could claim a long friendship with John was either very conciliatory or very rocklike. Lewis was granite to John's iron, and they set about becoming friends in a most aggressive manner. The friendship was long but tenuous, insults were tempered by occasional back-patting.
Vorticism, Cubism and Futurism are all words that hang from Wyndham Lewis's name. Of these, the first accurately describes a body of work over the years immediately preceding World War I. He admired the high-spirited Italian futurists, but dismissed them as propagandists who were unable to keep pace with their ideas. The traditional subject matter of Cubism, its apples and mandolins , he decided was anachronistic. His longing was for invention, action and revolution.
Ezra Pound coined the term vorticist in 1913. He seems to have taken the term from a statement of Boccioni that all artistic creation must originate in a state of emotional vortex. Although the practice of vorticism was temporarily adopted by a number of his associates, it was essentially the concept and expression of Wyndham Lewis. His assertion, attraction and tenacity gathered others to his wave as it swept at the complacent academic shore.
Drawings come very near to exposing the character of the artist. They mirror the mood of the moment. Lewis's drawings confront. They demand to be seen. The dark, certain tracks adn scathing lines leave us in no doubt of Lewis's masculine strength. I don't find his work sensuous, as I'm sure he would have liked me to. There's too much cool intellect in them for that. At times I find him close to being the ascetic he abhorred.
In our age of constant introspection and filleted mysticism it is useful to be reminded of our outer shells. Surface form has a purpose and a beauty which must be acknowledged. It also has strength, which in our meanderings after inner truths we must not lose.
As a self-confessed romantic I cannot believe in Lewis's ideas of intellect, externality and action alone. I need my dreams and my mysteries. But now and again I try to bounce back to his cool outer world and take a frosty view of things. I think it saves me from being carried into boneless sentimentality and feather-soft emotionalism. Wyndham Lewis betrays his heart, too. Again and again in his drawings and paintings of people we are allowed a glimpse of their feelings. He too lived with his heart as well as his head. Having said that, if I walk around the corner tomorrow and see a grim-faced old man rolling up his sleeves, Norman Mailer-wise, I shall run. I know whose shell will be the hardest.