A Visit to ‘The Enemy’: Wyndham Lewis Up North

Manchester-early

(Manchester, early morning)

To Manchester, primarily to see the Wyndham Lewis exhibition or perhaps—depending on which witness was consulted—to visit Chetham’s and John Rylands libraries; or even to take full advantage of room service in the hotel.

I was last in Manchester almost exactly thirteen years ago and my strongest memories from that visit were of extraordinarily impressive public buildings, friendly people and a vibrant city centre which felt good to walk around. Nothing has changed for me in those respects, and there is still that positive feeling as you walk around the centre, despite some of the trouble that Manchester has had to weather recently.

Coming from Bristol, we could only lament that city’s lost opportunities as we sampled the Metrolink on a tram out to the Quays and Imperial War Museum North.

IWM-North

(IWM North)

And so to Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War. This is a tremendous exhibition, covering the whole of Lewis’s career but also, invaluably, including much of the related, contextual artistic work: designs from Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, paintings by Vorticist allies, and ending with Michael Ayrton’s poignant portrait of the elderly—and blind—Lewis wearing his eyeshade.

Portrait of Wyndham Lewis 1955 by Michael Ayrton 1921-1975

(Michael Ayrton, Wyndham Lewis, 1955: Tate © Estate of Michael Ayrton)

Some of the Lewis artworks I’d seen before, at an exhibition in Cardiff. Having dug out the catalogue by Jane Farrington (with contributions by John Rothenstein, Richard Cork and Omar Pound), I see that it was in 1980, that it actually started in Manchester (not, as I mistakenly thought, London) and that A Battery Shelled (1919) wasn’t included in that exhibition. I believe the only piece that didn’t make the move was the famous and controversial portrait of T. S. Eliot, which had to return home to Durban, so I was glad to catch up with it here.

I do remember the almost overwhelming impact of walking into that space in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and seeing the remarkable range of his work for the first time, a range that I’d never really suspected before, an effect that was heightened by the fact that, when I viewed the exhibition, I was alone for much of that time. Walking around the IWM exhibition the other day, in fact, there were few enough people for each of us to take our time and see things properly, and to go back and look again—increasingly rare in recent years: in several other exhibitions I’ve been to lately, you’d have to stand on a stepladder to see half of the exhibits over the heads of the crowds.

WL-Exhbtn

Whether I’d seen them before or not, the pieces I found myself scribbling the titles of on this occasion included Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair (c.1911-12), The Vorticist (1912), The Crowd (1914-15), Two Missionaries (1917), Figures in the Air (1927), The Surrender of Barcelona (1936) and, of course, A Battery Shelled (1919)—the scale and force of that canvas draws you back for a second or third viewing. I still find several of the portraits hugely impressive: Eliot and Pound, Edith Sitwell, Naomi Mitchison in particular, the instantly recognisable figure of Nancy Cunard – and portraits of Lewis’s wife Froanna, one of them, the superb 1938 The Mexican Shawl, more usually to be found back in Bristol.

Lewis, Wyndham, 1882-1957; Mexican Shawl

Wyndham Lewis, The Mexican Shawl
© Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

But, again, some of the indispensable elements for me were the extras: the journals (Blast, The Tyro, The Enemy), the books (including Lewis’s astonishingly ill-judged titles of the 1930s) and the artworks by others: one of my favourites being Jessica Dismorr’s Abstract Composition (1915).

Abstract Composition c.1915 by Jessica Dismorr 1885-1939

There are also works by Wadsworth, Bomberg, Atkinson, and the wonderful William Roberts painting, The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915, with Lewis looming centrally and a little larger than everyone else. Then, too, the Gaudier-Brzeska pieces: the Horace Brodzky, yes, but primarily the stunning Bird Swallowing a Fish: once you’ve seen the bomb or torpedo in the shape of that fish, you never get past it again.

Bird Swallowing a Fish c.1913-4, cast 1964 by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1891-1915

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish (Tate, 1913-14, cast in bronze 1964).

While, on the face of it, you could conjure up few pairings so unlike one another as Lewis and Henry Thoreau, I do hear echoes of ‘The Enemy’ in the essay that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote after his friend’s death: ‘There was something military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.’[1] The critic Michael Levenson wrote of ‘the modernist urge towards dualistic opposition and radical polarities’ and one of the leading modernists asserted that ‘The history of the world is the history of temperaments in opposition.’[2] Lewis was, certainly, always in opposition.

Which consideration brings us, inevitably, to the thorny ‘problem’ of Lewis’s politics, the troublesome positions brought about by the confrontational stance of the man that Auden called ‘That lonely old volcano of the Right’.[3] The issue is confronted frankly and illuminatingly by participants in the very good video at the end of the exhibition: they include Richard Slocombe, author of the accompanying catalogue; the doyen of Lewis studies, Paul Edwards; and there’s an excellent contribution from our friend Nathan Waddell (a Fordian as well as a Lewisian).

Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War runs to the end of the year and is emphatically well worth a visit.

References

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Thoreau’, in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 396.

[2] Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), ix; Ezra Pound, ‘Provincialism the Enemy’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 169.

[3] W. H. Auden, ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1937), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 198.

 

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