WYNDHAM LEWIS PORTRAITS
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Until 19th October
Man of peace. That’s how Wyndham Lewis described Hitler in 1931. Fascistic, homophobic, racist; almost everything about Wyndham Lewis was repellent, yet his portraits of contemporaries such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot are unequalled. His artistic genius was often stymied by his Nazi sympathies, perhaps hindering analysis of his work as tough and unprepossessing. Often overlooked in favour of Cubism and Futurism, this exhibition proves that Lewis’s Vorticism was every bit as integral in the artistic exposition of turbulent times as either of those more highly regarded movements.
The National Gallery’s recent show presents a figure capable of pictorial brilliance with the power to amaze and entertain, regardless of personal viciousness or political shortcomings, much as knowledge of Umberto Boccioni’s affiliation with the extreme views of Mussolini and Marinetti cannot dim the brilliance of his Futurist masterpieces.
If you really want to know what there is to dislike about Lewis, you only need glance at his famous self-portrait ‘Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro’. A grotesque, grinning head, compactly constructed from flat planes and sharp angles set against a sour-yellow background, it fixes the viewer with an arrogant, snarling glare.
Lewis disregards all aspects fundamental to portraiture: the drama of the human form, the voyeurism and sympathy of the viewer. Instead, Lewis’s painting is an affront to the universal ‘human interest’ of modern art. It is anti-portraiture.
There is little hint of the fleshy sensuality which imbues a human figure. Geometry is the altar at which Wyndham Lewis worships; it dictates the shape and detail of the human frame and governs the artist’s exacting respect for the likeness of the sitter; the shape still recalls the appearance and identity.
Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Edith Sitwell receive similar Vorticist treatment, but Wyndham Lewis’s geometric approach does not compromise his ability to capture their characters, demonstrating that Lewis’s best portraits are of the most uniquely individuated sitters. It is as if Wyndham Lewis, a famously strong personality himself, raised his game when faced with subject whom he considered his equals in character and intellect. A beautiful pencil portrait of Rebecca West reveals an intimate moment of intense anxiety, merely by showing her face from two slightly different perspectives.
Crucially we see Lewis’s portrait of TS Eliot, which was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1938. Every aspect of the figure is defined: from the colossal architecture of his suit, to the neat parting in his hair. A compromise between icon and caricature, the portrait explores the physicality of selfhood and the manipulation of visual identity. It is not that Wyndham Lewis is completely unconcerned with the emotional content of his work, simply that the monumentalisation of simple human form is his primary focus.
It is true that the other works are not of such consistent brilliance. At times it seems as if he reserves the modernist style for the literary avant-garde, reverting to a more mundane, naturalistic style in portraits of his wife. Perhaps this in itself reflects the cultural elitism that he and his contemporaries were guilty of.
Moreover, his later works, particularly an awkwardly executed portrait of Naomi Mitchison, are suffused with a certain sadness; as Wyndham Lewis’s eyesight began to deteriorate, his art suffered.
What is clear from this small but concise show is that Lewis was not interested in exploring the psyche of a sitter. Instead he concerned himself with creating the definition of a distinct individual, creating an image rather than a personality.