"Wyndham Lewis Portraits" National Portrait Gallery, London. July 3-October 19, 2008
Wyndham Lewis is best known as a modernist and as the leader of the Vorticists, but the Vorticists' swirling style of vigorous erratic curves is not best suited to the art of portraiture. There remains a prevailing prejudice that we should be able to recognize a particular individual in his or her portrait rather than see them sliding away into featurelessness through the force of the painter's gravity. Accordingly Lewis devised a technique which he called "Burying Euclid deep in the living flesh." It is doubtful whether Euclid, who revered above all the simplicity and regularity of the circle and the straight line, would have been impressed by this evocation of his name in connection with the irregular intersecting curves of this leading Vorticist.
Lewis's embedding of geometrical shapes in his portraits, however, is what makes them more interesting than and often far superior to portraits by the Royal Academicians of his time. Lewis reviled the RA men as "chocolate box" and they retaliated by turning down his iconic 1939 portrait of T. S. Eliot. It was forced into exile and hangs in the municipal art gallery in Durban, where presumably it will remain until a local politician decides that its cultural properties are not sufficiently African or even not Zulu enough. In the portrait, Eliot's neat, tense self has been captured by a skilled assembly of tubes and angles, though appropriately for Eliot the portrait is as traditional as it is modernist. It is quite different from the portrait in the same year of Ezra Pound, who, crumpled, fluid, floating, occupies the entire bottom right half of the picture as he lounges below a window looking out to sea. Yet Lewis's method is the same and so is his capacity for insight into his subjects.
The thoughtful but lively exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery would be worth visiting for these two works alone but in this substantial exhibition there is much more, including oil paintings, watercolors, sketches in pencil, charcoal, and crayon, and caricatures. Indeed it provides a very good coverage of Lewis's portraits from his cubist self-portrait of 1911, to his last oil painting, another portrait of T. S. Eliot, this time for Magdalene College, completed in 1949 not long before he went blind. In 1956 the blind artist recollected his achievements and remembered his portraits as a "grand visual legacy." He wished he had done more of them and, after seeing the exhibition, I am sure he was right.
Lewis's writings, particularly his fiction, often contained bitter, satirical word-portraits of his patrons, whose kindness he resented. This rarely comes out in the portraits he painted of them, though his volatile shifts between friendship and enmity for an individual may account for this. In his fiction he savaged the Schiffs and the Sitwells, Virginia Woolf and Nancy Cunard, but his portraits of them are sympathetic. There is a dignity in his pencil and watercolor portrait of Edith Sitwell (1921) that you would not expect from Lewis as author, who wrote of her poetry, albeit in a thin disguise, that it was "All about arab rocking horses of the true Banbury Cross breed. Still making mud pies at 40!" In the portrait, Edith Sitwell's long neck pops suddenly out of a stiff, …