The Sensationalist ; Painter, Publisher, Provocateur - the Original Vorticist. Percy Wyndham Lewis Was the True Father of English Modernism. He Was Also, According to T S Eliot, `the Most Fascinating Personality of Our Time'. but, Says Tom Lubbock, His Irrepressible Ambition and Interest in Hitler Cost Him His Rightful Place in Cultural History

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What a face: its shapes are axe-heads, razorblades, bill-hooks, brackets, circumflex accents, scimitars, scalpels, caltrops. This physiognomy, jammed in a grinning rictus, jutting like a phallus against a hot mustard background, holds as many tensely clasped cutting edges as a Swiss Army knife. It belongs to a Tyro - a creature invented around 1920 by the artist Wyndham Lewis. "A new type of human animal," he called it, "raw and undeveloped; his vitality is immense, but purposeless, and hence sometimes malignant. His keynote is vacuity; he is an animated but artificial puppet." These Tyros - the word means beginner, novice - are big babies, infantile supermen, an energetic but grotesque embodiment of the new world that was coming into birth after the catastrophe of World War One.

It's modern art, of course. With his series of Tyro pictures Lewis was hoping to reclaim the status he'd enjoyed before the Great War as leader of the English avant-garde. But the Tyros are a funny sort of modern art. Modernism experiments with the human form; it's not usually in the business of creating comic characters. That's what cartoonists do - and the image is rather too close to a cartoon, or a propaganda poster, for artistic comfort.

It's also a self-portrait. Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro is the title. In this image, the painter himself assumes the crude and grimacing mask, appears before us as one of his own dumb violent anti-heroes. It's not hard to catch the tone, the attack, of this satirical self-advertisement: jaunty, jeering, piss-taking, mocking and self-mocking; no airy-fairy aesthete, he; a super-ironical, diabolical figure, tough and clever; challenging all comers as big high-brow and big yob. It's one of those moments when an artist decides to alienate his existing fan-base.

At this point we are in the middle of Wyndham Lewis, the artist and writer and phenomenon. In 1921, when he exhibited this picture, he was hardly a beginner. He was pushing 40, and over halfway through his life. He'd been a sensation. He was about to become a problem.

Lewis ought by right to be Mr British Modernism, the presiding genius of 20th-century British art. (This position is still held, I believe, by that old lump of stodge, Henry Moore.) People were always saying he was a genius. He had the right peer group, chums in the pioneers club: Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T S Eliot who called him "the most fascinating personality of our time". His work had an unrivalled energy, ambition, invention, sophistication. But somewhere along the way he lost it.

A lost leader; not exactly a forgotten man. You can see his pictures in galleries here and there. You can buy his books - some of them. Currently he's having a comeback. If you hurry, you'll catch the last day of a show of his drawings at the Courtauld Gallery. In a fortnight's time a larger exhibition of his work is the centrepiece of the Olympia Fine Art Fair.

But a problem remains. He started so strongly and then, posterity- wise, he blew it. This self-portrait gives a hint. His work strayed from the true path of modern art. He had big attitude problems. He was too clever, and too rude all round (and politically he went badly wrong). In 1921, he was at the beginning of the most brilliant and productive period of his life. Or, if you look at it the other way, he was on the brink of career suicide.

Go back seven years. 1914, and Lewis was on the crest. Born in 1882, he'd been chucked out of the Slade Art School for making trouble and spent his twenties bumming around Europe, picking up the latest in contemporary art and thought, trying to write and doing a bit of drawing. Then he came back to London - a London that had just been introduced, kicking and screaming, to the post-Impressionists - and turned himself into a front-rank, cutting- edge artist.

He barged rapidly in and out of London's advanced art scene, the Camden Town Group, the Omega Workshop (a foretaste of bust-ups to come). …