Magazine article The Spectator

Blast from the Past

Magazine article The Spectator

Blast from the Past

Article excerpt

Percy Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

Design Centre, Rugby School, until 8 December

In the 1915 Vorticist Manifesto, published in the movement's magazine Blast, Wyndham Lewis (he dropped Percy) wrote:

3. Luxury, sport, the famous English 'Humour', the thrilling ascendancy and idée fixe of Class, producing the most intense snobbery in the World; heavy stagnant pools of Saxon blood, incapable of anything but the song of a frog, in home counties: these phenomena give England a peculiar distinction in the wrong sense, among the nations.

4. That is why England produces such good artists from time to time.

Lewis is one of them, as this first-rate exhibition at his alma mater -- he was a pupil for two years from 1897 -- amply demonstrates. It is the sole commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of this artist writer, who is comparable only with that other double-yolked exception to the rules, William Blake, one of his heroes, born 250 years ago this 28 November.

Lewis will forever be associated with Vorticism, an artistic rebellion intended to wake England from its academic lethargy (hence Blast), drawing its inspiration from Cubism and Futurism, but deploring the first for its indifference to personality and the second for disowning tradition. As Lewis later wrote, although he tried to make Vorticism a movement he was essentially a one-man band. The show's selection of 50 pictures and related material spanning his career is witness to the variety, scope and depth of an extraordinary and sustained imaginative energy.

There are famous examples from each phase of his evolution. The early tinted drawing 'Self-Portrait' 1911, hinting at the dynamic vorticism to come; the oil of his wife, 'Red Portrait' 1937, from the Courtauld; some brilliant drawings, portraits (the best done in England since Holbein? ) and nudes; the watercolour 'Bathing Scene' 1938, recalling his description of a Max Ernst, 'two disintegrated figures in frenzied conjugation';

mechanical figures, bird figures, musicalinstrument figures, which seem to have inspired the designers of recent sci-fi films;

bitingly funny caricatures and satires; a charged desert landscape. Only two works belong to Rugby. …

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