Once More with Feeling; Some Fine Portraits by Wyndham Lewis Go on Show Tomorrow - but in the End, He Was an Intellectual Painter without Empathy
Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
WYNDHAM Lewis has some claim to be the only intellectual painter in the whole history of British art, though I dare say that some working now - Craig-Martin, for example - might argue their right to that small crown. Most of us know little about him for he has not been much exhibited: the Tate's last retrospective was in 1956, a year before his death, and the Imperial War Museum dealt with him as a war artist in 1992. A very few London dealers have held his drawings and watercolours in stock over the past 30 years or so, steadily building interest in him, but one of these rocked the market in the early Eighties when duped by an ingenious forger; one now has to be very wary of any example without a proveable provenance. With such invisibility it is not surprising that, if we know of him at all, it is as the man on the fringe of Bloomsbury who had a flaming row with Roger Fry.
And hurrah I say for that - the row, not the invisibility, for he was the only man in the English-speaking world who saw through that old fraud and was prepared to say so. Much good it did him.
For most of his life he was a lone prophet in the wilderness, not merely ignored but deliberately excluded by the art establishment - he became, as he said of David Bomberg in 1949, "one of the lost generation that really got lost".
He was, however, his own worst enemy; as much a writer and a novelist as a painter, even a political commentator unwise enough to express sympathy for Hitler's early struggles, he broke a British rule, and the British, who do not care for men with more than one ability, solved their pigeonholing problem by ignoring him. As one wise authority put it a quarter of a century ago at the first rustlings of revived interest: "Had it not been for the intervention of the war, the dissipation of his energies in controversy and propaganda, and had he not proved as great in literature as in art, he would have been one of the supreme and most influential artistic personalities of the century."
That is one hell of a claim. If the war to which it refers is the First World War, then it is obviously wrong, for Lewis was inspired by his presence in it, first as a gunner and then as a war artist, to produce what some historians think his best work; if it is the Second, then it is less obviously wrong, but some of us are inclined to think that his always unsteady abilities had begun to wane at much the same time as he reached his peak in portraiture as the Thirties turned into the Forties. That is not quite the contradiction that it may seem: his great portraits, of which T S Eliot and Ezra Pound are fine examples, are civilised observations in which the mannerisms of his style take second place to his responsibilities as a portrait painter for the future (Eliot wrote of his that it was "one by which I am quite willing that posterity should know me"), but in lesser works the logic falls away and only style remains.
One may indeed argue that Lewis was always a man of style and often of very little more - a style so unmistakable that it has been easy to produce unsubtle forgeries. He tormented his subjects, twisted and turned them, stretched and distorted them, denied their nature, employed the exaggerations of the cinema and in all this painted commanding pictures that are monuments of deliberate style far more than they are clear illustrations of polemics and ideas. His pictures and drawings tell a frightening truth, not about their subjects but about the overweening confidence of Lewis as, willy-nilly, he applied the Wyndham Lewis style to subjects of such tragedy and menace as should make a strong man weep. But weep he does not, for with the passage of years, the paintings of Wyndham Lewis have become no more disturbing than the early cartoons of Walt Disney or the black-and-white classics of German cinema. …