“Wyndham Lewis: The Twenties”

Anthony d’Offay Gallery

In recent years attention to Wyndham Lewis has focused most sharply on the early period of his career as an artist. His youthful achievements as the self-appointed leader of the Vorticist movement and editor of its magazine Blast came to an abrupt end when Lewis enlisted in the Royal Artillery to fight in the First World War. After the armistice he felt impelled for a while to pursue a more figurative course than he earlier had, executing a series of fiercely energetic drawings from life which can now be counted among his finest works. Some of them, like the elaborate Woman with Red Tam O’Shanter, 1921, in ink, pencil, gouache, and watercolor, prefaced the current exhibition with their whiplash economy of line. The Tate Gallery’s generous loan of its celebrated Edith Sitwell painting, 1923–35, also revealed, with commanding authority, how Lewis developed into a formidable portraitist as the ’20s proceeded. Although his friendship with Sitwell broke down before the canvas was finally completed, so that he presents her in some respects as a marionette, this austere image possesses stillness and dignity as well. Half puppet and half priestess, she dominates her book-lined room like an enigmatic deity.

The show, handsomely hung and providing an extraordinarily comprehensive view of Lewis’ work throughout the decade, was filled with less familiar images too. Many of these drawings and watercolors were executed in the increasingly rare moments when Lewis took time off from writing books. His career as a novelist burgeoned during the ’20s to such an extent that his output of paintings became severely diminished. This is regrettable, and yet the drawings and watercolors prove that his visual invention remained as distinctive as ever. They are, for the most part, very private worlds. Feeling free to move at will from representation to near abstraction, and infusing the mechanistic geometry of the Vorticist period with a certain amount of organic substance, Lewis defined an imaginative world which now seems peculiarly his own.

Although links can be traced to the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit on the one hand and Giorgio de Chirico on the other, Lewis’ wide-ranging interest in international developments did not impair his strong sense of individuality. Just as he had thrived during the Vorticist period on a fiercely critical awareness of prewar avant-garde art throughout Europe, so he now found himself stimulated by the emergence of Surrealism. But the stylistic differences between his early work and his art of the ’20s are not as great as he sometimes maintained. His involvement with the archetypal urban imagery of the machine age waned, and so did his youthful appetite for an eruptive, vertiginous art, yet several of the pictures in this show revealed a remarkable sense of continuity between the two periods. An outstanding composition called Red and Black Olympus seems to have been commenced as early as 1914 and completed eight years later, when Lewis inscribed its date. It contains many hallmarks of the Vorticist idiom—harsh, angular structures clustered in diagonally oriented clumps and interspersed with sudden zigzags. The principal figure, however, silhouetted in a cavelike opening, extends a rounded leg toward the base of the design. That roundness belongs to the ’20s, but Vorticist elements have been retained without any sense of stylistic contradiction or incoherence.

In such a work Lewis fulfilled the promise he made at the beginning of the decade that “the experiments undertaken all over Europe during the last ten years should be utilized directly and developed, and not be lightly abandoned or the effort allowed to relax.” That is why the exhibition is particularly pertinent today. For many artists in the early ’80s have likewise renewed their interest in figuration, and they are once again confronting the problem of reconciling it with an earlier commitment to abstraction. Some appear guilty of jumping on a figurative bandwagon, and their stylistic conversion seems little more than a fashionable maneuver. But others have made the transition in a far more sincere and coherent manner, retaining the fundamental strength of their earlier work even as they transform it. In this context, Lewis art of the ’20s provides them with a precedent they can justifiably respect.

Richard Cork