- Volcanic Heaven: Essays on Wyndham Lewis’s Painting and Writing
As I start this review the 6 December 1996 Times Literary Supplement comes to hand, and here is Paul Edwards anew, describing a Vorticist show in Munich. “Wyndham Lewis’s nine-foot square ‘Kermesse,’ a dionysiac, futurist dance of creation—surely the most important painting produced in Britain in the years immediately prior to the First World War—disappeared in 1930, along with his vast geometric abstraction, ‘Plan of War’” (21). They’d belonged to someone Lewis had satirized in his novel Apes of God. Apes express outrage by destroying things. And a decade ago (1987) it was in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart that I saw the widest range of Lewises I’ve yet experienced. Munich . . . Stuttgart . . . not London?
Well, the final essay in the book Paul Edwards has now edited is called “Post-War Establishment Distaste for Wyndham Lewis: Some Origins.” And Andrew Brighton, whose qualifications aren’t negligible, commences by asking, “Why have none of the major institutions of the visual arts in Britain mounted a Lewis retrospective since his death in 1957? Neither the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery nor the Royal Academy of Art have given Lewis’s work the showing given to his contemporaries of arguably lesser historical importance.” (169)
They’ve “found the prospect distasteful,” and, Brighton adds, “The word ‘taste’ usefully represents British establishment culture as a reified stew of aesthetic and ethical habits rather than supposing a theorised and principled orthodoxy” (170). Thus, “The way his pictures look and what the man, the painting and the writings are thought to connote are found deeply unsympathetic” (170). Dear, dear. For what Lewis presupposed all his life, it turns out, was what he’d been taught, 1898–1901, at London’s Slade School of Art, namely “visio-tactile common sense” (173). The tactile? That’s present in his hard bounding lines, the kind William Blake extolled. For you don’t see hard edges in the physical world; your hand finds them. Let a painter abandon the tactile, as did, say, Kasimir Malevich, and we’re left with unbounded color, which can creep and blur. Malevich’s areas of color “are best read as having no perspective and no space into which we could imaginatively enter” (174).
But though Lewis’s paintings presuppose a physical world, it’s not one that makes us feel cozy because we all share it. The “resolutely hard character of his forms” refuses benign rhythms; his “dead-pan application of paint” denies what “painterly brush-marks” imply, “the conceptless expression of some shared inner being” (177). Eyes used to happy endings perceive [End Page 225] “no suggestion that aesthetic pleasure embodies some universal human good in which we are all at one.” In short—this is Brighton’s final clause—Lewis “failed to be the sympathetic mediocrity England requires of its artists” (180).
Those are strong words from the current head of “Adult Visitor Programmes at the Tate Gallery.” They’re fully borne out by A Battery Shelled (1919), one of the war paintings I remember vividly from Stuttgart. It’s of billboard scale, six feet high by ten feet long, and over at the left are three naturalistic-looking officers, one, with a sensitive face, even fondling a pipe. Toward the center, busy with urgent tasks, are the battery-men being shelled; they are small, and remote, and reduced to stick-figure abstractions, which is what you’d expect the army to reduce them to. And the smoke overhead is wonderfully abstract: not puffs, no, assemblages of cylinders and cones. The real people detached, one of them not even looking; the suffering men stick figures, their world quasicubist: yes, that manifests no “sympathetic mediocrity.”
Note, moreover, that it’s ten feet long. No collector has wall space for a thing that size; it’s in the Imperial War Museum, London. True, in the 1960s artists would begin to specialize in works only museums could accommodate. (Think of Rauschenberg’s Goat; who...