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  • The Popular Culture of Kermesse: Lewis, Painting, and Performance, 1912–13
  • Lisa Tickner (bio)

The artist of the modern movement is a savage . . . this enormous, jangling, journalistic, fairy desert of modern life serves him as Nature did more technically primitive man.

—Wyndham Lewis, Blast 1

Mr. Bell assures us that Mr. Wyndham Lewis’s art is practically independent of “association or suggestion.” Obviously if this means anything it is that this gifted painter’s art means nothing. Humanly speaking it is impossible for a man to picture things that are associated with nothing, suggested by nothing, and which suggest nothing.

—C. H. Collins Baker, “Post-Impressionist Prefaces,” Saturday Review 9 November 1912

Prologue: Painting and Performance

Among those blessed in Blast were George Robey, Shirley Kellogg, Harry Weldon, George Mozart, and Gaby (Deslys). 1 Wyndham Lewis is nevertheless not a painter we associate with the music hall (like Walter Sickert or Spencer Gore). If an affection for certain kinds of popular culture (cabaret, revue, boxing, early Chaplin films) parallels the interests of cubists and Futurists and sits well with the polemics of Blast, it seems to have little to do with the art: with Kermesse, for instance, considered one of the first cubist paintings in England and “a landmark in the development of modernist painting in Britain.” 2 I want to argue on the contrary that Kermesse and its studies were richly suggestive and their associations locatable, and that the artist of the modern movement—though he might [End Page 67] see himself as a primitive mercenary in the iron jungle of the modern city—was also an armchair flâneur at the Alhambra who riffled through the Tatler at the breakfast table. This “enormous, jangling, journalistic, fairy desert of modern life” was the social and discursive space of popular entertainment—“of music halls and motor-buses and women’s legs in tights and newspapers and electric sky-signs spelling out words letter by letter”—rather than the direct expression of the industrialized modernity that underpinned it. 3

Lewis dated his maturity as a painter to 1912, to the year of Kermesse and its studies, the Timon series, and paintings exhibited at the second Post-Impressionist exhibition, including Creation and Mother and Child. 4 “Kermesse” is the term for a peasant fair or carnival in the Low Countries, one characterized by boisterous merry-making. 5 Kermesse was important to him: it was very large (nearly nine foot square), it was several times repainted and exhibited to some réclame, and Lewis himself at a moment of sober stocktaking considered it the touchstone of his prewar achievement. 6 It is probably the major loss among his early paintings and Lewis would not have balked at its landmark status. But it was more than a staging-post en route to abstraction. It was also “of” something, something that resides not in “what it depicts or resembles” but in what it is “causally related to or determined by”; its imagery and modernist handling served Lewis’s private purposes as well as his professional ambitions. 7 More generally, the case of Lewis invites us to reconsider the tangled relations between popular culture and the prewar avant-gardes. These relations are usually conceived in one-way terms as a popular response to the avant-garde (where outrage or satire is the sine qua non of radical status), or an avant-garde address to the popular (where strategic raids on mass culture secure the vigor and modernity of a new cultural elite). But something more complicated seems to have gone on, something that partially undermined the high/low divide and involved the new fashionability both of popular forms like music-hall revue and of marginal forms like avant-garde art. Ragtime, Post-Impressionism, Futurism, and the tango craze excited a broad slice of the social spectrum, jostled for space in the newspapers with suffragette militancy and industrial unrest, and were often discussed in reciprocal terms (“Futurist politics,” “ragtime painting,” “anarchy in high art”). Social spaces (the salon, the gallery, the music hall, the studio, the bar), agents and networks of relations (between colleagues, rivals, patrons, critics, curators, dealers), formal and informal institutions and events (the Slade...

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