Wyndham Lewis's Myth of Modernity: Image and Text


Chris Lewis, Doctoral student, Bath Spa University

15 February 2016


Although he has become something of a sidelined figure in Anglo-American modernism today, in around 1913-1915 Wyndham Lewis was regarded as the most advanced abstract painter in Britain and an accomplished writer of fiction and criticism (described by TS Eliot in later life as ‘the greatest prose master of style of my generation’). In this talk Mr C Lewis traced the aesthetic and conceptual developments which took place in Wyndham Lewis’s paintings and writings over the key five year period from 1909 (when Lewis left Paris to settle in London) to the official launch of the Vorticist movement with the publication of BLAST in early July 1914 (Fig.1). The focus here was particularly on Lewis’s engagement with the ‘primitivist’ aesthetics of his contemporaries and the theoretic opposition he derived from the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, between ‘mythic’ and ‘modern’ modes of being.

Fig.1 – Front cover of BLAST, published July 1914

In The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Nietzsche had modelled his critique of rationality on a conceptual opposition between the two worldviews designated by the Greek terms mythos and logos, writing:

The tremendous historical need of our unsatisfied historical culture, … the consuming desire for knowledge – what does all this point to, if not to the loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home?

Comparing the precarious situation of art in the modern world with the ‘original’ mythic idyll in which art had blossomed, Nietzsche provided the first generation of modernist innovators with a transformative purpose. Nietzsche must be counted in this way as an important source of modernist primitivism, inspiring a generation to look for signs of cultural renewal in humankind’s ‘savage’ past, and particularly the revived forms of myth and ritual.

In the Vorticist Manifesto Lewis situated the movement in relation to Nietzsche’s ‘dialectic’ in a way that is important to observe. Writing that the Vorticists were ‘Primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World’, Lewis conceptually positioned the movement at the confluence of the ‘mythic’ and ‘modern’ worlds, figuratively basking in the friction given off by the collision of these opposed principles. Central to Lewis’s art and thought at this time was the dualistic strategy he conceived to ‘discharge [himself] on both sides’ of a theoretical tension between opposed principles, and the ‘mercenary’ status which he gave himself and the Vorticist movement is an important emblem of this strategy.

With this theoretic background clarified, the speaker demonstrated, with the support of a range of Lewis’s visual and literary works, how the aesthetic style of Lewis’s paintings changed in line with his developing thought over the five-year period in question. Initially, he indicated how receptive Lewis’s sketches and drawings between 1909 and 1912 were to new ideas and aesthetic techniques on the continent, exploring aesthetic techniques being pioneered by figures as stylistically diverse as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, as well making certain attempts to translate the ‘vitalist’ evolutionary philosophy of Henri Bergson into a visual aesthetic.

Fig.2 – Wyndham Lewis, Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair (1911)

During this highly receptive period of Lewis’s art we can note a marked shift in certain works towards a technique derived from Cubism but innovated in line with Lewis’s own interests and aspirations. The key characteristics of the cubist painter, as Christopher Butler clarifies in Early Modernism (1994), is that he ‘no longer respects the identities of the separate objects before which he stands, but “materializes” the space between’. In Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair (1911, Fig.2), however, no attempt has been made to invade the spatial integrity of the figure and dispense with the third-dimension, as would be proper to a work of analytic cubism. Rather, the angular planes and mechanical divisions between surfaces, which are so typical of Cubist aesthetic technique, are being used to show the human body, in every way real and accurate, as an assemblage of mechanical parts. Paul Edwards has described this as one of Lewis’s ‘…most characteristic artistic strategies: producing figures we respond to as though they were “living” even though essential attributes of life have been denied them’.

Fig.3 – Wyndham Lewis, The Vorticist (1912)

Lewis’s contemporary writings furnish the best explanation of his strategies in painting at this time. In the essay Inferior Religions (1917) Lewis explained that his early fictions had an anthropological rationale, an idea which has clear relevance to Smiling Woman. Lewis described the characters in his short stories as ‘carefully selected specimens of religious fanaticism… congealed and frozen into logic’. This attempt to subject the human ‘spirit’ to a process of rational petrification in the early Wild Body stories correlates quite closely with the rough treatment of the human form which we can observe in his visual works of the period.

Fig.4 – Wyndham Lewis, Timon of Athens (1913)

In The Vorticist (1912, Fig.3) the conceptual dualism which underlies Lewis’s developing aesthetic comes into full view, as the figure is figuratively poised in a tug of war between subject and object, or spirit and matter. In BLAST Lewis expressed the view that ‘Dehumanisation is the chief diagnostic of the modern world’, and in his visual works from The Vorticist on to the mature Vorticist abstractions of 1913-15 like Timon of Athens (1913, Fig.4) we can see how this idea was invested in aesthetic form. The process of dehumanisation is shown here at a stage near completion, with all indications of organic human form being replaced by an assemblage of material signifiers. The general implication in Lewis’s developing visual aesthetic is that modernity is the herald of a more collective and automatic form of humanity than ever previously existed. These paintings denote the inorganic takeover of the organic realm, the modern material world figuratively consuming the human subject.

While Lewis’s engagement with the human condition in ‘modernity’ led him to develop a unique pathway into abstraction in his paintings, he was also embarking on a remarkable experimental literary project: the first Expressionist play to be written in Britain (perhaps even in the English language), Enemy of the Stars, which was published in BLAST in 1914. In later life Lewis wrote that his writings emerged originally as ‘…the discarded matter collected… in the back of my mind… as I was painting’, and in Enemy of the Stars we may have the clearest example of how this process actually occurred. All the theoretical tensions that can be identified in Lewis’s paintings emerge in some form in the complex symbolic narrative of Enemy of the Stars, but of most relevance here is the way in which Lewis invested the Nietzschean dialectic of ‘mythic’ and ‘modern’ worldviews in his Vorticist play.

Fig.5 – Colin Edwards playing Arghol in the 2014 Bath BROD Productions film of Enemy of the Stars (adapted and directed by Chris Lewis and Colin Edwards)

In July 2014 a new version of Lewis’s original play-text – adapted and directed by Mr C Lewis and Colin Edwards – was performed to the public on three occasions, and using extracts from the BROD Productions film of this, Mr C Lewis indicated the various ways in which the text vacillates between the ‘mythic’ and the ‘modern’ scenes of art. On the one hand, Arghol, the ‘condemned protagonist’ of the play (played by Colin Edwards in the 2014 production Fig.5), is cast as the victim in the grim narrative of ritual sacrifice, the work thereby appealing to the savage and mythic ‘origin’ of art as the foundation of its narrative structure. On the other hand, however, the text makes various efforts to situate this ‘altar’ in the material context of the modern theatre, with an ‘advertisement’ for the play and a mention of its ‘enormous… box office receipts’ finding their way into the narrative action taking place on the stage.

The juxtaposition of the two ‘scenes’ of art – the mythic altar and the modern stage – allows Wyndham Lewis to interrogate the two sides of Nietzsche’s dialectical critique of modernity. Arghol thus serves as a caricature of both Nietzsche and the modernist artist as they search for a lost ‘mythical home’ in the modern world. The play as a whole serves to highlight the sense in which the only ‘origin’ attainable in the modern world is a corrupted version reconstituted out of modern anthropological knowledge.

While the evolution of his Vorticist paintings indicates how Lewis was developing beyond the technical procedures of his contemporaries an abstract style all of his own making, Enemy of the Stars conveys the sense in which Lewis was also moving intellectually beyond the parameters of the Nietzschean and Bergsonian ideas upon which his early works depend, towards the critical and philosophical interrogation of ‘modern’ ideas which epitomises his key writings of the 1920s. Mr C Lewis highlighted this as the central point of his talk and concluded by suggesting that Lewis’s cultural importance lies in the two-faced role he performed in the avant-garde. On the one hand he was a key participator in the pre-war European avant-garde (and the instigator of the only significant British contribution to this), and on the other hand he was a profoundly intelligent critic of the ideas and energies which were subtly motivating the development of modern art.  

[The 2014 BROD Productions film of Enemy of the Stars is available to watch free online at https://vimeo.com/129298317. Alternatively, DVDs can be purchased for £5 from Ebay: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Enemy-of-the-Stars-DVD-Blu-Ray-of-the-2014-Bath-Spa-Prod-BROD-Productions-/321999931617.]

Chris Lewis