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Wyndham Lewis developed a distinctive style - an abstract blend of influential artistic styles from the early 1900s - that has recently found favour with designers who want something edgier than the current revival in 1960s psychedelia, says Dominic Lutyens
Wyndham Lewis, the anarchic painter, illustrator, critic and novelist, is typical of the often esoteric and unfashionable subjects of exhibitions at Olympia Fine Art & Antiques Fair.
The exhibition showcases 90 works on paper, from book covers to illustrations for his polemical publications, The Enemy and Blast, as well as his oil paintings, including his portraits of Edith Sitwell and TS Eliot.
'You rarely see Lewis's work in exhibitions, but I kept stumbling across it in private collections,' says curator Angus Stewart. 'I became very curious about him, and this inspired me to put on this show.' This exhibition marks a wider resurgence of interest in Lewis: London's Courtauld Institute of Art recently staged a show of his work, while Tate Publishing just produced a monograph on Lewis by Richard Humphreys.
Lewis (1882-1957) is known for founding the Vorticist movement in 1914, after a fracas with Roger Fry, with whom he had worked at the Omega Workshops. Lewis conceived Vorticism as a British rival to Cubism, Expressionism and Italian Futurism, yet it was influenced by all three. His description is paradoxical: 'At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at the point of concentration, is The Vorticist.' Cultural figures such as Henri Gaudier-Breska, William Roberts, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Eliot, Ezra Pound and TE Hulme were soon sucked into the rebellion.
Hulme believed - in what amounted to a description of Vorticism - that art should be 'angular... [with] the presentation of the human body... often entirely non-vital and distorted to fit into stiff lines and cubical shapes'.
It's impossible to separate Lewis's wayward personality and life from his jagged, hyperactive aesthetic. Born in Canada to an American father and British mother, he was expelled from the Rugby public school and then later asked to leave the Slade. Fearlessly confrontational, his novel, The Apes of God, satirised the Sitwells, lambasting them as intellectual posers. Unfaithful to his wife, Anne Hoskins, he bedded a string of women, including Nancy Cunard and sired at least four children, whom he callously gave away. His politics were abhorrent, if inconsistent. He wrote a book defending Hitler, then another extolling Jews. And although he went blind in later life, he carried on writing and painting.
His portfolio of drawings intended as illustrations for Shakespeare's play, Timon of Athens (1912), in which faces and bodies had the crudely planar quality of African masks, show the style of his work before Vorticism. Lewis also depicted Timon as a puppet, kickstarting a syndrome that saw him frequently, and misanthropically, portray people (whom he saw as scarcely more intelligent than animals) as automata.
By 1913, Lewis's work had become increasingly abstract, presaging the anti-naturalist, non-narrative style of Vorticism. A seminal influence on this was Italian Futurism - exhibited in London in 1912. The experimental typography of Blast, two issues of which were published, in 1914 and 1915, epitomised this. Black poster lettering dominated the cover, with (sans-serif) grotesque type inside, some of it enlarged to emphasise certain words. The clean-lined sans-serif type broadcast Blast's Modernist sympathies. While most British typography then was politely ordered, Blast's was asymmetric and seemingly random, mimicking crude popular advertisements and anticipating Dada graphics. In Blast, the writing and art cross-pollinated to such a degree that at times they could be equally abstract, becoming almost incomprehensible.
After World War I - which Lewis fought in, before becoming a war artist in Canada - Vorticism fizzled out, and Lewis returned to figuration and semi-abstraction.
But later generations of illustrators started to take an interest in his earlier work. In the 1970s and 1980s illustrators such as Chris Brown and Brian Grimwood were greatly influenced by the Vorticist/Cubist era. 'As a student, my style was Vorticist, fractured,' says Brown. 'In the 1980s, I self-consciously criss-crossed styles - Russian Constructivism, Cubism...' explains Grimwood. 'Making historical references was fashionable. Malcolm McLaren and [David] Bowie did it big time, experimenting with things like opera.'
Today, the early Modernist graphics used by the band Franz Ferdinand suggest that spiky, hard-edged Cubist-era graphics - last seen in the 1980s - are back. Part of the current, snowballing 1980s revival, they perhaps represent the start of a backlash against the current mania among many illustrators for sinuous, languid 1960s psychedelia.
According to Grimwood, it's not Lewis's aesthetic, but his method of production that's influencing today's illustrators. 'In the 1990s, illustrators merely executed other people's concepts using computers. Now, with art directors appreciating drawing again, we are using our brains more. Like Lewis, we are making and putting out our own work.'
Brown, a tutor in graphic arts at John Moores University, Liverpool, says, 'Unless you open students' eyes to neglected styles, they look to their peers for inspiration, not to the historical roots of illustration. There again, illustrators are like blotting paper. They soak up lots of influences, and Lewis - a very interesting artist - might turn out to be one of them.'
Wyndham Lewis runs from 1-6 March at the Olympia Fine Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia Exhibition Centre, Hammersmith Road, London W14. Tel: 0870 126 1725
Copyright: Centaur Communications Ltd. and licensors
Lutyens, Dominic. "PROFILE - WYNDHAM LEWIS: EYE OF THE STORM." Design Week (2005): 14. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 Mar. 2010.
Gale Document Number:A129345756