Exhibition Review: Wyndham Lewis – Life, Art, War

Vorticism is sometimes seen as Britain’s only avant-garde art movement. It was founded in 1914 by Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957), who is now the subject of a sizeable retrospective at the Imperial War Museum North in Salford Quays, on until the end of the year.

The First World War inevitably limited the spread and impact of Vorticism, and Lewis himself fought in an artillery regiment before becoming an official war artist. After the war he produced a variety of art works, together with a series of books (novels, criticism, polemics), most long out of print. He seems to have been a contrarian with a rather prickly personality, and he disliked privileged cliques such as the Bloomsbury Set. He was vehemently against Bolshevism, and his experiences in WW1 made him very much opposed to war. Unfortunately, these considerations led him to some sympathies for Nazi Germany and to describing Hitler as ‘a man of peace’. He changed his mind on these matters after visiting Germany in 1937, but by that time he had already made himself rather unpopular in many cultural circles.

Many of Lewis’s paintings from WW1, however, contain significant and perceptive comments on the fighting. Drawings from 1918 show violence and death, with soldiers reduced to the status of machines. His 1919 picture ‘A Battery Shelled’ is an impressive work which depicts dehumanised figures running for cover as the shells rain down, while three more realistically-depicted men watch or simply ignore what is going on. This was considered too controversial to be an appropriate memorial painting, and it was passed from the Imperial War Museum to the Tate.

‘The Surrender of Barcelona’ (1936) refers to the city being captured by Spanish forces in the fifteenth century, but surely relates to the Spanish Civil War as well. ‘Inferno’, dating from 1937, is a pessimistic presentation of corpses and the flames of hell, as Lewis combines his hatred of war with an expectation that another large conflagration is approaching.

The IWM publicity describes Lewis as ‘Britain’s original rebel artist’, and he did set up the short-lived Rebel Art Centre. Despite his  – to say the least – dubious political views, many of his paintings undermine the role of official war artist and reveal both the boredom and the horror of war.           


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