Wyndham Lewis: Portraits

Wednesday 15 October 2008

It’s just about to close, so I finally got around to seeing the “Wyndham Lewis: Portraits” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. A quick walk through the permanent collection to find the show reminded me why I usually avoid the Gallery: wall after wall of British slebs-du-jour (wow, a photo of Kate Moss!) depicted in portraits alternately fussy and simplistic. The relative sizes of the print on the title cards gives away that the subject is more important than the artist.
In the case of Lewis, we have the unusual situation of artist and sitter frequently being equals. Fortunately, a survey of Lewis’ art restricted to portriature still includes many of his greatest paintings and drawings, and they’re well served by this exhibition. The punter is greeted at the entrance by the striking self-portrait Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, confronting the viewer in his frequently adopted persona of the antagonist, the provocateur, the Enemy. It looks cubist at first glance, but no cubist of the time would have accepted it. The stark colouring, aggressive composition, and grotesque characterisation stamp it with Lewis’ unique style of Vorticism.
Laura Cummings’ review of the show concludes, “No matter how much one admires these portraits, they don’t make one curious about the sitters so much as Lewis himself.” Lewis shunned the contemporary enthusiasm for psychoanalysis; knowing that art had no ‘inside’, he wrote “the lines and masses of a statue are its soul”. He believed in character, not personality. Examining prehistoric cave paintings in the south of France, he observed that “the artist goes back to the fish.”
Lewis’ portraits go back at least as far as Heraclitus’ statement that character is fate. His sitters wear the masks they have chosen to present to the public, and bear the burdens the masks impose upon them. Ezra Pound (above) presents himself as the still point at the centre of a cultural whirlwind; the background accoutrements, presented as conventially as the symbolic props that have littered portraits since the Renaissance to date, depict a confluence of historical forces that would soon swallow him up. More telling is the portrait of T.S. Eliot, his cultivated image of the anonymous, respectable bank clerk hemmed in by the organic scrollwork that surrounds him.
The final room of the exhibition includes several excellent portraits of Lewis’ wife Gladys “Froanna” Hoskins, in particular the haunting Red Portrait. The scene of intimate domesticity becomes a forbidding icon; Lewis never painted another face so expressive and so insubstantial.
Equally talented as painter and as writer, Wyndham Lewis is still grievously underrated as either. Despite his numerous books referred to and displayed in the exhibition, the large gallery shop had only a small corner of one table devoted to Lewis. Besides the catalogue and a welcome CD of Lewis reading from his works, the only two books available was a collection of his poetry and plays, and an eight year-old edition of The Childermass, quite possibly his most difficult novel. Everything else is out of print.
(Incidentally, the colours in the photographs on the NPG website are pretty washed out compared to the originals.)