Wyndham Lewis and the Contrarian Passion to Agitate

Wyndham Lewis was an ambitious artist. After the first war, he wanted to become the Picasso of British art. But things didn’t work out that way. Instead, he is now mostly remembered for his annoying rants and Nazi sympathies. Nicht gut!

At the seame time, Lewis did interesting work. His portrait of TS Eliot is an example. Here it is

Image result for Wyndham Lewis TS Eliot

The painting was rejected by the Royal Academy from its annual show in 1938.

It was not the vaguely skin-crawling, anxious qualities that the Royal Academy objected to … It was the abstract bits in the background, pluming menacingly like the bomb smoke of experimental ideas.

It is interesting that Eliot is now revered despite his own early radicalism, while Lewis is not. Perhaps it is because Eliot evolved over time into something more intellectual and spiritual and therefore less immediately threatening. Lewis, like Ezra Pound, remained the passionate agitator.  Hemingway for example, described Lews as having the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist. Yikes!

Lewis himself argued that modernism had lost its way by neglecting the ideological context in which artists work. By ignoring it, he claimed, artists became tools of the ruling order (which he did not approve of).

Was he right? In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, James Joyce has his hero, Stephen Dedalus say

History is a nightmre from which I am trying to awake.

For Joyce no ideology provided a safe refuge for the individual. Only the individual himself or herself could rebel as an individual. I would argue tht this became conventional wisdom over time. Individuality became a treasured icon. To be nurtured and honored. To hell with society and its silly ways. And so, romantic sentiment filtered down to us that Shelley, Wordsworth and the rest of the gang would recognize.

I do not support the ideology that Lewis did. On the other hand, I do wonder whether the romantic Joycian pose — contra mundum! — has become a bit too comfortable. Meanwhile, society and politics tend to stagnate.

What do you think?

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