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Wyndham Lewis: Novels & Biography

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

In this lesson we'll explore the art of Wyndham Lewis. We'll consider his life, work, and the philosophical and artistic context in which he was writing.

Introduction

Writer, painter, and critic, Wyndham Lewis is almost as famous for his tendency to offend as he is for his innovative art. In fact, few artists and critics escaped the harsh criticism that Lewis was eager to offer, a reality that had a large impact on the success of his career. Artists that were chastised by Lewis include some of the most central figures in the art of the period, including writers such as Virginia Woolf. Despite this, he remains an important and controversial figure for both his written and his visual art, as well as his critical commentary.

Life

Lewis lived from 1882 to 1957. Growing up in England, he began writing and creating visual art at a young age, and by his 20s, he was developing a unique approach to painting and drawing. In 1914, Lewis published the first of two editions of an art magazine named Blast. The publication was inspired by a style of art titled vorticism, which was an abstract movement that attempted to depict the dynamic, changing world in the early 20th century. Vorticism frequently employed geometric shapes that reflected the chaotic feelings and ideas with which artists like Lewis were concerned.

The bold, cynical posture of Lewis in this photograph offers some insight into his tendency to be offensive.
Lewis

After attaining recognition as a painter and writer, Lewis fought in World War I, an experience that had a deep impact on his political and artistic opinions. After serving in the war, Lewis was awarded a commission to be a war artist, a position in which he produced many memorable drawings and paintings of the war. After returning to civilian life, Lewis continued to produce both written and visual art, although the vorticism movement was coming to an end.

During the 1920s, Lewis mainly produced written works, many of which were met with positive yet cautious reviews. During the 1930s, Lewis returned to visual art and produced many of the paintings for which he is most famous. However, Lewis's blunt personality and contrarian tendencies plagued him. Of particular importance was his troublesome treatment of fascism, including Hitler, which caused many artists to sever their friendship and support of Lewis. Lewis would continue to produce art in multiple mediums until the growth of a tumor that caused him to be completely blind in 1951, although he continued to write and publish until the remaining years of his life before his death in 1957.

Context

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century witnessed tremendous philosophical, scientific, and cultural changes. During this time, philosophers and scientists produced ideas and theories that challenged traditional notions of reality and truth. Additionally, events such as WWI and new and revolutionary technology further altered the experiences of those living around this time. Responding to these changes, artists were inspired to develop a new type of art that accounted for the complexity of life and thought in the early 1900s. These artists formed what is called the modernist movement. Convinced that art needs to account for the fragmented and fluid nature of truth, modernists created art that broke from traditional artistic conventions and tended to be abstract.

The collection of ideas and essays in this journal is considered an important turning point for modernist art.
Blast

Many of the issues that were being explored in modernist art are at the heart of Lewis's work. Lewis's vorticism, for example, reflects both the philosophical development and the technological innovations of the period. Much of Lewis's early visual work featured abstract, geometric shapes, for example, qualities which were common to modernist art. His writings were similarly modernist in that they tended to avoid realism, often containing unexpected images that veered into the deeply symbolic. In addition to his own artistic work, Lewis was important for his essays and for collecting the work of other artists, particularly in Blast, which contained Lewis's critical writings as well as the work of other popular and influential artists.

Work

Lewis wrote and published shorter works and then wrote Tarr, one of his most important novels, from 1909 to 1911. It was published serially before the full-length American version was published in 1918. The novel takes place in Paris and follows two characters named Tarr and Kreisler. Both characters are artists and the novel follows their successes and failures in art, their careers, and their relationships. The novel certainly reflects the modernist tradition with its dark humor, chaotic images, and abstract language, and many consider the work a defining novel of the early 20th century.

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