The National Portrait Gallery is currently staging a superb exhibition of portraits by Wyndham Lewis. The best of this complicated man went into his portraits, and seeing the T.S.Eliot picture in the actual paint is a joy indeed. Its face a mask that both conceals and reveals, and the indeterminate shapes behind the chair speak darkly of the unconscious from which Eliot drew his poetry. Once again one marvels at how the Royal Academy could possibly have refused it in 1938. Could there possibly have been a better painting in their summer exhibition?
In conjunction with the exhibition, the NPG organised a study day – Vorticism vs Bloomsbury, a combative title that Lewis would have appreciated. Nobody was fonder of a fight.
We gathered in the rather fine Ondaatje Theatre at the NPG. There was a good turnout; as we queued I looked at my fellow-participants and tried to label them according to dress code – Vorticist or Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury won easily.
Bloomsbury won out in lecture time, too.
Richard Cork began the proceedings. He’s a terrific speaker, and exuded enthusiasm for both camps. He made an excellent case for Vanessa Bell’s stripped-down paintings, and for Duncan Grant’s pre-war abstraction, as well as for the wild Vorticist masterpieces, so many of which are lost. He’s the best kind of art lecturer – he makes you want to see more paintings. Even more than that he made one long to venture down the Lewis-decorated stairs to Madame Strindberg’s Cave of the Golden Calf. Of which nothing now remains.
The next speaker, Frances Spalding, was from the Bloomsbury camp. She considered the Fry/Lewis relationship, in a way that was generous to both sides (She refrained from deciding the rights and wrongs of their epic row, when Lewis accused the Omega workshop of cheating him over the Ideal Home exhibition.) Frances Spalding had good things to say about the conflict between portrait painting (essentially representational) and high modernism (essentially formal, non-representational) and gave a lucid account of Lewis’s Edith Sitwell portrait.
Next, though, came Simon Watney, in his youth a friend of Duncan Grant, and very pro-Bloomsbury. He started with the excellent point that seeing art history as movements and –isms often misses what is most important, and made a plea for both Vorticist and Bloomsbury paintings to be seen without preconception or prejudice. He couldn’t quite hide his distaste for much of Lewis’s work, however, and the talk ended with a slide show of charming Bloomsbury artefacts. A good lecture, even though I disagreed with it.
(Charm – that’s the problem for me. The Bloomsburies had masses and appreciated each other’s. Lewis had none, and I think his charmlessness is what I like best about him. He lived not among prettily decorated niceness, but mostly in rented shilling-in-the-slot-for-the gas grimness, churning out books that few wanted to read and paintings that many found abominable. Good for him.)
The lunch break was an opportunity to see the exhibition. The lady collecting tickets was delighted by the number of visitors to what she called “the intelligent part” of the gallery, and the three rooms were pleasantly full. The exhibition was excellently laid out, with many portraits surrounded by Lewis’s drawings of the same subject, so that one got an inkling of his process of thinking through the process of portrait-making.
The first image that greets the visitor is the self-portrait as a Tyro, a wonderfully uncompromising and unsettling picture. I should have liked to see more tyros.
There were books and magazines, too. Blast in all its shocking pinkness, the big deluxe first edition of The Apes of God, and that dreadful Hitler book (When the book was displayed in Zwemmer’s window, an assistant had to pop out regularly to wipe off the slobber where dissenting citizens had spat at it.)
After lunch, Paul Edwards, curator of the exhibition, came on to make the case for Lewis. I was a bit disappointed, maybe because this was very much Lewis for beginners. He made a good case for Lewis’s multiplicity and ability to surprise, but it was all a bit general, and toned down. More quotation from the man himself would have communicated more of his spirit – and why he made so many enemies.
The last speaker was Bloomsbury at its most utter. Christopher Reed celebrated American collectors of Bloomsbury art (What had this to do with the exhibition we were discussing, or other themes of the day?) He was quite engaging, and described the sort of people who collected Omega fabrics or pictures by Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant. At first a particular sort of Anglophile, with a penchant for rural tweeness, it would seem. Then feminists and gays who saw their own lifestyle choices reflected in the unorthodox passions of Bloomsbury. (So they wanted art that held up a flattering mirror to themselves, and charming, urbane Bloomsbury provided it. No, you could see why they wouldn’t have wanted a Tyro on their wall…)
So – two talks even-handed, one pro-Lewis and two pro-Bloomsbury. Even fifty years after his death Lewis is still being sidelined by those who prefer their art to be a little less serious, a little more lovely…
Question time redressed the balance a bit. Some tough questions from Lewisites put the Bloomsburyites on the defensive. Paul Edwards allowed himself a small complaint, that Lewis was quite important and interesting enough to have a study day to himself, without the Bloomsburyites coming in and getting more attention to themselves.
I enjoyed the day, and learnt quite a lot, one way and another, but I too would much have preferred a day entirely devoted to the complexities and contradictions of Lewis – often a horrible man, and sometimes a bad one, but quite extraordinary. A few years ago, I was among those who dismissed him as just another reactionary modernist. Looking at what he wrote during the war years has given me a new respect for him, and the NPG exhibition has convinced me that whatever else he was, he was an astonishing portraitist.