Wyndham Lewis Energises London's National Portrait Gallery

By Dawn Marshallsay Published: 04 July 2008

Photo of a painting of a man dressed in a suit and sitting in an armchair

T.S. Eliot (1938), Durban Municipal Art Gallery. © The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Exhibition Preview - Wyndham Lewis Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery until October 19 2008.

The first exhibition to focus on portraits by the outspoken artist and writer, Wyndham Lewis, presents a unique visual record of some of the most important cultural figures of the early 20th century, including bold portraits of poets T.S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell.

Broadly chronologically, these 58 paintings and drawings, iconic portraits and literary works take you on a journey through the mind of Lewis and his famous acquaintances.

As bold as the colours and shapes in his paintings, Lewis was known for his strong views, complex politics and volatile friendships. Art may seem an indirect method of delivering opinions, but Lewis’ writing certainly made the underlying message of his paintings clear.

Photo of a painting of a man dressed in black grinning menacingly against a yellow background

Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1920 – 1), Ferens Art Gallery, Hull City Museums and Art Gallery. © The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Responding to post-war society, Lewis introduced ‘Tyros’ into his writing and painting; fictional characters invented by the artist, who grinned falsely and menacingly in face of grief. He saw the combination of British humour and the ‘stiff upper lip’ as an immature coping strategy.

Painting himself as such a creature in ‘Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro’ (1920-1) was just one of the painter’s many guises. Capable of seemingly endless reinventions of his public image, Lewis used self-portraits as an opportunity to project a constructed persona, rather than reveal his true self.

Lewis was also highly critical of the ‘apes’ who sat for him in the 1920s, (notably members of the Bloomsbury Group) whom he perceived as wealthy amateurs competing with ‘real’ artists, such as himself.

But dependence on the generosity of these wealthy ‘apes’ ensured his portraits were not so harsh as his writing. Even so, Lewis alienated many friends with unsparing criticism of their work.

Photo of a painting of a woman sitting in an armchair near her books

Edith Sitwell (1923-35), presented by Sir Edward Bennington-Behrens 1943 © The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust, Photo © Tate, London 2008

Thinking Bloomsbury’s dominance of the art world after WWI was overshadowing the modernist arts, Lewis founded the Vorticist movement, named after Ezra Pound’s poetic description of the vortex as “the point of maximum energy”.

Rooted in Cubism and Futurism, Vorticism uses bright blocks of colour and heavy architectural lines. This was the style that brought Lewis to fame, and his portraits leave the gallery walls vibrating with energy.

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