Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vortex of Villainy

One of the truly loathsome people of modern art history, Wyndham Lewis combined a taste for fascism with strident anti-Semitism and homophobia. While the Futurists in Italy made a god of technology and called for that savage god to wage war, Lewis, born November 18, 1882, took elements of the modernist movements in literature and art to create the movement his friend Ezra Pound dubbed Vorticism. In Lewis’ fittingly sinister Self-Portrait from 1921 (above), we see the harsh lines and jagged detail that characterized Vorticism, which glorified the machine even after the mechanized madness of World War I.

Like many of the Italian Futurists, Lewis maintained an amazing ability to hold onto his beliefs even after witnessing warfare and the death of friends firsthand. Lewis served in World War I for England and became an official war artist, painting works such as A Battery Shelled (above, from 1919). Ironically, the Vorticist magazine in which Lewis published his manifesto was titled BLAST. You may be able to chalk up the headlong rush to war to youthful ignorance (ala, Rupert Brooke), but the capacity of veterans such as Lewis to hold onto their twisted vision remains befuddling, and not only altered their lives but helped set the stage for Adolf Hitler and World War II.

In 1931, Lewis published a book titled simply Hitler, in which he praised the future dictator as a “man of peace.” When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Lewis’ reputation in England sank even further. When he wasn’t praising fascist mass murderers, Lewis wrote novels satirizing Jews and homosexuals. After seeing firsthand the treatment of Jews in Hitler’s Germany in 1937, Lewis slowly realized his mistake, revoking his previous praise for Hitler in a 1939 book titled The Hitler Cult. Lewis even tried to redact his anti-Semitism, publishing a book titled The Jews, Are They Human?, which has to be the worst apologetic title ever. Only close friends such as Ezra Pound (painted by Lewis, above, in 1939) stuck by Lewis, which isn’t surprising considering Pound’s own anti-Semitism and coziness with Italian fascism during World War II. Lewis remains an enigmatic, puzzling, disturbing figure, proof that the destructive mania of the Futurists wasn’t solely an Italian phenomenon.

1 comment:

Chephren said...

Although the man was far from pleasant, you're not entirely fair to Lewis here.

For starters, I don't think the Vorticists did glorify technology as such. Their published material suggests a decided ambivalence about the very technological future they predict.

Nor do I think your interpretation of his self-portrait is correct. I read it, rather, along with his writings on Tyros and disdain for jazz, as an assault on the Roaring Twenties, a statement that it's not all wonderful, to be read in the same context as poets like Sassoon - people who came back from the War and were exceedingly angry about it.

I'm not sure you could ever describe Lewis as a fascist as such - the Vorticist Manifesto presents a man of radical individualist sympathies, and while he did write for Moseley's magazine and write hsi first book on Hitler, I don't think these necessarily indicate either his pre-war views, or even a necessary satisfaction with fascism even in the early-to-mid 1930s.

I'm also not sure his reputation did sink in 1933 for finding Hitler favourable. In the era of appeasement and the Chamberlain ministry, this wasn't so unpopular a sentiment - people like Churchill were widely regarded as warmongers.

His novels chiefly satirise the art establishment and their affectations - in particular the Bloomsbury Group.

Lewis actually went to Germany, as I recall, in 1938, and came back and wrote "The Hitler Cult" fairly quickly - a year isn't a long time to turn a book around (as an aside, the title is eerily close to the title of one of the most influential modern histories of the Nazi State, Kershaw's "The Hitler Myth").

As for "The Jews, Are They Human?", the book was adapting the title of a book at the time, entitled "The English, Are They Human?" (Lewis had form on this - his book "The Doom of Youth" was pulped because of the similarity of title to Alec Waugh's book, "The Loom of Youth").