Sensational blast from the past

<i>Some Sort of Genius: a life of Wyndham Lewis</i> by Paul O'Keeffe (Jonathan Cape, &pound;25, 682pp); <i>Wyndham Lewis: painter and writer</i> by Paul (Yale University Press, &pound;40, 583pp)
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The Independent Culture

Artistic London is a-twitter these days. Journalists are scouring the fine-arts degree shows, eager to spot "the new sensation," to sniff out "the next Damien Hirsts and Tracy Emins," and to guess "What will Charles Saatchi be hanging on his walls this autumn?" Such reports confirm what many have long suspected: that the contemporary art world has capitulated to the culture of instant celebrity. Young students scarcely earn a BA before they discover they must take a crash course in public relations. One wonders, however, what their imaginary instructor would tell them to make of Wyndham Lewis, arguably the greatest British painter of the period 1900 to 1945. He could only be deemed an object lesson in failure. Never has a career been so spectacularly mismanaged.

Artistic London is a-twitter these days. Journalists are scouring the fine-arts degree shows, eager to spot "the new sensation," to sniff out "the next Damien Hirsts and Tracy Emins," and to guess "What will Charles Saatchi be hanging on his walls this autumn?" Such reports confirm what many have long suspected: that the contemporary art world has capitulated to the culture of instant celebrity. Young students scarcely earn a BA before they discover they must take a crash course in public relations. One wonders, however, what their imaginary instructor would tell them to make of Wyndham Lewis, arguably the greatest British painter of the period 1900 to 1945. He could only be deemed an object lesson in failure. Never has a career been so spectacularly mismanaged.

Born in 1882 in Canada, Lewis moved to England with his family aged six. His American father soon left, and Lewis's English mother started a laundering business in north London. Lewis was enrolled in the Slade School of Art at 16. Though he received a prestigious scholarship, he proved a troublesome student. In a gesture of deliberate defiance, he lit a cigarette just outside the office of the director, violating the strict regulations against smoking. He was promptly seized, flung through the school's double doors and told never to return. No degree show for him.

For the next 10 years Lewis lived a bohemian life supported by his mother, much of it abroad in Madrid, Munich and Paris. He published his first short story in 1908, and by 1910 seemed poised to become more a writer than a painter. But in 1911 he contributed to his first group exhibition. His works were immediately noticed by critics. His taut draughtsmanship was unmistakable, and already by 1912 he was producing works that drew on the latest idioms of modernism to create a personal style: strange automatons, their faces locked in rigid grimaces, stagger through disturbing fields of piercing arcs and angles.

It was a propitious moment. In 1910 Roger Fry had staged his famous Exhibition of Post-Impressionism, while in early 1912 the first Exhibition of Futurist Painting took London by storm, prompting unprecedented debate about contemporary art. Lewis admired the polemical onslaught which the Futurists had mounted and resolved to be every bit as truculent in shaping a movement of his own. It was his good fortune to team up with Ezra Pound, whose canny sense of polemics and publicity served Lewis well. In 1914, they launched Vorticism with Blast, an avant-garde journal bristling with pugnacious manifestos and typography.

Lewis was becoming a celebrity. His room decorations for the Countess Drogheda had been highly publicised, promising access to the rich and influential; he was even making "cubist" fans for a dinner held by Lady Cunard, the celebrated hostess. His serious work also received acclaim. Roger Fry and Clive Bell had singled out his paintings for praise, and the wealthy New York collector, John Quinn, was waiting in the wings.

Unbeknown to any of these, Lewis was leading a double life. Olive Johnson, a sometime "shopgirl" and "waitress", gave birth to his first illegitimate child in 1911 and his second in 1913. Both were entrusted to Lewis's ageing mother, with Lewis promising what he could from his erratic earnings. In 1919 and 1920, he produced two more illegitimate children, duly sent off to a "Home for the Infants and Children of Gentlepeople", with Lewis undertaking to pay.

To conceal his private life, Lewis developed an elaborate system of rotating flats and studios. Typically he rented a single furnished room as his private abode; a second that functioned as a studio for painting; and a third or even fourth to store books or host social occasions. A tenancy rarely lasted more than a few months. Chronically behind on his rent and beleaguered by creditors, Lewis fled from flat to flat.

Even a successful show couldn't rectify his indigence. A major exhibition in 1921 yielded £616 in sales. But when gallery commission and studio costs were deducted, Lewis was left with £54. Lewis's next major exhibition didn't occur until 1937. This time he had borrowed so much from the gallery in advances that he still owed it more than £400 at the sale's end. The gallery retained seven canvases at half their estimated price, leaving Lewis with £12. That went to his solicitors, who were fending off Lewis's illegitimate son, now 26 and a petty criminal threatening to "come to the Leicester Galleries and make myself known".

During the early 1920s Lewis had turned to portraiture to make money. He also took up writing in earnest. His massive volumes of political-cultural criticism, The Art of Being Ruled and Time and Western Man often lapse into tiresome jeremiads. His novel The Childermass offers flashes of brilliant writing and pages of dreary speechifying. The Apes of God is a mordant satire on wealthy bohemia, blemished by ugly undercurrents of anti-Semitism. Over and over Lewis asserted the modernist credo that art is infinitely superior to life. His career, instead, was an endless dramatisation of life's revenge.

In 1930, after a three-week jaunt to Berlin, Lewis cobbled together a biography of Hitler, the first in any language. Most reviewers damned its sloppy writing and poor research, a few praised its impressionistic vivacity. But by 1933, when the climate of opinion had irrevocably altered, passers-by would spit at shop windows displaying the book. His reputation was permanently damaged.

He continued to write travel books, novels and topical commentary, as well as to paint some of the finest portraits of the 20th century. In 1930, he married Gladys Anne Hoskins. The wedding was kept secret, and many friends didn't know of her existence until after the Second World War.

Desperate to change his luck, Lewis left for the US and Canada in 1939. Things went no better, and commissions failed to materialise. By late 1941, he excused his delay in replying to one correspondent by explaining that he couldn't afford the stamp. The next year there was a three-month period when Gladys couldn't leave their one-room flat because she lacked serviceable shoes.

Despite these conditions, Lewis developed a curious fondness for Americanisms, which he carefully recorded in his diaries. "The other day I caught myself saying golly, for instance." He added: "I must be careful not to talk like that!" Yet when one correspondent asked Lewis about a new suit he had acquired for a special occasion, Lewis proudly replied, "I think it will be a lulu".

When he finally returned to England in 1945, the arrears on rent from his London flat and unpaid rates amounted to over £600. "I am tightly held in the jaws of the Rating Authorities and my obscene landlord," Lewis reported. "They are evidently cutting up my body between them."

They were not the only forces assaulting his body. Lewis was going blind. For some years a tumour had been growing in his brain, slowly crushing his optical nerves. X-ray treatments failed to arrest it, and surgery might have proved fatal.

Lewis completed his last portrait in 1949, and two years later publicly announced his blindness when he resigned as art critic for the Listener. His last years were spent writing the novels Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta. In 1956, only eight months before his death, he was taken to the Tate Gallery for the private viewing of a major retrospective exhibition. One observer noted tears in the blind man's eyes.

Paul O'Keeffe has written a magnificent biography of Lewis, rich in revealing anecdote, with a dark sense of humour that relishes the many ironies of Lewis's life. He traces the tragicomedy of Lewis's bungled career in abundant detail, with all its squalor and bittersweet dignity. This will be the definitive biography of Lewis for decades to come.

Paul Edwards' book is an academic study which marches chronologically through the paintings and the many books, tracts, and novels. The tone is reverential to the point of tedium, oddly out of synch with Lewis's quirky humour. But it contains 179 colour plates, the most complete survey available of Lewis's oeuvre, and is worth owning on those grounds alone.

Rumour has it that the Tate is considering a major exhibition of Lewis's entire career. One hopes the project will go ahead. Aspiring art students would learn little about networking with Saatchi and David Bowie. But they might get a salutary lesson in the grim power, at once compelling and horrible, that such a reckless faith in art could unleash. Could anyone have such faith today?

Lawrence Rainey is professor of English at York University

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