The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

The Courtauld Gallery, London, WC2: Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery, 14 June – 9 September

This new exhibition draws from The Courtauld’s archives, spanning over 500 years of art historical drawings with an emphasis on both the “great masterpieces” and “rarely seen” works from artist like Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Matisse. The Courtauld Gallery is home to one of the most important and extensive drawings collections in Britain, with over 20,000 pieces ranging from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. This is an unparalleled opportunity to view 60 of the finest in the flesh, as well as attended a related program of tours, talks and events held throughout the summer.

Music

Snape Malting Hall, Aldeburgh: Aldeburgh Music Festival, 7 – 24 June

The town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast is home the “vast skies” and “moody seas” that inspired Benjamin Britten, in 1948, to found the eponymous Aldeburgh Festival of classical music.  Reclaiming and converting old malting buildings, Britten and fellow musician Peter Pears laid the foundations for what was to become a flourishing performance space. It’s been called “arguably the best musical event in Britain” (the Guardian, 2009), and last year’s festival won the coveted Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award. Early highlight from this year’s 65th annual festival will include the Where the Wild Things Are opera, Sea Change – a unique musical adventure from guitarist James Boyd – and special performance from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Literature

Kings Place, London, N1: Poetry & Sport, Monday 11 June, 7:00 pm

This special “Olympic inspired” literary event rejoices in the oft under-acknowledged union of the poetic and the athletic. Poetry readings on the subject of sporting achievements and feats of human strength will offered by an eclectic mix of writers and athletes, including award-winning sports journalist Clare Balding, former Romanian fencing champion Laura Badea, and Britain’s most medalled Paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes MBE. With accompanying jazz music from The Denys Baptiste Quartet, this event promises to be “the perfect warm up to this year’s Olympic summer”.

Theatre

Jacksons Lane, London, N6: Postcard Festival, 7 – 30 June

The Postcard Festival will be a draw for warm weather revellers in search of a thrill. Postcard offers a platform for the best new talent from the world of circus, cabaret and visual performance – showcasing exciting, original and unexpected work. Expect their roster of enthusiastically named shows, including Boom!, Domestic Burlesque, Pop Magic!,  Lab Time: Experiments in Circus, Death Row Diva and Party Piece to knock your socks off. This is experimental, contemporary vaudeville at is most exhilarating.

Ideas

Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham: Cheltenham Science Festival, 12 – 17 June

Cheltenham is the Gloucestershire town lauded for its impressive yearly calendar of brain-stimulating festivals, including jazz, literature and global music. Next week the town gives itself over to the realm of science, with over 300 thinkers, scientists, comedians and writers converging in a meeting of minds that celebrates and explores all things scientific. Saturated with familiar faces (Brian Cox, Marcus Brigstocke) and groundbreaking talks from botanists, evolutionists, geneticists, astronomers and others, the festival tackles though-provoking themes such as: Space and the Universe, Engineering and Technology, Politics and Ethics, and Being Human.

"Study for La Grande Odalisque" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, featured in the Courtauld Gallery's new exhibition. (Photo: The Courtald Gallery)
Picture: IWM Art
Show Hide image

The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.


TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.


The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496