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Wyndham Lewis

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You may be looking for the humourist and biographer D. B. Wyndham-Lewis
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Wyndam Lewis in 1916

Percy Wyndham Lewis (November 18, 1882 - March 7, 1957) was a British painter and author. He was a co-founder of the Vorticist movement in art, and edited the Vorticists' journal, BLAST (two numbers, 1914-15). His novels include his pre-World War I-era novel Tarr, (set in Paris),and The Human Age, a trilogy comprising The Childermass (1928), Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta (both 1955), set in the afterworld. A fourth volume of The Human Age, The Trial of Man, was begun by Lewis but left in a fragmentary state at the time of his death.

Lewis was born on a yacht off the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. His mother was British, his father American. He was educated in England, first at Rugby School, then at the Slade School of Art in London, before spending most of the 1900s travelling around Europe and studying art in Paris.

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The cover of the 1915 wartime number of the Vorticist magazine BLAST.

It was in the years 1913-15 that he found the painting style for which he is best known today, a style which his friend Ezra Pound dubbed Vorticism. Lewis found the strong structure of Cubist painting appealing, but said it did not seem "alive" compared to Futurist art, which, conversely, lacked structure. Vorticism combined these two movements in a strikingly dramatic critique of modernity. In his early works, particularly versions of village life in Brittany showing dancers (ca. 1910-12), Lewis was probably more influenced by the process philosophy of Henri Bergson than he was later prepared to admit.

After the Vorticists' only exhibition in 1915, the movement broke up, largely as a result of World War I. Lewis was posted to the western front, and served as an Official War Artist 1917-1919, painting one of his best known works, A Battery Shelled, from sketches made on Vimy Ridge. His first novel Tarr was published in 1918, and is one of the key modernist texts.

By the late 1920s, Lewis was not painting so much, instead concentrating on writing. He wrote biting satirical attacks on the Sitwell family, which did not help him to be accepted into the literary world, and his book Hitler (1931), which was insufficiently critical of its subject even at this early date, caused him to be shunned by many. He later wrote The Hitler Cult (1939), a book which firmly revoked his earlier pro-Hitler pronouncements, but the damage was done, and Lewis was to remain an isolated figure. Orwell once called him "that lonely old volcano of the Right."

However it was during the years 1934-37 that he wrote The Revenge for Love (1937), widely regarded as his best novel. Outstanding critical books belong to this period, and include Men Without Art (1934) and Time and Western Man (1927), this latter including a penetrating critique of James Joyce which is of permanent value. Philosophically, Lewis attacked the "time philosophy" of Bergson, Alexander and others. The strong influence of Aristotelian metaphysics (via Aquinas) has probably been insufficiently noted in Lewis criticism.

Despite being better known for his writing than his painting in his later years, paintings from the 1930s and 1940s constitute some of his best known work. They are mainly portraits, and include pictures of Edith Sitwell (1935), T. S. Eliot (1938 and again in 1949) and Ezra Pound (1938). The Surrender of Barcelona (1936-38) makes a significant statement about the Spanish Civil War.

Lewis spent World War II in the United States and Canada. He returned to England in 1945. By 1951, he was completely blind. In 1950 he published the autobiographical Rude Assignment, and followed it with the semi-autobiograpical novel Self Condemned, a major late statement. He died in 1957. Always interested in Roman Catholicism, he nevertheless never converted. In recent years there has been a renewal of critical and biographical interest in Lewis and his work, and he is now regarded as a major British artist and writer of the twentieth century.

Further reading

  • Edwards, Paul. (2000) Wyndham Lewis, Painter and Writer. New Haven and London: Yale U P.
  • Gasiorek, Andrzej (2004) Wyndham Lewis and Modernism. London: Northcote House.
  • O'Keeffe, Paul (2000) Some Sort of Genius: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis. London: Cape.
  • Schenker, Daniel. (1992) Wyndham Lewis: Religion and Modernism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press.de:Wyndham Lewis
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