Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wyndham Lewis' Excellent Modernist Portraits

Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) divided his career between art and writing, winning esteem and controversy in both fields, but not a lot of money. By his late 50s he was undergoing serious bladder operations. Not long after, a growing pituitary tumor degraded his optic nerves to the point that in 1951 he announced that he had gone blind. Myself having had a vision scare recently, I have an inkling of the horror he must have experienced. (It turns out that a tentative diagnosis of macular degeneration was false, and my problem was almost entirely fixed by surgery.)

As for his art, Lewis was a vocal modernist in traditional England, promoting Vorticism, a form of Cubism around the time of the outbreak of the Great War. This was in part through his own works and also via his publication "Blast." More biographical information can be found here.

For this post, I'm setting aside his Vorticist work to focus on his portraiture. This was highlighted in a 2008 exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Early in his career Lewis considered himself a modernist, one of those self-anointeds who were to remake just about everything, including art. But by the late 1930s he conceded that things weren't working out as intended. And as early as 1919, Lewis' portrait drawings were an interesting blend of modernist simplification and accurate portrayal. His subjects' appearances and personalities show strongly in part because simplification was only lightly applied and tended to be dominated by his sure control of line. This ability resulted in drawings that usually outshone his painted portraits.


Ezra Pound - 1919
Lewis and the poet were good friends when this drawing was made.

James Joyce - 1921
Lewis did several portrait drawings of Joyce.

Edith Sitwell - 1921
His drawings of Sitwell eventually led to a painted portrait that I included in this post (scroll down).

Girl Seated (Gladys Anne Hoskins) - 1922
Lewis married Hoskins in 1930. She was called "Froanna" by then, but mostly remained in the background while Lewis was alive.

Augustus John - 1932
Portrait of a fellow portrait artist.

Dorothy Alexander (Lady Harmsworth) - 1932

Dame Edith Evans - 1932

Rebecca West - 1932
Lewis and West were miles apart politically, but got along personally.

Girl Reading (Froanna) - 1936

Froanna - 1937

T.S. Eliot - 1938
This, and his portrait of Sitwell, are perhaps Lewis' best-known portrait paintings.

Miss Close - 1939
I'm not sure who the sitter is, but include this because it was painted only a few years before he realized that he was starting to go blind.  Lewis continued to paint while he was able, but quality began to fall away.

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