Friday, January 29, 2010

Wyndham Lewis: A Frog with a Paint Brush

My boyfriend and I cozied up under the blankets last night, and he read me some of his favorite excerpts from A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoirs of his adventures among the American expatriate writers and artists in 1920's Paris.

In the book, Hemingway famously lampoons several well-known modernists, but his description of Wyndham Lewis [the founder of the Vorticist movement] is particularly scathing. He interchangeably refers to him as a "frog," "toe-jam" {ha!}, "evil," and "the nastiest man he has ever met." Lewis did become notorious for angering and offending almost every member of the artistic and literary community of the time, so Hemingway's assessment might not have been far from the truth...

I woke up this morning wondering: how is it possible that really nasty people can make beautiful art? I'm not personally a fan of Lewis' writing [though the boyfriend loves him]. But in my opinion, he is one of the most underrated visual artists of the early 20th century -- his portraits are particularly striking and poignant. For someone who loathed and mistreated fellow humans, he certainly seems to have had a knack for finding the beauty in them. Odd, isn't it?

:His portrait of the incomparable Dame Edith Sitwell {above} is one of my favorites by Lewis -- she seems so serene and wise sitting among her books. He captures her eccentricity and intelligence quite successfully. Not bad for a frog.

::See more of Lewis' work here / :: And I almost forgot, his manifesto, published in the little magazine Blast, is one of my favorites -- it's very funny. It's best read standing on a piece of furniture and speaking like a tyrannical ruler! I guess I don't mind his writing, after all.


zoe said...

wow, the portrait really is beautiful, the colors in it hardly suggest the brush of a misanthrope...odd, i agree. thanks for the introduction--i'm off to read blast.

Ashley Olivia Bobcat said...

I think your idea could be applied to Hemingway himself... From everything that I have read, he was a thoroughly nasty person to be friends with. "A Moveable Feast" is interesting in particular because it combines some of the most beautiful prose that I have ever read with what amounts to Hemingway's personal version of the "Slam-book" from Mean Girls. The two vignettes about Fitzgerald and Stein are the worst, and these are the two people who arguably were the most helpful in supporting Hemingway and getting him published.
So... "A Moveable Feast" remains a book in which you read about Hemingway and Fitzgerald comparing penis sizes, and then you flip the page and find this:
"With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen."

AndyT. said...

I agree that Wyndham Lewis is one of the most underrated visual artists. And, I had no idea about his rather disagreeable character ... but, then again as a Poundian you become very adept at separating the personal from the professional (or the work, the art.)

In defense of Lewis, and as you probably know, Pappa Hemingway wasn't the most agreeable. Yet, we still read Moveable Feast and Old Man and the Sea; we teach Hills like White Elephants (ad nauseum); and, enjoy the hard-living, man's man, ladies man, big-game hunting, archetype that is Hemingway. Hmmm...maybe he had a better press agent. :P

Signed ~ Your favorite Poundian,

{Tara} said...

Zoe -- I hope you enjoy Blast; it is quite fun and bizarre. The cover alone is amazing.

Ashley -- He is a lot like Henry Miller in that regard: a nasty person in many ways, with a penchant for describing the fouler aspects of people [including himself] but somehow able to create these moments of transcendent prose.

Andy -- Ezra's another interesting man -- apparently, despite his questionable political associations, he was quite a sweet, supportive, compassionate man in person.

Jeff said...

I think, from memory, Wyndham Lewis was described in the same book as having "the eyes of a rapist"; but then, Hemingway also slammed Blaise Cendrars, whose primary role as the first Modernist poet in france is disputed only by those who believe Apollinaire was, and who was a great prose writer. I mean great as in incomparable. Hemingway felt insecure around a lot of people, especially those who were better than him.

While some of Lewis' political beliefs were objectionable, as well as his personal behaviour, he did create fine paintings (nice choice, Tara) and some impressive writing, especially _The Apes of God_ (you could read it today and think of people in art circles you may know), _Tarr_, and the intellectual autobiography _Rude Assignment_. Everyone was too polite for his tastes, and that included the Communist writers, the Bloomsbury coterie, and many other painters. He's not for everyone; but he's got a lot to offer.

As for Henry Miller, there's nothing in his work that indicates he was only, or even predominantly, a nasty person; he certainly had views on women, and Christianity, and Hemingway-Stein, that not everyone would agree with. (He, too, liked Wyndham Lewis.) Some people around him suffered. He chose to put into print things that had not been said before, and in ways that were new and enlightening, as well as heartening for those who had tired of drab works. No artist's personal life is clean; that just means they look like everyone else.

Thanks for your interesting post, Tara.

{Tara} said...

Jeff -- Oh, don't get me wrong, I LOVE Miller!! I personally feel like Miller/Hemingway's irreverent mix of nasty and beautiful is my favorite kind of writing. I think one reason I haven't been able to altogether accept Lewis is because of his utter pessimism and disgust toward people in general. Though, I will take your advice and try reading more of his work...

Anonymous said...

how funny! made me giggle. i love insults and the art of the insult. :) --beamish

saragraph said...

i'm not sure if my other comment went through because my AIM sign in was being wonky. anywho... this entry made me giggle because i love the art of the insult. :) --beamish