Impresario, polemicist, publisher, writer, painter – Wyndham Lewis is a cult figure in British art and culture of the early 20th century. A perpetual outsider, he brought the passion and fury of Italian Futurism to Britain, combining its obsession with speed and movement with Cubism’s deconstruction of pictorial space, creating his ‘vortex’, the still eye at the centre of the storm of Modernity.
, with its Cubist faceting of a body set in a stark Futurist setting, taps into themes which in 1912 Wyndham Lewis was in the midst of developing. Having spent eight years on the continent, immersing himself in the world of the intelligentsia and befriending Modigliani, Derain, and Gertrude Stein, he returned to England in 1909 well versed in the intellectual and artistic trends of the continent. Having been slightly late to wake up to artistic modernity, London was becoming a hub of the European avant-garde, attracting the likes of Jacob Epstein and Ezra Pound, and holding provocative exhibitions such as Roger Fry’s Manet and the Post-Impressionists
in 1910 and his Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition
in 1912 (to which Lewis contributed). In March of 1912 the Futurists exploded onto the London scene with an exhibition at the Sackville Gallery. The Italians, and Marinetti in particular, had a major impact on Lewis and his young rebellious artistic associates, not only in terms of their focus on the dynamism of the machine age, but also as a catalyst for an analysis of the Brit’s own theoretical direction.
These percolating theories found their voice in the publication of Blast No. 1 in the summer of 1914. A manifesto edited and partially written by Lewis, the publication was a call to rekindle the creative fires of Britain, and announced the arrival of the new English Art movement - Vorticism. The manifesto sought to distinguish Vorticism from its European counterparts in terms of ideology, claiming that it ‘showed itself more resolute in its exclusion of the past than the Paris School, less concerned with its glittering jazzed-up spectacle of the megalopolis than the Italians, and much more distant from architecture than the Dutch (such as Mondrian).’ (Wyndham Lewis, Wyndham Lewis the Artist, from ‘Blast’ to Burlington House, London, Laidlow and Laidlow, 1939, quoted in Wyndham Lewis (exh. cat.), Lund Humphries, London, 1980, p.18). One of the most creative and rebellious movements in British art history, Vorticism burned brightly but briefly, its momentum extinguished by the ravaging effects of the First World War. Lewis, as arguably its chief architect, had by that point solidified his position as a renowned figure in British art of the 20th century.