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Wyndham Lewis Portraits to Open at The National Portrait Gallery in UK
Edith Sitwell by Percy Wyndham Lewis, 1943.
LONDON.- An important new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, will show the striking portraits of the great British modernist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), bringing together for the first time a unique visual record of some of the most important cultural figures of the first half of the twentieth century.

58 portraits ranging from delicate drawings to large oil paintings assembled from collections worldwide will chart Wyndham Lewis's range and achievements as a portraitist. Among the highlights of the exhibition will be his now iconic renderings of his fellow 'Men of 1914,' credited with revolutionising 20th-century literature, the writers Ezra Pound, T S Eliot and James Joyce.

Broadly chronological, Wyndham Lewis Portraits begins by showing how Lewis portrayed himself in a series of multiple identities, and then includes from the 1920s and 1930s his portraits of such figures as Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender and Virginia Woolf as well as Lewis's wife, Froanna, portrayed in five of his most beautiful paintings and drawings.

The exhibition goes on to chart the high point of Wyndham Lewis's career as a portraitist - culminating in his 1938 portrait of T S Eliot and features his rarely seen late portraits. As well as the pictures, there are showcases devoted to key texts including the hugely influential Vorticist journal Blast which he edited in 1914-15.

Described by W H Auden as 'that lonely old volcano of the Right,' Lewis was known for his strong views, complex politics and volatile friendships. Alongside his work as an activist, avant-garde artist, essayist and novelist, he consistently made portraits. Hailed in 1932 by Walter Sickert as 'the greatest portraitist of this or any other time,' Wyndham Lewis was a 'modern' artist not only by virtue of formal innovation but by his deliberate and strategic deployment of a persona which affected the nature of his portraits.

In his earlier work, he did not conceive of personal identity as an 'essence' which it was his task to reveal to the viewer; instead, he was concerned with the variety of possible performances of identity that anyone - especially any artist or writer - might make, and saw his task as presenting a formal equivalent of such performances in his portraits. This enables the exhibition curators to show not only some of the main 'personalities' associated with Wyndham Lewis in apparently definitive major oils but also in clusters of drawings that reveal quite different aspects of their self-presentation.

Wyndham Lewis was born (reputedly on a yacht) off the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. His British mother and American father moved to England but separated in about 1893. His mother subsequently returned to England, where Lewis was educated, first at Rugby School, then at the Slade School of Art, University College, London, before spending most of the 1900s travelling around Europe and studying art in Paris.

From 1908 he lived mostly in England where he was a founder-member of the Camden Town Group in 1911. In 1912 he exhibited three major oil-paintings and some Cubo-Futurist illustrations to a projected edition of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the second Post-Impressionist exhibition. This brought him into close contact with the Bloomsbury Group, particularly Roger Fry and Clive Bell, with whom he soon fell out. Between 1913-15 he founded Vorticism, the style of geometric abstraction for which he is best known today.

In the 1920s and early 1930s he became better known for his writing than his painting. His novels include Tarr, set in Paris before the First World War, 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. His writings have had a far-reaching influence on modern literature with Enemy of the Stars, for example, (first published in Blast in 1914) being a proto-absurdist, Expressionist drama that anticipates Beckett. In 1930 Lewis published The Apes of God, a novel satirising the art world of London in the 1920s - several of the characters are based on sitters in this exhibition.

During the 1930s and 1940s Lewis returned to more concentrated work on visual art, and paintings from this period constitute some of his best-known work. This is the time of many of the portraits - brought together for this exhibition - for which he is best known, including those of Edith Sitwell (1923-36), T S Eliot (1938 and again in 1949) and Ezra Pound (1939).

Lewis spent the Second World War in the United States and Canada but he returned to England in 1945. By 1951, he was completely blind. In 1956 the Tate Gallery held a major exhibition of his work, Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism. Always interested in Roman Catholicism, he nevertheless never converted, and he died in 1957.

One of few people to have been equally successful as an artist and a writer, Wyndham Lewis is now regarded as one of the most important and influential figures in the 20th Century Modernist movement. As this major exhibition shows, before the First World War, through his time in North America, and at the end of his life back in London, it was the human subject which Wyndham Lewis returned to time and time again.

Text and image by

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