Wyndham Lewis and Edward Wadsworth - space v time

Lewis's work of this period includes a number of drawings and sketches that are obviously based on architecture - the painting called Workshop, the little ink and watercolour sketch that has been given the name (probably by Wadsworth, who owned it) New York, and the 'Compositions' that make up what is called his 'Vorticist Sketch-book'. They could be described as explorations of space, in particular of the effect that architecture has on space, and indeed the effect that an architecture that did not yet exist has on space. Comparisons have been made between Lewis's imaginary architecture - largely a matter of rectangular walls with rectangular windows - and the architectural designs of the Italian Futurist Antonio Sant'Elia. But where Sant'Elia was imagining actual buildings, Lewis is concerned with the effect such buildings could have, effectively the inability to situate oneself in relation to the perspective. Although Cubism played with 'multiple perspective' it wasn't aiming at a disorientating effect - it simply wanted to use aspects of the subject being presented that would not normally be seen by a static viewer. Gleizes attempted something like what Lewis has done in his paintings of New York, but Gleizes is still taken with the actual visual details of the scene before his eyes - in particular the neon signs and their reflections in glass windows. Lewis is painting the raw abstract principle. The closest comparison I can think of is Piranesi's Prisons.

It may be farfetched but I am tempted to relate this interest in a space that is not an empty space and that is charged with tension through the ambiguities of perspective, to the 'space shyness' that Worringer and Hulme attribute to primitive art. I cannot develop the argument here but Lewis's book of 1927, Time and Western Man - all 487 pages of it - is an assertion of the importance of space as against time. It is a critique of an obsession with time that he attributes to Joyce and Proust but traces back to Bergson. In his (in my view very unpleasant) novel Tarr, published during the war, the admirable English painter Tarr criticises the contemptible German painter Kreisler for confusing art with life, and declares in conversation:

'This is the essential point to grasp: Death is the thing that differentiates art and life. Art is identical with the idea of permanence. Art is a continuity and not an individual spasm: but life is the idea of the person ...

'Consider the content of what we call art. A statue is art. It is a dead thing, a lump of stone or wood. Its lines and proportions are its soul. Anything living, quick and changing is bad art always; naked men and women are the worst art of all, because there are fewer dead things about them. The shell of the tortoise , the plumage of a bird, makes these animals approach nearer to art. Soft, quivering and quick flesh is as far from art as it is possible for an object to be ... Deadness is the first condition for art; the second is absence of soul, in the human and sentimental sense. With the statue its lines and masses are its soul, no restless inflammable ego is imagined for its interior: it has no Inside; good art must have no inside: that is capital.'

Edward Wadsworth's best work of the period could also be described as an exploration of 'dead' - hard, architectural - space, stripped of its 'organic', internal human content. In his case, the representational side - the town with its houses, and factory chimneys, or the aerial view of the countryside or (notably in the Cape of Good Hope) the port is more obvious, but, especially in the series of woodcuts based on Northern towns, the game of perspective directing the viewer's eye in different directions is reminiscent of what Lewis did in his architectural studies. 

Unfortunately Wadsworth often just gives us an arbitrarily shaped fragment of the subject, weakening the impact with an intrusion of empty space. I have quoted Gąsiorek suggesting that the Cubists wanted to tame the curve (which he confuses with the line that expresses sensual fleshiness) by reducing it to the square. In fact the strong assertion of a rectangular frame has the effect of a pressure cooker, intensifying the tensions between the different elements in a Cubist painting. One of the main arguments in Gleizes and Metzinger's book is that just as colours placed side by side alter each other - an orange placed beside a blue is a quite different colour than the same orange placed beside a green - so forms tightly juxtaposed modify each other. But the tension is lost through the intervention of empty space, and this is one of the objections to conventionally representational painting, with its isolated figures situated in an 'atmosphere'. Thus the whole rectangular space of Wadsworth's most powerful constructions - Rotterdam and the truly extraordinary Enclosure, used for the cover of the second volume of Cork's study - is occupied.

We might also note how Wadsworth's work of the period is weakened and indeed reduced to chaos by the introduction of curvilinear elements. In pointing this out I am not at all arguing against the use of curves in principle - I believe the rigourous rejection of curves by painters such as Mondrian, Albers or, in our time, Sean Scully is an act of timid tastefulness. But the juxtaposition of curve and straight line in an abstract painting requires great skill, a knowledge it was hardly likely the pioneers of 1914 could possess. Bomberg's work is interesting in this respect. His best known paintings are entirely rectilinear. But he also attempted paintings that were almost entirely circular, related to an effort - a very common effort of the time - to capture the movements of dance. These to my mind are almost entirely unsuccessful because though the curve launches the mind into movement the movement doesn't go anywhere. We just go round in circles. The curve invites us to go for a walk but the walk is only interesting if we are walking through an interesting landscape. The landscape is the largely rectilinear structuring of the space. Gleizes called the structuring of the space (the part of the painter's job Lewis and Wadsworth were beginning to understand) 'translation' and the travelling through it, or round it, 'rotation'.