T.E.Hulme and Wyndham Lewis

One of the articles in New Perspectives - Andrzej Gąsiorek's 'Modern art in England circa 1914: Hulme and Wyndham Lewis' - looks at the relationship between the theory Hulme was advancing and the idea Wyndham Lewis had as to what he was doing. It begins with Lewis himself reminiscing and insisting that among all the artists associated with the movement it was really only his own work that corresponded to Hulme's idea of abstraction: 'In England there was no one else working in consonance with an abstract theory of art to the same extent as myself. Neither Gaudier nor Epstein would in the end have been "abstract" enough to satisfy the requirements of this obstinate abstractionist. He would have had to fall back on me.'

'We happened, that is all, to be made for each other, as critic and "creator". What he said should be done, I did. Or it would be more exact to say that I did it, and he said it.' (10)

(10) 'New Perspectives' p.151 quoting Wyndham Lewis: Blasting and Bombadeering, London, Calder, 1982, p.36.

While Lewis obviously wants to make it clear he wasn't simply following a programme laid out for him by Hulme he is still suggesting that Hulme's theory was indeed a good account of his own practise. Gąsiorek disagrees. He argues that where Hulme's abstraction, following Worringer, is based on a state of alienation from the world, Lewis sees it as a means of entering into harmony with it. 

But Hulme is not quite so categorical as Worringer in suggesting that abstract art is based on 'a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world ... an immense spiritual fear of space'. Summarising what Worringer has to say about the "space-shyness" of 'primitive people' he says:

'In art this state of mind results in a desire to create a certain geometrical shape, which, being durable and permanent, shall be a refuge from the flux and impermanence of outside nature. The need which art satisfies here, is not the delight in the forms of nature, which is a characteristic of all vital arts [the word 'vital' used here is descriptive not an expression of admiration - PB] but the exact contrary. In the reproduction of natural objects there is an attempt to purify them of their characteristically living qualities in order to make them necessary and immovable. The changing is translated into something fixed and necessary. This leads to rigid lines and dead crystalline forms, for pure geometrical regularity gives a certain pleasure to men troubled by the obscurity of outside appearance. The geometrical line is something absolutely distinct from the messiness, the confusion, and the accidental details of existing things.'

But he continues:

'It must be pointed out that this condition of fear is in no sense a necessary presupposition of the tendency to abstraction. The necessary presupposition is the idea of disharmony or separation between man and nature. In people like the Indian or the Byzantine this feeling of separation takes quite another form.' ('Modern art and its philosophy' in Speculations, pp.86-7)

The crucial thing, then, is not fear but 'the idea of disharmony or separation between man and nature'. Gąsiorek argues (p.59) though that this was not what was motivating Lewis:

'Lewis departed from Worringer and Hulme when he suggested that artists should not reject this seemingly inhospitable environment because "most wise men ... have remained where they found themselves, their appetite for life sufficient to reconcile them, and allow them to create significant things." He made substantially the same argument in Blast when he declared that "art must be organic with its Time" (Blast, p.34) and proclaimed that the "enormous, jangling, journalistic, fairy desert of modern life serves [the modern artist] as Nature did more technically primitive man.'

We have already seen him in Blast boasting that this 'fairy desert of modern life' is the creation of the 'Anglo-Saxon genius' which should therefore be best qualified to know how to deal with it. Also in Blast - in a passage not quoted by Gąsiorek - he says, with obvious reference to Worringer:

'The African we have referred to cannot allow his personality to venture forth or amplify itself, for it would dissolve in vagueness of space.

'It has to be swaddled up in a bullet-like lump.

'But the modern town dweller of our civilization sees everywhere fraternal moulds for his spirit and interstices of a human world.

'He also sees multitude, and infinite variety of means of life, a world and elements he controls.'

It is however dangerous to jump to conclusions too quickly when quoting Lewis. This passage in 'The New Egos' continues:

'Impersonality becomes a disease with him ...

'Life is really no more secure, or his egotism less acute, but the frontiers interpenetrate, individual demarcations are confused and interests dispersed ...

'We all today (possibly with a coldness reminiscent of the insect world) are in each other's vitals - overlap, intersect and are Siamese to any extent [sic - PB].

'Promiscuity is normal; such separating things as love, hatred, friendship are superseded by a more realistic and logical passion ...

'Love, hatred, etc., imply conventional limitations.

'All clean, clear cut emotions depend on the element of strangeness, and surprise and primitive detachment,

'Dehumanization is the chief diagnostic of the modern world.' (p.141)

From this we would conclude that though modern man is indeed entering into a sort of pantheistic harmony with the outer world, Lewis sees his task as an artist as a matter of reasserting the separation, the 'clean, clear cut emotions', the 'strangeness.'

But in any case it was no part of Hulme's argument to suggest that the artist should not use the characteristics of the world about him. After all one could argue that the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite or Gothic architect was out of harmony with the industrial world that was developing around him and escaping from it into the past. Hulme is as emphatic as Lewis in rejecting this approach. He is as insistent as Lewis that his 'new modern geometrical art' would be related to the 'bareness and hardness' which Lewis took as characteristic of the world created by the 'Anglo Saxon genius':

'Expressed generally there seems to be a desire for austerity and bareness, a striving towards structure and away from the messiness and confusion of nature and natural things. Take a concrete thing like the use of line and surface. In all art since the Renaissance, the lines used are what may be called vital lines. In any curve there is a certain empirical variation which makes the curve not mechanical. The lines are obviously drawn by a hand and not by a machine. You get Ruskin saying that no artist could draw a straight line. As far as sensibility goes you get a kind of shrinking from anything that has the appearance of being mechanical. An artist, suppose, has to draw a part of a piece of machinery where a certain curve is produced by the intersection of a plane and a cylinder. It lies in the purpose of the engine and it is obviously the intention of the engineer that the line shall be a perfect and mechanical curve. The artists in drawing the two surfaces and their intersection would shrink from reproducing this mechanical accuracy, would instinctively pick out all the accidental scratches which make the curve empirical and destroy its geometrical and mechanical character. In the new art on the contrary there is no shrinking of that kind whatsoever. There is rather a desire to avoid those lines and surfaces which look pleasing and organic and to use lines which are clean, clear-cut and mechanical. You will find artists expressing admiration for engineer's drawings, where the lines are clean, the curves all geometrical, and the colour, laid on to show the shape of a cylinder for example, gradated absolutely mechanically. You will find a sculptor disliking the pleasing kind of patina that comes in time on an old bronze and expressing admiration for the hard clean surface of a piston rod ...' ('Modern Art and its Philosophy' in Speculations, pp.96-7)

This passage is actually prophetic. In a very short time - Dutch De Stijl, French Purists, German Bauhaus - it would be a commonplace but at the beginning of 1914 it could not be said of Italian Futurists, French Cubists or German Expressionists. It could begin to be said of Lewis himself and we may indeed see this as a characteristic in which the English (as yet to be named) Vorticists were 'ahead of the curve'. This may help to explain something that otherwise puzzles me and that is Hulme's enthusiasm for Epstein and in particular for The Rock Drill, and his view that this represents a new stage that goes beyond what he calls 'analytical Cubism'. The Rock Drill seems to me very far from being 'abstract' in the sense we have been discussing. It is however mechanical.

But to return to Wyndham Lewis. The author of the 'play' The Enemy of the Stars and the novels Tarr, The Childermass and The Apes of God could hardly be said to be a man at ease with his environment. There is nothing about him that suggests pantheism - the view that God, or the gods, are manifest in the world as we experience it - either natural or man-made. One of the keys to understanding Lewis as an artist I think lies in the reference in one of the essays in Blast ('Life is the important thing') to Honoré Daumier:

'Who would not rather walk ten miles across country (yes, ten miles my friend), and use his eyes, nose and muscles, than possess ten thousand Impressionist oil-paintings of that country side?

'There is only one thing better than "Life" - than using your eyes, nose, ears and muscles - and that is something very abstruse and splendid,in no way directly dependent on "Life". It is no EQUIVALENT for Life, but ANOTHER Life, as NECESSARY to existence as the former.


'Daumier, whose work was saturated with reference to Life, has been, for instance, used to support imitation of Nature, on grounds of a common realism. This man would have been no more capable of squatting down and imitating the forms of life day after day than he would have been able to copy one of his crowds.

'It was Life that MOVED MUCH TOO QUICKLY FOR ANYTHING BUT THE IMAGINATION that he lived for. He combined in his art great plastic gifts with great literary gifts, and was no doubt an impure painter, according to actual standards. But it was great literature, along with great art. And as far as "Life" is concerned, the Impressionists produced nothing that was in any sense a progress from this great realist, though much that was a decadence.' (pp.130-131)

Daumier was a caricaturist and his caricatures were deliberately grotesque. Lewis too was a caricaturist, both before Vorticism and after Vorticism. Lewis praises Daumier for his 'literature'. Lewis of course is as well known as a writer as he is as a painter, and the characters in his writing are as grotesque as the characters in his painting. He admired Hogarth, Rowlandson and Swift. How do we account for his brief but so convincing foray into abstract painting? What made him a Vorticist?

I do not wish to suggest that Lewis was won over by the arguments advanced by Hulme. Lewis was such a stubborn 'mauvaise tête' that it would be hardy to suggest any such simple relation of cause and effect. Nonetheless, Lewis's transformation from caricature to abstraction occurred in late 1913, early 1914, which was also the time when Hulme was developing the ideas given in his lecture of January 1914, and Lewis's art over the next two years seems to fit Hulme's argument almost like a glove.