Wyndham Lewis, The Cubist Room

The English painter and writer Wyndham Lewis uses a review of a 1914 exhibit of contemporary art for the journal The Egoist as an opportunity to lay out a brief manifesto of modern English painting, namely vorticism, and to define the competing movements, cubism and futurism, for an English audience still becoming acquainted with them.

 

Futurism, one of the alternative terms for modern painting, was patented in Milan. It means the Present with the Past rigidly excluded, and flavoured strongly with H. G. Wells’ dreams of the dance of monstrous and arrogant Machinery, >> note 1 to the frenzied clapping of men’s hands. But futurism will never mean anything else, in painting, than the Art practised by the five or six Italian painters grouped beneath Marinetti’s influence. Gino Severini, >> note 2 the foremost of them, has for subject matter the night resorts of Paris. This, as subject matter, is obviously not of the future. For we all foresee in a century or so everybody being put to bed at 7 o’clock in the evening by a State Nurse. Therefore the Pan Pan at the Monaco will be, for Ginos of the Future, an archaistic experience.

Cubism means, chiefly, the art, superbly severe and so far morose, of those who have taken the genius of Cézanne as a starting point, and organised the character of the works he threw up in his indiscriminate and grand labour. It is the reconstruction of a simpler earth, left as choked and muddy fragments by him. Cubism includes much more than this, but the “cube” is implicit in that master’s painting.

To be done with terms and tags, post impressionism is an insipid and pointless name invented by a journalist, which has been naturally ousted by the better word “Futurism” in public debate on modern art.

This room is chiefly composed of works by a group of painters, consisting of Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Edward Wadsworth, C. R. W. Levinson, and the writer of this foreword. These painters are not accidentally associated here, but form a vertigineous but not exotic island, in the placid and respectable archipelago of English art. This formation is undeniably of volcanic matter, and even origin; for it appeared suddenly above the waves following certain seismic shakings beneath the surface. It is very closely-knit and admirably adapted to withstand the imperturbable Britannic breakers which roll pleasantly against its sides.

Beneath the Past and the Future the most sanguine would hardly expect a more different skeleton to exist than that respectively of ape and man. Man with an aeroplane is still merely a bad bird. But a man who passes his days amid the rigid lines of houses, a plague of cheap ornamentation, noisy street locomotion, the Bedlam of the press, will evidently possess a different habit of vision to a man living amongst the lines of a landscape. As to turning the back, most wise men, Egyptians, Chinese or what not, have remained where they found themselves, their appetite for life sufficient to reconcile them, and allow them to create significant things. Suicide is the obvious course for the dreamer, who is a man without an anchor of sufficient weight.

The work of this group of artists for the most part underlines such geometric bases and structure of life, and they would spend their energies rather in showing a different skeleton and abstraction than formerly could exist than a different degree of hairiness or dress. All revolutionary painting to-day has in common the rigid reflections of steel and stone in the spirit of the artist; that desire for stability as though a machine were being built to fly or kill with; an alienation from the traditional photographer’s trade and realisation of the value of colour and form as such independently of what recognisable form it covers or encloses. People are invited, in short, to change entirely their idea of the painter’s mission, and penetrate, deferentially, with him into a transposed universe as abstract as, though different from, the musician’s.

I will not describe individually the works of my colleagues. In No. 165 of Edward D. Wadsworth; No. 161 of Cuthbert Hamilton; Nos. 169 and 181, of Etchells; No. 174 of Nevinson, they are probably best represented.

Hung in this room as well are three drawings by Jacob Epstein, the only great sculptor at present working in England. He finds in the machinery of procreation a dynamo to work the deep atavism of his spirit. Symbolically strident above his work, or in the midst of it, is, like the Pathe cock, a new-born baby, with a mystic but puissant crow. His latest work opens up a region of great possibilities, and new creation—David Bomberg’s painting of a platform, announces a colourist’s temperament, something between the cold blond of Severini’s earlier paintings and Vallotton. >> note 3 The form and subject matter are academic but the structure of the crisscross pattern new and extremely interesting.

Wyndham Lewis.


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