Monday, 12 March 2012

Exuberant and Orgiastic: Wyndham Lewis and his 'Kermesse'

This is a follow on from the Modernism posting and is also inspired by the current exhibition at Tate Britain on Picasso (and I may even have the Damien Hirst retrospective in mind too). It concerns an anti establishment figure from the British avant-garde. Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was a controversial cosmopolitan figure, frequently at loggerheads with fellow artists, friends, critics, gallery owners, patrons and the public. What I wanted to focus on here was the decoration of London’s so called first modern night club and the creation of his influential Kermesse in 1912.

He recognised the potential of any kind of publicity very early on in his artistic and career. Though his background and education was already unconventional he cultivated an exotic appearance, with the writer Ford Maddox Ford describing his appearance in 1909 as Russian, Polish or Spanish, looking ‘every inch the genius’, ‘tall, swarthy…with romantically disordered hair, wearing a long black coat buttoned up to his chin’. Hemingway described him as ‘the nastiest man he has ever seen, looked like a frog and had the eyes of a frustrated rapist’.

Everything Wyndham Lewis said and did was designed to fight against the conservative reaction against modern radical art, Robert Chapman writes ‘Augustus John in Chiaroscuro presents Lewis as a wild mysterious figure, playing the part of an incarnate Loki, bearing the news and sowing discord with it’. Indeed, ‘harsh, sardonic and hard hitting, Lewis and his associates struck out against one and all and everyone they considered atrophied and outworn, not sparing the Cubists, Futurists or Expressionists from the ‘blast’’. His odd behaviours, sexual liaisons, uncompromising and confrontational attitude and his determination to blast the artistic and literary establishment in London guaranteed public interest and press controversy.

Given that Modernism can be defined as an artistic response to a culture in crisis, the UK in 1900-1914 was an era of social, economic or technological crises, with political unrest at home as well as within the empire. The result of this cataclysmic volatility was a flourishing in London’s artistic life.

Influential external factors came from Roger Fry’s 1910-11 exhibition 'Manet and the Post Impressionists' which brought modern French art to an English audience for the first time. It predictably caused a critical, public and press furore, with the art of Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh being characterised as ‘childish, primitive, immoral and bad’. A second, even more radical exhibition featuring some of Lewis’s work the following year fed the insatiable press machine, as Richard Humphreys states, ‘a scandal hungry public was fed with endless reports of artistic and other outrage by a hyperactive press’. Nothing changes.

Internal factors came from the emerging London avant-garde writers and artists led by Walter Sickert, Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Ezra Pound and obviously Wyndham Lewis. They fuelled the vortex of cultural activity in a thoroughly unsubtle and individual way. They rebelled against the stultifying conservatism of the Royal Academy, the New English Art Club and the London art scene generally. When these venerable institutions refused to exhibit modern paintings, the artists did what has always been done in London; some of them formed a club; The Camden Town Group, of which Lewis became a member at the tender age of 16.

Lewis’s emergence as a leader of the avant-garde in London in 1912 corresponded with two key events. Firstly - the inspirational Exhibition of Works by the Italian Futurist Painters at the Sackville Gallery in March 1912. I won’t say much about the Futurists here as they deserve an independent post. Secondly and crucially was the opening of Madame Frida Uhl Strindberg's cabaret ‘Cave of the Golden Calf’ or ‘Cabaret Theatre Club’ in summer 1912. Amongst the club stationery (menus and programmes), various screens and the stage curtain, the large scale art that Lewis was to produce for the Cabaret Club was to prove the most important and critically acclaimed that he had yet created; its title, the aptly named Kermesse.

'Kermesse' is the term for a peasant fair or carnival in the Low Countries, characterised by boisterous merry-making.[1] His nine foot square canvas combined the ambiguity of Cubist structure with the intensity and violence of Futurist motion ensuring a truly radical tour de force. Though the original is lost we can get a glimpse of the painting from preparatory drawings and descriptions, which is probably as fractured an impression as any Cubist would desire.

Image from Yale Centre for British Art
The first thing that would have struck the viewer is the sheer scale of the painting, which is evident from the vague dry point 1917 Horace Brodzky sketch. The stolid man is made to look very small as he is confronted by the spinning symphony of abstract lines, the shapes reaching a crescendo right above his behatted head. Lewis’s sketches are all in cool shades of blue and grey with heavy crosshatching and shading, however we are told in a catalogue description that the central figure is in rich yellow, the others in varying shades of red and purple colours.
The central male and female dancer seem to be in a moment of ecstatic unconcernedness, about to tumble headlong into the orgiastic ritual going on around them. It would have provided the perfect introduction to the ‘super heated … garden of gesticulating figures, dancing and talking, while the rhythm of the primitive forms of ragtime throbbed through the wide room’ of the club. The first version of the painting was created so rapidly that even Lewis noted its uncouthness which must have contributed to its radical stylistic departure.

Viewing 'Kermesse' Brodzky, Horace, born 1885 - died 1969 ©V&A
The Times critic in July 1912 said about Kermesse that ‘it is not intelligible, but we are persuaded the artist means something by it, because the design, considered abstractly, has a lucidity and precision we have never found in the pure nonsense pictures such as the works of most of the Futurists’. This quote is important for two reasons; firstly it presciently distances the art of Lewis from that of the Italians; and secondly it summarises the rather hostile reaction of the UK press against them.
Though Lewis was heavily indebted to the media driven Futurists, for ideas regarding manifestos, lectures and use of the press, he viewed their obsession with painting modern technology as rather vulgar, preferring to convey the psychology of the effect of modernity on humans, or the premise that machinery can transform the human experience. As Lewis later explained, ‘it was more than just picture making: one was manufacturing fresh eyes for people and fresh souls to go with the eyes’. Clearly his paintings were designed to be more psychologically complex than the Futurist’s trains, automobiles or street scenes, no matter how groundbreaking or otherwise their painting technique was.

Lewis would have revelled in the mixed critical response to Kermesse. Sir C. Philip in the Daily Telegraph dismissed it as, ‘some terrible battle of extermination between murderous insects’. However for Clive Bell the picture indicated that ‘Lewis promises to be that rare thing, a real academic artist… that is say he uses a formula of which he is the master and not the slave’ indicating that Lewis had found a way to do what the Futurists were exhorting. That is to say, Lewis had answered the question posed in the Manifesto of the Futurist painters (1910), ‘how can we remain insensible to the frenetic life of our great cities and to the exciting new psychology of night life: the feverish figures of the bon viveur, the cocotte, the apache and absinthe drinker?’[2]

Artists such as Augustus John and Walter Sickert (old members of the CTG) who were not predisposed to like Lewis’s work announced that Kermesse was a ‘revelation of dynamic art’ and ‘Lewis as a man of extraordinary talent’. It is recorded that club goer Violet Hunt reacted with alarm to the murals in the Cave of the Golden Calf, shuddering as she recalled how ‘we were poised on the point of a needle, trembling in space…this nervous gaiety…performing of amateur plays at the Cabaret Club under the walls covered with Wyndham Lewis’s raw meat designs’. Edgar Jepson further remarked that ‘between the dances you could observe violent … assaults on the drama’.

In her club – accessed from the street via a manhole! – Madame Strindberg had succeeded in ‘bringing about a fusion between popular culture and artistic experiment so that the avant-garde could benefit from the vigour, wit and irreverence that variety theatre knew how to exploit’. As a result Lewis, with Ginner, Spencer Gore and other innovative sculptures and artists had collaborated to create ‘a subversive visual impact which matched the unorthodox music, dancing and satirical performances on the cabaret’s stage’.

The cult of the ‘Cave of the Golden Calf’ was almost as short lived as its biblical predecessor, remaining open to its mixed literary, artistic clientele for a mere eighteen months. Through a mixture of financial mismanagement, police raids, artistic and personal differences between the patronne and her customers the club was declared bankrupt in February 1914. Its influence was still felt for some time as Lewis and John set up similar establishments with varying degrees of success.

However when the art and sculpture from the club was dispersed with some disappearing without a trace and some going into museums, it is interesting to note the difference in its critical reception

when the experimental movements newly arisen on the continent were exhibited in the London galleries the work was usually vilified. But when the English saw similar paintings and sculpture installed in a night club dedicated to the emancipation of its visitors, artistic renewal made sense… the new art could delight as well as bewilder its viewers

Lewis was very much aware of this difference when he submitted the hastily finished Kermesse to the Club, saying he ‘would not recommend it to the very discriminating, with which ideal audience we must always suppose we are dealing’. By this remark we must presume he means that the members of the club were not his ideal audience and perhaps ‘the discriminating among them [would be] less distracted in a gallery’. Kermesse was eventually completed to Lewis’s satisfaction and exhibited publicly in the Royal Albert Hall later in 1912. Press, public and critical reaction – both negative and positive - to the Lewis’s Kermesse was assured.

These influential and important avant-garde artists working in London at this time were looking to push traditional boundaries and create a new artistic world view but crucially their modus operandi was essentially carried out along traditional lines; they created sympathetic groups to foster support which was not forthcoming from established art groups; and they cultivated patrons to ensure their work got shown. However they incorporated unconventional ways of promoting their ideas - including modern methods of communication as well as linking with other social and political malcontents to further their cause. Their efforts to manipulate the press to shock and startle their audience during this period, seems very familiar.

[1] Lewis had remarked on the melancholy exuberance of Breton Kermesses in his journal in 1908.
[2] Futurist Manifestos (Tate Publishing, 2009)

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