Wyndham Lewis’s big mistake

    Wyndham Lewis supported Hitler. I mention it straightaway , because I don’t want it looming up later to shipwreck my praise. Supporting Hitler – writing books in favour of the Führer – was Lewis’s greatest mistake as a controversialist. It ruined his reputation as an artist, turned him into a national hate figure and ensured that nobody would ever again take him seriously as a thinker. Thus, in some perverse way, it constitutes an appropriately sized mistake for a man of his gigantic, noisy, unbalanced presence. Some people drop clangers. Lewis dropped the entire carillon of bells.

    The Hitler book is now lying innocently enough in a case at the centre of the National Portrait Gallery’s feisty little survey of Lewis’s portraiture. It has an assortment of punchy swastikas on the cover, redesigned at sharp, vorticist angles: the modernist swastika, no less. It’s full of nonsense about Hitler being “a man of peace” and the Zionist conspiracy to take over the world, but then, so much of Lewis’s literary output is the slavering of a crackpot. It’s his paintings that are the real achievement – because this literary loony was surely the finest British portraitist of the 20th century.

    According to legend – the only authority we have on various aspects of his colourful life – Percy Wyndham Lewis was born on a yacht off the coast of Canada in 1882, to an American father and an English mother. He disliked the Percy bit and later dropped it, but he was a Percy all right: a ludicrous, libertarian, right-wing prima donna, who despised “pederasts and lesbians” as well as Jews, but who, through some particularly wicked twistiness on God’s part, was blessed with authentic artistic fire. Lewis was so talented, so wild and fearless, he could have been one of the true greats of 20th century art. Only his Percyness held him back.

    The show picks up his story in 1920. A decade or so earlier, he had invented vorticism, the single most exciting surge of progress ever seen in British art. Vorticism was a work of true brilliance. For a few brief cultural moments, British art was running level with the leading revolutionary forces on the Continent: with cubism, futurism, suprematism. Then the first world war broke out and blew it all to smithereens. It is one thing to insist on the supremacy of dynamically angled abstraction in times of peace, another when loved ones are dying in the trenches.

    One of the best story lines in the show, however, reveals that, in Lewis’s hands at least, vorticism never really died – it merely lowered its ambition and took up portraiture. Thus we begin here with Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, his outrageous and hilarious self-portrait from 1920, in which he paints himself as a grinning, vorticist Lucifer. “Tyros” were what he called those deluded optimists of the postwar years who greeted the arrival of peace with broad smiles on their faces. At the back of his mind is the advice given by officers to soldiers in the trenches: grin and bear it. Lewis, who served in the war and became a lifelong appeaser as a result, shows himself sporting an insanely toothy rictus. The sharp, vorticist angles from which his head is constructed turn him into a kind of grinning human bayonet that thrusts itself into the face of 1920s Britain. It is a portrayal soaked with bitterness and malice.

    He continued to produce self-portraits for the next 20 years, each fresh presentation different from the one before, as his art tried frantically to keep up with its maker’s madly changing self-image. Like Van Gogh before him, and Rembrandt before that, Lewis uses self-portraiture in the way actors use wardrobe mistresses: to acquire new costumes and try on new roles.

    The 1920s were his best decade as a portraitist. The Hitler fuss had not yet exploded, the vorticism in his blood was still strong and purposeful, and his circle of friends included some of the most colourful and intriguing characters of the time. Among the action-packed portrayals of the extended Bloomsbury cast list, his Edith Sitwell is particularly fine. This crazy amalgam of vorticist angularity and early renaissance poise makes something extra-pointy out of the already pointy Sitwell. Yet her colouration brings something tangibly sad to the party. Surrounded by melancholy browns and greys, Sitwell’s emerald-green jacket and canary-yellow skirt seem to speak of the failed import of gaiety into a gloomy world.

    Lewis claimed loudly that his primary interest in portraiture was to capture the vorticist sculpture of a sitter’s head, but secretly – and this is another of the show’s revelations – he was as keen as any great portraitist to share his insights into a character. Next to the set-piece painting of Sitwell, there is a gorgeous drawing of her, in which her fragile and thoughtful little head emerges awkwardly from a huge and floppy jumper. This is Sitwell without her war paint, a thin, ungainly, vulnerable presence, popping out from her oversized clothes like a nervous turtle come up for a look.

    The portrait drawings are superb; all that excellent vorticist training had turned Lewis into an expert at finding the exact dynamic line with which to capture an outline or exaggerate a feature. Virginia Woolf anxiously kneads a pair of clumsy, outsized, workman’s hands that belong on Lady Chatterley’s gardener. Nancy Cunard, one of Lewis’s many flings, has her thinness compared with the thin bell-tower of a church in Venice. “Autumn pederasts everywhere, with a sprinkling of fascisti,” complained Lewis of his Venetian love-holiday with Cunard.

    He was an unstoppable spewer-out of words. Criticism, history, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography – he wrote it all and saw himself as one of those rare artists who is also a major literary figure.

    It wasn’t true, of course, and apart from the odd searing insight and brilliantly evil put-down, his literary output is embarrassing. These pretensions did at least embed him in the centre of Britain’s most fashionable literary gang, however, and it is as the portraitist of the era’s finest writers that Lewis reigns supreme.

    In 1921, in perhaps the best of his portrait drawings, he shows his Hitler-loving fellow-traveller, the nutty American poet Ezra Pound, as a storm of violent vorticist lines squeezed unconvincingly into an armchair. Imagine a force10 gale sitting on a sofa. His painting of Pound dozing with his newspapers, meanwhile, is uncharacteristically tender. The mad American whirlwind has put down his book and fallen asleep after lunch. His shirt collar is loose around his neck. His cigarettes lie stubbed out in the ashtray. The storm is spent.

    James Joyce, with whom Lewis enjoyed a thoroughly disgraceful drinking relationship, appears in a set of superb caricatures in which Lewis’s unkind quip about Joyce – that he looked like “a hollow hatchet” – is vividly illustrated. And I loved his GK Chesterton, whose piggy eyes stare out from his huge, fat face like a pair of buttons sewn onto an elephant. But it is TS Eliot who gets the best of Lewis’s efforts. Slumped in an armchair, in his polite suit and tie, staring madly into space, this great portrait insinuates perfectly the wild currents cascading violently behind Eliot’s bank-managerish exterior.

    The final quarter of the show traces an inevitable decline. Lewis’s eyes begin to deteriorate until, eventually, full blindness sets in. His vorticism duly softens, and the sharp angles give way to elegant art deco arcs and round-nesses. The unfortunate wife Lewis took in 1930, the badly treated Froanna, whom he would keep locked up and never introduce to his friends, is the subject of several tender portrayals. They’re full of affection, which is good, but they have about the