Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Picasso

Pantechnicon painter: Wyndham Lewis meets Denis Williams

From the October Gallery in Bloomsbury comes word of their show of work by Aubrey Williams, from their stable of artists, opening on 13 September. Much vibrant abstraction, and definitely worth a look – go here for biog and images. The circumstance that Aubrey Williams was born in Guyana reminds me to take a more considered look at the art of the remarkable Denis Williams, artist, art historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biographer and novelist – no relation but also born in Guyana, of the same generation as Aubrey W, and also a young painter in post-war London.

Denis Williams

My copy of Evelyn Williams’s The Art of Denis Williams is still in the mail as we speak, but meanwhile there’s plenty to be found online. In passing, I’m struck by the wholehearted enthusiasm demonstrated for the young Williams and his work by the ageing Wyndham Lewis, who reviewed him twice for The Listener, and then did his best to give the young painter a leg up in the art world. Lewis’s collected Listener pieces from 1946 to 1951 are immediately accessible thanks to the invaluable work of Jan Cox and Alan Munton, hosted here (no distinct url’s for articles, but the artist A to Z is in the menu at left).

In July 1949 Lewis took a look at the work of “two coloured artists” at the Berkeley Gallery. That of Ghanaian Kofi Antubam he dismissed quickly, finding it Europeanised and saccharine, but Williams he hailed for his “most remarkable gifts” and on the strength of it asked him round for a chat:

… this descendant (as he tells me) of African slaves responds to European barbarism with enthusiasm. The ‘dark unconscious’, as Lawrence would have called it, staring at itself in the Picassoan mirror, is unquestionably a fascinating spectacle – though when I mentioned Picasso he answered, ‘It is not a case of my going to Picasso, Picasso came to Africa and to me’.

Wyndham Lewis in his later years

The whole question around modernism’s espousal of “primitivism” is now rightly found uncomfortable in several respects; we might also curl the odd toe at some nuances of Lewis’s language, though it would have been considered unusually respectful at the time, and there’s no doubt that Lewis gave generously of his time and effort to assist Williams. The young painter had been in London for three years, the first year on a British Council art scholarship and then working at the Colonial Office. In a few days’ time, he told Lewis, he would be leaving for the ‘States. Lewis promptly took the liberty of giving Williams the New York address of the academic Felix Giovanelli, a close friend of Marshall McLuhan, and wrote to Giovanelli to let him know:

Denis Williams is an extremely intelligent young man … He will not be a disagreeable contact (though I hope he will not be a socially embarrassing one) … you may by chance know a Negro artist? – you might assist him re any charitable organisation to help visiting Negroes of the student type. That sort of thing … it seems abominable for the British Council to give him one years lift, and then drop him. Guiana is no place in which to be a painter. It would be wonderful if he could stay in New York … The main fact in all this is that he is a very unusually promising artist. I hope I have not done the wrong thing in giving this young chap your address …

By late 1950 Williams was back in London, with a one man show at Gimpel Fils, which Lewis reviewed at length:

I do not wish to be guilty of what is called overpraising … but I consider Denis Williams a young man of very remarkable talent. He paints pictures the size of a pantechnicon with as little effort as the blackbird sings. But these huge canvases are not the apparently carefree vocalism of a bird, they are heavy with human import … The canvases are big because there is such a volume, such a weight, of emotion there, requiring a big receptacle into which to pour itself …

Human World, 1950

One of the three large canvases described at some length in the review was Human World (1950), since justly celebrated. Lewis found this a “parade of symbols”, focused around “pregnancy … standing for the new regenerate mankind … encompassed by human obtuseness”. The symbolism he found sympathetic but also a little problematic:

The lot of the Negro, and related to that the lot of the underdog everywhere, is, with Williams, an ever present tragedy. The word ‘Korea’ is for him a violent irritant … Williams is an existentialist, or has been greatly influenced by the teaching of Sartre. ‘Anxiety’ is a word that often recurs in his conversation: the Kierkegaardian ‘Angst’ receives a new interpretation entangled with contemporary politics. ‘Horror’ is another word obsessively frequent.
It is what Anxiety merges in when stimulated
by such symbolic names as ‘Korea’ or ‘MacArthur’.

While gently dissociating himself from Williams’s philosophies, Lewis admits gladly their stimulus to his painting.

All I have to do here is to acclaim these pictures, full of power and vitality. No one interested in what is being done in London today should fail to see them.

Human World has been so much reproduced online that I feel able to add to that accumulation here without permission. It’s an impressively humane and stonkingly powerful piece of painting, and was subsequently purchased to form the basis of the National Collection of Guyana. Today, in the aftermath of the “Windrush Generation” scandal, we might be more inclined to read the painting as an image of a migrant community confronted by an alien and industrial society. And I’m surely not alone in seeing in it clear afterimages of some of the mannerisms of the painter Wyndham Lewis?

In November 1950 Lewis tried again on Williams’s behalf, this time tugging at the sleeve of Herbert Read:

… if he is to survive he must be found a job. Because of colour this presents great difficulties. It is a pity that all this talent should be lost for no better reason than that its possessor’s skin is controversial.

In the end, Lewis helped to enable Williams to obtain a teaching position at the Central School of Art in London. He later taught at the Slade, exhibited at the ICA and went on to participate in the legendary This is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. Later he came to feel that he was working within a culture that was not his own, and moved on to other forms of success.

For devotees of Lewis, the image of a “pantechnicon”, used by him for the hugeness of Williams’s canvases, rings a bell. In Blast, decades previously, he had characterised Ezra Pound as

Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters.

If we choose to apply it to Denis Williams, the description takes on a interesting new resonance. Was there, at the back of Lewis’s mind, some distant echo of Pound in Williams?

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Picasso the diabolist

Some follow-ups to my earlier post on the painter Michael Ayrton, his interest (or lack of) in the ideas of Aleister Crowley, and his travels, astral or otherwise, in the “White Country” of the Potteries: Laver

The recollections of Ayrton’s friend James Laver, V&A curator and dabbler in the arcane, shed no light on any of this, nor on Barnett Stross’s alleged but unlikely astral battles with Crowley, though Laver’s gossipy autobiography Museum Piece (1963) is notable for its detailed account of his visit to Old Crow in Hastings in March 1947. By this point the Beast was sadly in decline, shooting up several times during the conversation; Laver noted the spots of blood on his shirt sleeves. He had been introduced to Crowley back in the ‘twenties by Gwendoline Otter, but makes no mention of him in connection with Ayrton or Stross.

Laver’s attack on Picasso as dictator and black magician turns out to be derived directly from Ayrton’s broadcast “A Master of Pastiche. A Personal Reaction to Picasso”, subsequently anthologised in John Lehmann’s New Writing and Daylight VII for 1946:

“I do not believe that it is possible to create living art out of anything but the direct visual experience of nature, combined with the heritage of a tradition, unless it be by the practice of magic ritual. Since Picasso does not attempt the former, he must be considered in terms of the latter, and considered in these terms his processes of stylistic inversion and formal disintegration are black magic, no more, no less … The parallel with black magic can be carried further, for destructive distortion and alteration of ritual is the basis of diabolism. To his most devoted admirers he is celebrated for his gift for paraphrase. Black magic is also the cult of personal power, and fame goes with it. Of these two latter attributes Picasso shows no lack. He is the most powerful influence and the most famous artist alive, but is it possible that any contribution to the mainstream of European art can be made by his particular form of diabolic egocentricity? In view of the fact that black magic is a death cult and in view of the fact that the whole impetus of Picasso’s art stems from manners and modes created for now extinct ends – the Romanesque, Catalan primitives, the Greek vase and medieval stained glass are examples – he is a very master of necrophily …

… It is part of his power that he is able to embrace the efforts of lesser men and restate their aims, in his own terms and in relation to the formula current in his own work. This in itself is the hallmark of a particular form of genius. But more than all this, his power lies in his position relative to his times, his temporal domination. Nor is this incompatible with the archaism of the different stylistic starting points of each new ‘époque.’ It is that Picasso is contemporary in the hysteria of his art in exactly the same way that Hitler is contemporary in the hysteria of his politics, much of which – anti-semitism is an example – is archaic in principle.”

This is an audacious critique, but it bears consideration. Its weakness is perhaps less its analysis of Picasso’s process than its rather dated, ‘nineties characterisation of “diabolism” as inversion, reversal etc. Despite his monstrous egotism and pursuit of personal power, Crowley was not a Satanist in any strict sense, and the terms in which Ayrton talks rather suggest that he had no real familiarity with AC’s theories. If so, the speculations documented in my previous post cannot stand.

Ayrton’s own work was perhaps excessively literary. Alan Munton points out to me that Robert Colquhoun once accused Ayrton of being a painter who did too much thinking, a distraction best avoided in that trade. “But what about Wyndham Lewis?” countered Ayrton. “Aye,” conceded Colquhoun. “But what a painter! Let him think if he wants to …”

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Next, my thanks to Mark Finney for taking the Michael Ayrton-Barnett Stross connection in a new and interesting direction. The doings of the “Burslem Boys” – Potteries painters John Shelton, Arthur Berry and Norman Cope – are chronicled admirably on Mark’s site, with the benefit of his access to original documents in the keeping of the families of Shelton and Cope. The latter died tragically in 1943, but his own surviving lists of his work note two pieces sold to Barnett Stross (one being The Beer Drinker, for 6 guineas), and at least two “sold to Ayrton” for 3 and 5 guineas, including The Window Gazers. Both named pieces were brush drawings.

Cope’s combination of meticulous draftsmanship with an extreme expressionism would certainly have attracted Ayrton, but one particular title on the list leaps out in connection with Ayrton’s own work – an item called Shraff Tip, “shraff” being broken ceramic waste from the potteries. Browsing Cope’s work and seeing this image, Ayrton may well have picked up the idea for his own later pieces, The Tip and The Sleeper, discussed in my earlier post.

Finally, apologies for having doubted the existence of Freda Cavell, with thanks to Bill Bennett for pointing out that in Frances Spalding’s biography of John Minton, Dance till the Stars Come Down, she has a walk-on part in 1945 as “the Witch of Streatham”. (Though Google only recognises the title as applied, oddly enough, by Iain Sinclair to Angela Carter, of all people …)

Black magic in the White Country: Michael Ayrton and Aleister Crowley

You can’t venture far into pre-‘fifties Bohemia without bumping into the sad but morbidly fascinating figure of Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast. But is it always the real Crowley that we meet, or an apparition?

Michael Ayrton

Peter Cannon-Brookes’ 1978 monograph on neo-romantic wonder boy, painter and maze-maker Michael Ayrton contains this intriguing allusion:

“During 1941 Michael Ayrton’s friendship with the composer Cecil Gray and the mystical circle including Barnet[sic] Stross, Freda Cavell, James Laver and above all Margery Livingstone[sic], and its links with Alistair[sic] Crowley, began to take on a new significance.”

Beyond a hint at “deeply disturbing elements” in Ayrton’s writing, we’re not told what this “new significance” was, nor what Crowley may have had to do with it. Confidence is not strengthened by the misspelling of three names. (Nor by the possible garbling of a fourth: is “Freda Cavell”, a name I can’t place, an inadvertent blend of Lady Frieda Harris, designer of Crowley’s Thoth tarot, with Edith Cavell, the subject of one of his more offensive articles?)

But how “mystical” was Ayrton’s circle? And how did Crowley fit in? Having ditched my Crowley biographies (and other Crowleyana) some years ago following my liberation from Crowleyanity, I don’t have many references handy, but the other names can be quickly sketched in for now: Cecil Gray, music critic and composer; James Laver, writer, fashion historian, curator at the V&A, and contributor to a 1948 monograph on Ayrton; Marjorie Livingston, clairaudient, psychic writer and lecturer; Dr (later Sir) Barnett Stross, art collector and from 1945 MP for Hanley, one of the “six towns” of the Potteries.

Barnett Stross

Barnett Stross

Ten years after Cannon-Brookes, Malcolm Yorke, in The Spirit of Place, 1988, came up with a  startling claim about Stross:

“[Ayrton] was at this time interested in the occult and may have met, on his Fitzrovian travels, the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, who was by this time past his best … [Crowley] had also been defeated in battles across the ether by the white witch Barnett Stross, MP for Stoke-on-Trent, and inevitably a friend of the Ayrton family. It is impossible at this distance to know how deeply Ayrton took this interest …”

“Doc” Stross, popular family GP, Labour councillor and re-builder of Lidice – a “white witch” engaged in Dennis Wheatley-style astral fisticuffs with the Beast? But by the time we reach Justine Hopkins’ Michael Ayrton: a Biography, 1994, this “may have met” scenario has firmed up alarmingly:

“Cecil [Gray] had known the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, in the days of his power, and on one occasion introduced him to Michael, although the latter was little impressed by the bloated, boastful charlatan that Crowley had become since his fatal experiments in Paris. He was, however, the cause of a confrontation between the Beast and Barnett Stross, GP, MP and white wizard. Hearing through Cecil that Crowley had some particularly inventive and unpleasant devilry in mind he protested violently, and summoned Stross to the battle across the aether with his dark counterpart. Stross apparently triumphed, and Crowley threatened revenge on Michael in no uncertain terms; the fact that no disaster befell him only went to confirm the scepticism which was an essential part of his involvement with the spirit world.”

So Ayrton not only met Crowley, but set Stross against him, and was threatened by Crowley for his pains? In Hopkins’ index Crowley’s first name is spelt as “Alastair”, suggesting Cannon-Brookes as her source. But “battle across the aether” is obviously lifted directly from Yorke. Are the extra bits from a third source, or just a creative embroidering of Yorke’s story?

The Temptation of St Anthony, 1942-3

The Temptation of St Anthony, 1942-3

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s a simple step forward in wishful thinking to have Ayrton not only meeting Crowley but becoming his student. Here’s novelist and art writer Michael Bracewell pronouncing on ‘Magic and Modernity in British Art’ in Tate Etc. 17, Autumn 2009 (my emphasis):

“The Neo-Romantic sensibility had some occasional links to the world of contemporary operational magic; the artist Michael Ayrton, for example, became interested in the occult during the early 1940s and in the writings of Aleister Crowley, “The Great Beast”, who by this time was more of a Fitzrovian casualty and proto-Beat than a persuasive magician.”

The word “Fitzrovian” here may betray Yorke as the inspiration, with “past his best” inflated to “casualty and proto-Beat.” (The Beast as a Beat? I suppose we understand what he means.) Ayrton as Crowleyan was also cemented into the record by Martin Clark of Tate St Ives, interviewed on the occasion of its show ‘The Dark Monarch’ in 2009:

“We know that Michael Ayrton was interested in Aleister Crowley’s writing.”

Do “we know” this? No, we don’t actually, but that doesn’t prevent this “knowledge” from passing into circulation and ending up (inevitably) as a selling point for Ayrtons. The hammer price of The Satyr Disturbed recently doubled its estimate at Sworders auctions with a description that confidently declared (my emphasis):

“During the 1940s, Ayrton became interested in the occult, and specifically in the writings of the magician-mystic, Aleister Crowley.”

The creative slipping-in of “specifically” now makes Ayrton not just a student of Crowley, but a disciple! How much of this has any substance? Anthony Clayton, at his antonine itineraries blog, has previously taken a look at some of it and found it a bit of a magickal bubble. I agree. But behind the hype lurk some interesting connections that do bear scrutiny. Back to the “mystical circle” of Ayrton’s friends …

cecil grayCecil Gray had been a close friend and biographer of suicidal composer and naked motor bike rider Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock). In her Sword of Wisdom, 1975, surrealist and occultist Ithell Colquhoun confidently lists Warlock among the membership of Crowleyan lodges. So it’s quite possible that Gray had met Crowley through him. Though he is little recognised as a composer, one of Gray’s three operas was The Temptation of St Anthony, composed in 1935-7 to his own libretto based on the novel by Flaubert. My friend Gerald Leach, who has a copy of the score, comments that he uses instrumental ensembles and colours deeply informed by the ancient religious music of Assyria, India, Greece and Israel, which rather suggests a “mystical” intention. In 1942-3 Ayrton produced his own hysterically overwrought painting on this theme, whose inspiration must have been Gray’s opera; Malcolm Yorke associates Ayrton’s occult tendencies with “some quite extreme spiritual crisis being worked through in various studies for The Temptation of St Anthony.

James Laver in 1948

James Laver in 1948

The dilettantism of Ayrton’s friend James Laver also took on some curious directions. To while away wartime train journeys, according to his 1975 Times obituary (republished here), Laver set himself the task of reading every book on occultism in the London Library. His resulting study of Nostradamus was published in 1942, and was the first to identify the “Hister” bits as referring to Hitler. According to T W M van Berkel, Laver’s material fed into a black propaganda brochure on Nostradamus authored in German for the Special Operations Executive by the astrologer Louis de Wohl (who also cast Laver’s horoscope) and printed by Ellic Howe of the Psychological Warfare Executive, himself later a well known chronicler of the Golden Dawn.

In his introduction to Paintings by Michael Ayrton (Grey Walls Press, 1948), while discussing Ayrton’s notable 1945 broadcast on Picasso as a “master of pastiche”, Laver makes this extraordinary comment:

“The Litany of Art, Picasso has recited backwards. Everything he does is à rebours and characterised by the same purposeful distortion. It is the very mark of diabolism, and Picasso is the great black magician of our time – its most typical figure therefore, the equivalent in the world of contemplation of those other black magicians who have laid waste both Europe and the European soul … Ayrton is the first to acknowledge his own debt to Picasso, if it is only a debt to a ‘black magicism’ from whose toils he has escaped but whose methods have given a permanent impress to his own practice.”

Picasso as black magician and Art Nazi? A bit strong, surely. But Laver had diabolism on his mind at the time, having visited the ageing Crowley in his Hastings boarding house the year before, as briefly recounted in his 1963 autobiography. At this high point of English neo-romanticism, art and magic seem to have been all one to Laver:

“… the magicians and occultists of all ages have known that everything that is without is also within. Art therefore comes full circle and returns to the World of Magic from whence it sprung.”

Such airy Neo-platonisms don’t mean too much on close inspection, but they show where Laver was at. As a historian of fashion he is still well regarded, but much of his thinking seems to have emerged from that curious between-the-wars alternative-progressive world of gymnosophy, Co-masonry, the Woodcraft movement and so forth. There are suggestions (as on this forum) that Laver also knew Austin Osman Spare, and that he may have been associated with a coven that met at Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs during the ‘forties. Maybe, maybe not. But it is worth noting that Ayrton painted a Paul Nash-style view of the Ring in 1946, Track to Chanctonbury (shown here). Laver certainly knew Gerald Gardner through a shared interest in naturism, and contributed a foreword to J L Bracelin’s 1960 biography of the creator of Wicca.

Constant Lambert by Ayrton

Constant Lambert by Ayrton

But what of the alleged white wizard, Barnett Stross MP? In 1944 Ayrton and his close friend the composer Constant Lambert called in on Stross during a visit to the Royal Ballet, then in wartime exile at Stoke-on-Trent. Stross, as quoted by Justine Hopkins, took them to the Great Tip at Hanley:

“… a dumping ground for old shards. Beneath the crockery there is a colony of rats, for when the potters empty and tip into this hole there is often food in the way of bread mixed up with the fragments. I took Michael to see this place one summer evening before dusk, and he saw the rats come up for an airing. Little ones and large ones, brown and badger and some were scabrous…”

The Sleeper in the White Country, 1945

The Sleeper in the White Country, 1945

Ayrton, who found the rest of the Potteries colourless and puritanical, was much taken with the Tip, where, as he recalled, “a million broken cups and saucers make for rats a porcelain Chicago.” The following year he painted a spectral view of the Tip with an unexplained naked man in the foreground. This was titled The White Country, but is listed today as The Sleeper in the White Country, perhaps to distinguish it from a Mintonesque view of the clay dusted Potteries streetscape, The White Country, painted in 1946, and a view of The Tip, Hanley, minus naked figure, of the same year – both shown below.

The “sleeper” at the Tip is very clearly the same person featured in the rather alarming The Sleeper in Flight of 1943 (below), said by Cannon-Brookes to be an image of the young Nicholas Malleson, which I take to mean Dr Nicholas Malleson, later Director of Health Services at the University of London, who in the ‘sixties advocated the legalisation of all hallucinogenic drugs, declaring: “I’ve known many young women I’d rather see take LSD than Billy Graham.” (Young men too, presumably.) Though why is it Malleson at the Tip?

The Tip, Hanley, 1946

The Tip, Hanley, 1946

Whatever his identity, it seems to me that the “Sleeper” may be occupied less in normal dreaming than in astral projection, which could lend some credence to the “white witch” business. Indeed, The Sleeper in the White Country was purchased by Barnett Stross; could the “white” of White Country mean something more than clay dust? The Sleeper may be related to the prone naked figure in The Earthbound of 1944 (below), itself anticipated by the sunbather in Joan in the Fields of the previous year. However the lying man in Earthbound seems not so much asleep as psychically knocked out, recalling Mantegna’s The Bewitched Groom, an image Ayrton could not have failed to know.

The White Country, 1946

The White Country, 1946

I’m sympathetic to Ayrton’s 1946 rallying call, in British Drawings, for “the lyrical, the satiric, the mystical, the romantic and the preoccupation with linear rhythms, which are the bones and basis of our art.” But his own work, however admirable, was not “destined to shape the future of British art,” as Wyndham Lewis had predicted. At times his mannered, arcane, literary quirkiness puts him close to the eccentric illustration of Mervyn Peake, which some of his earlier drawings resemble; no coincidence that Grey Walls Press put out a volume of Peake’s drawings the year after their Ayrton book.

The Sleeper in Flight, 1943

The Sleeper in Flight, 1943

One last small piece of spookiness: in 1952 Ayrton married Elisabeth Balchin, another graduate of the wartime Special Operations Executive. Her first husband, Nigel Balchin, while seconded from the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1933 as a consultant to Rowntrees, had personally created an iconic brand of chocolates. You’ve guessed it – ‘Black Magic’ …

The Earthbound, 1944

The Earthbound, 1944

Back to life with Alan Wycliffe Wellings

The “drawings” category of Ebay’s art listings is crowded out with old life studies. (They even outnumber the hopeful but hopeless Picasso fakes.) It’s sad, really. Pencilled and charcoaled ladies with their kit off (and the odd gent) from a variety of past decades, once laboured over in the life rooms but now unloaded onto the market in folders full. Mostly mediocre student stuff, and probably destined for the recycling bin, despite the occasional optimistic tag of “erotic interest”.

alan wellingsBut this one seemed worth rescuing for the price of a takeaway.

The artist is the teacher and illustrator Alan Wycliffe Wellings, born in Pattingham, near Wolverhampton – just a few fields away from me – in 1910. By 1926 he was at Wolverhampton School of Art, where at the age of 15 he was among the top eight candidates nationally in the Royal Drawing Society examinations, as reported in this cutting from the Wolverhampton Express & Star. (For another distinguished alumnus of the Wolverhampton School of Art, see the Annesley Tittensor page above.) Wellings went on to the Royal, and then taught at the Eastbrook School for Boys in Dagenham, which enjoyed a progressive arts curriculum at the time. By the late ‘forties he was at South East Essex School of Art. He died in 1985. A folder of his life drawings turned up a month ago at an Essex auction house, the buyer promptly turfing them out onto Ebay.

This one isn’t dated, but other pieces in the folder are said to be marked from the ‘thirties. This may date from Wellings’ time at the Royal, though the pen and ink style, with its dashed lines of shading and rather risky employment of a wide range of nibs, wouldn’t have looked out of place twenty years later. There is no under-pencilling; Wellings put the image down directly from observation, squatting at his donkey, resulting in a number of prominent alternative lines which, as in all best drawing practice, co-exist as successive thoughts and build to a vibration, rather than something “accurate” from which the life has been erased.

footThe figure is given a subtly neo-classical feel which might be a faint but knowing nod to Picasso’s drawings of around 1923. And the generosity of the limbs is certainly in that area. My favourite bit is the foot on the floor – you have to admit, that’s one hell of a foot!

King Mobster in Bloomsbury: T J Clark, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis

As the memorable Jonathan Richman song asserts,

Well some people try to pick up girls
And they get called an asshole
But this never happened to Pablo Picasso

Well perhaps not, but it’s certainly happened to Wyndham Lewis, if only in T J Clark’s review of the Picasso and Modern British Art show at Tate Britain. (“False Moderacy”, London Review of Books, 22 March.) TJ, among many, seems quite unable to resist Picasso’s stare, as the song puts it. For these Picasso-olaters (his own term), their man is the default reference point. So works with a perceived degree of resemblance must be, by definition, versions of Picasso-ism –  lesser followings, whose authenticities shade from the worthy to the damnable. (This assumption could be said to underlie the Tate show itself, which in this respect may have been unwisely conceived.)

So, according to TJ:

“There is a scare-quotes ‘Picasso’-ism, all rending and tearing and leering and terribilità, at the heart of the pseudo-culture of art from 1910 on; and off to one side there is Picasso-ism for real. Wyndham Lewis is a good example of the first …”

But in no sense was Lewis a “Picasso-ist”. The alleged “leering and terribilità” may be a confused reference to the hilarious but disturbing mannequins of Lewis’ pre-Vorticist “wild body” period, which could be said to indicate understanding and awareness of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but do not follow its agenda. (If anything, they are closer to the primitivism of Larionov, with which they are contemporaneous.) So Lewis is damned for failing to achieve something he didn’t even attempt. (In fact, as we shall see, he declined on principle to attempt it.)

This is a very skewed view. The skewing seems to be informed by TJ’s preoccupation with the authentically revolutionary, whose focal point is manifestly Parisian, from Courbet and Manet to Pissarro and Picasso, with nods along the way to others on the boulevards. But how has he acquired such values?

In 1967 Timothy Clark was excluded from his brief membership of the British section of the Paris-based Situationist International, along with Christopher Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith, on account of their unwanted closeness to the Americans Ben Morea and Abbie Hoffman. (“The falsifier and his mystical acolyte”, as Internationale Situationniste 12 put it. For anyone who cares, Ken Knabb’s translation of the episode is here.) Excluded from their revolutionary Eden, the three co-pro-situ’s went on to publish King Mob Echo, and Timothy Clark morphed into TJ, the academic mandarin. One can only surmise that the trauma of his expulsion must have imprinted on Clark a disproportionate anxiety about Parisian revolutionary authenticity from which he has never recovered.

But hang on, haven’t we been here before – long before? Isn’t this just a brush-up of the Francophile camp-following of Clive Bell and Roger Fry? Here is Bell:

“English painters appear to have preferred being pygmies amongst cranes to being artists amongst artists. Aurons-nous change tout ca? Qui vivra verra. The league exists; its permanent headquarters are in Paris …”

“Picasso’s is the paramount influence in Europe … The younger and more intelligent foreigners, within and without the gates of Paris, know well enough that Picasso is still their animator.”

This snobisme, this displaced chauvinism in which travel away from the Left Bank is a journey into the “suburban” and “provincial” (two of Bell’s favourite insults), is the Bloomsbury agenda which Lewis fought during his entire career. As Bloomsbury shaped the primacy of Paris for British taste, so conversely it funnelled to the Continent its own value judgements on British modernism. As Picasso is reported (by Ben Nicholson) to have remarked: “Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?” To the end of his days Lewis opposed the reactionary effect and deadening legacy of Bloomsbury. And he never shrank from identifying the weaknesses of Picasso. As early as 1915, in Blast 2, he had made the highly perceptive critique that

“The Cubist, especially Picasso, founds his invention on the posed model, or the posed Nature-Morte, using these models almost to the extent of the Impressionist … HOWEVER MUSICAL OR VEGETARIAN A MAN MAY BE, HIS LIFE IS NOT SPENT EXCLUSIVELY AMONGST APPLES AND MANDOLINES … The placid empty planes of Picasso’s later “natures-mortes”, the bric-à-brac of bits of wall-paper, pieces of cloth, etc., tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency. These tours-de-force of taste, and DEAD ARRANGEMENTS BY THE TASTEFUL HAND WITHOUT, not instinctive organisations by the living will within, are too inactive and uninventive for our northern climates, and the same objections can be made to them as to Matisse DECORATION … The whole of the modern movement, then, is, we maintain, under a cloud. That cloud is the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso. We must disinculpate ourselves of Picasso at once.”

Lewis put his finger astutely on the essential banality of the form-content of the School of Paris, preoccupied with “the debris of their rooms” rather than “changing our common life”. (It was essentially the same criticism he would make of James Joyce: revolutionary technique, but wrapped around Victorian content.) To the end of his days he maintained and elaborated this critique, identifying Picasso as a pasticheur, but technically impressive to the extent that he threatened to become “a stultifying obsession”.

And what an obsession! The far-sightedness of Lewis’ position is evidenced by our need, even today, to query Clark’s unthinkingly hand-me-down narrative of Modernism. But that narrative moved on. If Lewis, in his “safe Soho Bohème”, exemplifies for Clark a phoney Picasso-ism, where is the real stuff, the “serious engagement”? Why, with Gorky, de Kooning and the New York School, he informs us. In this so-familiar construction, the torch of authenticity is handed across the Atlantic circa 1939, and we slip from Modernism according to Bloomsbury to Modernism according to Clement Greenberg.

What a very passive and old fashioned account this is! Strikingly so from such a reputed Bad Boy of Art History. This is the canon of the Cold War, and an imperialist canon. It’s about time we were Leaving the Twentieth Century, and in particular leaving behind the art-historical orthodoxies of the ‘sixties.