An Explosive Journal - The Blast of Wyndham Lewis

For centuries, when the Great British reading public scanned the covers of their journals, from Blackwoods through to the Edinburgh Review , the only words they saw were in Roman typeface, crowded and tiny. Imagine their thoughts on encountering this shock pink punch, this blinding black statement of intent, forcing the eye to flinch in its wake. Most would find it abhorrent, as people do with genuinely new ideas. But these ideas tend to find a way. This cover was an electric flash, heralding a storm threatening to engulf the formal pastoral of before. The aftershock of this storm still reverberates.

What was Blast? Ostensibly, the first "journal of the Vorticist movement", published in 1914, which only ever made it to issue two. In effect, the warped premature brain-child of one Percy Wyndham Lewis, spiky spiteful self-syled Enemy of the Art establishment, and Vorticism ("of the Vortex") was his vehicle for unleashing a crusade against them. Each word and image is heavy with the scent of his venom, slashing at those who wouldn't accept his self-proclaimed genius. The one truly original British art movement of the first half of the twentieth century was animated almost single-handedly by one man's bile.

But what was in it? Blast includes examples of Vorticist art by Lewis and his contemporaries, his own art and literary criticism, his unstage-ably extreme two man play "Enemy of the Stars", poetry by Ezra Pound, and short stories by Rebecca West and Ford Maddox Brown. Most notable however was its first section, and most unique construct, the Blast Manifesto.

This manifesto is printed in the typography of contemporary posters, those advertising gaudy entertainments such as the circus or boxing match, and cascades forth in aphorism heavy bombast :- "We start from opposite statements of a chosen world/ Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes......We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb...." Deliberately overwrought, powered by excess as if by rocket fuel, ready to declare war on art and the world, "BLASTing" and "BLESSing" the world as if from stance of some rogue Norse deity.

English humour is first BLASTED "quack English drug for stupidity and sleepiness/ Arch enemy of REAL, conventionalising like gunshot, freezing supple REAL in ferocious chemistry of laughter" and then BLESSED "the great barbarous weapon of the genius among races. The wild MOUNTAIN RAILWAY from IDEA to IDEA, in the ancient fair of LIFE". France is seen from both sides too, damned for "SENTIMENTAL GALLIC GUSH", praised for "Masterly pornography (great enemy of progress), depths of elegance, Great Flood of LIFE pouring out of wound of 1797." Entrancing poetic pronouncements, mad with possible wisdom, spark with the force and rapidity of machine gun fire. "BLESS ALL SEAFARERS. They exchange not one LAND for another, but one ELEMENT for another. The more against the less ABSTRACT. BLESS the vast planetary abstraction of the OCEAN."

Here was an artform not seen before :- writing, but writing which seeks to attain the form of visual art rather than literature, more precisely aiming to emulate the ever-shifting contours of the vortex from which the movement takes its name. (Lewis' friend James Joyce was also beginning to cultivate this 'writing as visual art', but Ulysses was only started after Blast was first published, and would not be finished for a decade.) This is a writing which seeks to shake and unsettle the mind rather than cultivate or "improve" it.

The thoughts of the manifesto making up this vortex are therefore wildly and wilfully contradictory, at once revolutionary and reactionary. The contradiction is essential. Lewis states in the manifesto "We need the unconsciousness of humanity -their stupidity, animalism and dreams" also "Intrinsic beauty is in the interpreter and seer, not in the object or content." The message is essentially the form itself, and so taken as a piece of writing, it lays itself open to charges of shallowness, meaninglessness. What is the use of a manifesto that spends equal time lauding and assailing the same targets?

But there is no "use", because this is art, all of which as Wilde said is "quite useless". The thrill of the angular sentences, the unexpected words jutting forth like rogue corkscrews, produce a kinetic rush which is its own reward. Grammar, morality, congruity, indeed sense are all swept away by the vortex, an acidic word play which finds its apotheosis in an art of destruction, destruction of form and format, of meaning itself. And yet at the same time, one can find more truth and wisdom in its scattershot pronouncements than in a hundred more measured and erudite tomes, in the same way that Nietzsche is read far more than Kant. His conclusions may be wrong most of the time, but he has a far more interesting time getting there. Then again, this is not philosophy, but entertainment.

Entertainment indeed, this is writing as art, but taken at its most base level, it is essentially humorous. The manifesto is a hilariously transgressive statement of intent, it's sadistic screed sham utopian, in the style of Swift (one of its "BLESSED" writers.) This is a satirical cabaret as much as an exercise avant aesthetics. Taking apart England, France, "the years 1837 to 1900 -abysmal inexcusable middle-class" , this stance of the grand nemesis, while its hatred may be genuine, is also a knockabout routine, and Lewis knows it. This stance of The Enemy is an anti-humanistic counter-pose to prevailing morality which presents the artist as an evil deity. Indeed, it presents the artist as a simultaneous Anti-Christ and anarchist - to quote a certain later descendant - and was every bit as much a cabaret act when his forbear performed it.

Moving on into the pages of Blast - after the art of Wyndham Lewis' words, the art of his images. Living in the aftershock, we may take it for granted, but this jagged, fissured assault on the figurative sensibility must have seemed terrifyingly alien at the time, inorganic, a re-scalpelling of the soul made possible by the machine age. They would be right, but this optical poetry creates the same psychic rush his writing achieves. Take the fractured curves of "Timon of Athens", or "Slow Attack". The angular menace, the sheer visceral abandon of these can still thrill today.

The other contributors to Blast compliment the attack. Pound's poetry is still in its infancy, but is still so unlike anything which has come before to add new currents to the storm. Rebecca West's short story "Indissoluble Matrimony" is the most "conventional" narrative here (Lewis, ever contrary, said it was the only thing in the journal he enjoyed not written by himself) but its tale of a husband and wife bludgeoning each other in a lake combines an elegantly icy authorial surface voice with a savage energy beneath which add further prismatic whirls to the vortex. The art prints of Frederick Etchells, Edward Wadsworth, Cuthbert Hamilton and Jacob Epstein take Lewis' style into still more redolent contours. But they don't match the inhuman originality of the master. It is the painting and the prose of Wyndham Lewis that makes this vortex spin. Both the prints and the writing are a poetry of the sharp surface, a harsh, perverse carapace, unalloyed and unique. Lewis is the consummate elitist, untainted by the muck of mediocrity.

The achievement of Blast is to create an aesthetic all of its own, a complete mental landscape every bit as unique as Impressionism or Cubism, feeding into the Dada and Surrealism that followed it. The merest fragment can find an image of the whole movement, perhaps the truest definition of "original" art. Breton's Surrealist Manifesto had a clear debt to the manifesto of Blast. Search on down the decades and the debt continues. From the whirling non-linear narratives of Burroughs and "Atrocity Exhibition" era JG Ballard, to the savage surreal satire of Chris Morris' Brass Eye, each owe something to its serrated edge. In music, Mark E Smith of The Fall has made explicit the fact his savage jet-sprays of consciousness owe much to this original renegade. The late Malcolm McLaren was never so honest about the influence of Lewis on his own arch art prankery, but it was there all the same. Indeed the aesthetic of the whole avant-subversive-transgressive Pistols wing of 70's London punk (as opposed to the campaigning-idealist Clash wing) clearly took its cue from the inventively scabrous oppositionalism and fractured imagery of Vorticism, from the swastika-Marx-crucifix emblems on their shirts, to the blackmail lettering of Jamie Reid's album cover attacking the eyes just as the journal's cover did all those years before. McLaren and Vivienne Westwood even designed a "Which side of the bed" t-shirt which homaged the "Blasted and Blessed" of the original manifesto, with new heroes (Eddie Cochrane, Joe Orton, Ronnie Biggs and free radio stations) replacing the originals (Charlotte Corday, The Pope and James Joyce), and the new villains of (Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, Max Bygraves, WH Smith and the Stock Exchange) replacing the old (the British Academy, the Post Office, Captain Cook and Sydney Webb.)

The best of Blast's descendants are magnificent. But when your stance is a fetishised oppositionalism, it is absolutely vital this is accompanied with absolute, dynamic ingenuity. Anything less, and the result is childish, boorish, worst of all plain boring. Its more degraded descendants could arguably include every pitiful spitting punk band, and the piss-poor amoral controversialism of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. But then you shouldn't blame Graham Greene for Frederick Forsyth, nor Hogarth for 'Mac' of the Daily Mail.

With "Enemy of the Stars", a two handed play which sees claustrophobically entwined individuals existentially battling it out against an absurdist landscape, we see an often overlooked influence on Beckett, with the Vladimir and Estragon of Waiting for Godot descendants of Arghol and Hanp in their stylised rhetorical opposition. Lewis' marred reputation means he very rarely gets the credit he deserves for this inspiration for some of the 20th century's greatest masterpieces of theatre.

Yet of course Lewis' reputation is eternally marred. The underside to this thrilling pose, from black-hearted nihilism, to the outright Fascism seen in the later career of the man, has been explored at great length elsewhere. The charge-sheet against this personally dislikeable individual is neither light nor slight. Of course his barbed vision is open to abuse, abuse itself being its life-blood. Aesthetics translated into politics is very often a bad combination, as certain followers of that other great pugilistic aphorist Friedrich Nietzsche have amply and agonisingly shown. Nietzsche and Wyndham Lewis are like gunpowder, their explosions can both ignite beautiful displays, or lead to incalculable damage.

W H Auden dubbed Lewis "that lonely old Volcano of the Right." A lonely volcano maybe, but one whose diabolic lava solidified into the shapes which formed the cultural landscape we still live in. Out of print for decades, Blast is now finally available in a new print from Thames and Hudson. It's worth a read, not least as this is a Blast from which we still live in the echo.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2010] Back