The Great War: Wyndham Lewis and The Underground Press
artscanada #114, November 1967
[ 11,054 words ]
Lewis as a painter of the absurd
The first enterprise for Lewis was to understand the wild body, 'the supreme survival which is us, the stark apparatus with its set of mysterious spasms; the most profound of which is laughter.' It meant a long dialogue with the comic, with the radically absurd. Later Lewis remarked as he recalled this period:
Oddly enough Lewis's work began, some time before 1909, among the rocks and stone hamlets of Finnestre. 'My literary career,' he recalled in Rude Assignment, 'began in France... What I started to do in Brittany I have been developing ever since.'
The 'Poles', or so-called Poles, Russian exiles and wandering students who collected in great numbers in the fishing hamlets, men who might have come out of the pages of The Possessed, the interpenetrating environments of débit and pardon, were anarchist material. As Lewis watched, however, he saw that 'to criticize the amusements that Fate has provided' was an anarchy to which these beings did not aspire. In them the self and the not-self were as completely merged as it is possible for such identification to take place at the human level. Specimens of religious fanaticism, they submitted themselves to a mechanical fate. Their destiny was bound up with their physical extensions — their boats, their table cloths, their wives or lovers. They moved in a ritual of congealed and frozen logic. Beyond, in another element, were the fishermen, 'as much at home on the heaving Atlantic as the torrero in the bullring.'
Lewis and the sea
It was here on the rocky border of the sea that Lewis reached, as he recalled in one of his stories, a system of early dreams which he had considered effaced.
In the stories which he began to publish, when he returned to London in 1909, the sea is there. It is felt in the posture. It is suggested by a cliff, a quay, a ramp leading from the cliffs of a port to Brotcotnaz's débit, a bay stretched between hills to the ocean. It is there in a reference to a white calm and a boat round the corner, with folded sails beneath a cliff, and in the brief recognition that the men are about to come ashore because they've dropped their oars out. What was dream came to the surface later in the drawings and paintings which followed the experiences of war. It appeared in The Surrender of Barcelona (1936), now in the Tate Gallery, and is a dominant presence in The Armada (1937) in the Vancouver Art Gallery collection.
The sea as invisible environment
The sea is so much a part of Lewis's paintings that it almost escapes notice like the floors and walls of sea-caverns, the figures of sea-birds and waterfowl, and the swirling rhythms and counter rhythms of fish, water, and the creatures which inhabit both the depth and the fringes of the sea. One of the two last pictures of which we have a record before 'the sea mists of the winter,' as Lewis called the encroaching blindness which pushed him 'into an unlighted room, the door banged and locked,' is a pen, ink, and watercolour wash, dated 1949, What the Sea Is Like at Night. The other is the Portrait of T.S. Eliot (1949).
The 'semi-human animals' which 'plunge and obtrude' themselves as if 'they had found their way from this into another dimension,' as Lewis wrote to Charles Handley-Read, describing verbally as he rarely did, the iconography of What the Sea is Like at Night, appear in more abstract form in Creation Myth, 1927. Here in a patch of dark sea, dominated by a totemic fish shape, a lay figure rises from the curving undercurrent through a small opening to the right of a watching eye.
The increasing complexity of Lewis's response to his vision of the sea can be judged by comparing the images of Creation Myth, 1927 with those of an early ink and watercolour, dated 1913, Second Movement. In this picture two figures, with limbs shaped like the arched form of the mandolin on which the cubist painters so resolutely fastened their eyes, occupy the prow of a punt-like structure. They are serenaded by a flute player whose activity calls attention to their shape. It is as if an abstract extension of the human form were taking flesh again and setting out on a new adventure. Witty and gay as this small picture is, as he depicts the neck of the instrument, the spinal column and collar-bone of the seated figure, Lewis introduces the cruciform shape which was to become explicit in the Portrait of Naomi Mitchison and a central image of transformation in a number of pictures painted in Canada during the second world war.
The sea and the poet of 'The Waste Land'
Lewis painted two large portraits of T.S. Eliot. The first, dated 1938, the year after The Armada, should be compared sometime with the portrait of 1949. In the first, known as the 'rejected portrait' because of the stir it occasioned when it was turned down by the Royal Academy, the shadow of Eliot's head falls on an empty pale green canvas shape which is placed behind it. The figure and the canvas are flanked by two vertical strips crowded with swirling shapes like the ones which appear frequently in the 'creation myths' painted after 1939.
In the 1949 portrait, now owned by the Master and Fellows of Magdelene College, Cambridge, echoes from The Armada seem to rise toward Eliot's face like helmeted heads from behind the narrow red bars of the chair's blue upholstery; and what might be the image of the painter's own hatted face is reflected like a double ghost in the cold blue surface of the open typescript which lies like a sail on the keel shape of the table at Eliot's right.
'Froanna' identified with the sea
Lewis's way of suggesting the simultaneous presence of a hierarchy of realities can be seen in Froanna (1937) where a helmeted head appears in the drapery flung over the chair behind the sitter, and the form of a fish in the cord of the dressing-gown. Charles Handley-Read recalls that 'an electric blue is arranged in streaks and rivulets on the dressing-gown like water held in the leaf of a plant.' It is not the detail, however, which defines the central figure, but the intense concentration of the presence which gives reality to the other forms.
In all the portraits the central structural element is there whatever the attendant forms say, or whatever comment the visual metaphor of form within form, or picture within picture, makes. 'I can never feel any respect for a picture that cannot be reduced, at will, to a fine formal abstraction,' Lewis said when he recalled how 'writing — literature' and his experience during the first war, especially of 'those hideous miles of desert known as "the Line"... dragged him out of the abstractist cul-de-sac.'
Lewis and the 'little magazines'
Before the war Lewis thought that his literary contemporaries were too bookish. They were not, he said, 'keeping pace with the visual revolution.' He attempted to show them the way by writing a play, The Enemy of the Stars, which anticipated and explored a dramatic idiom for which Artaud's theory [The Theatre of Cruelty] has become a symbol. At the same time he was writing Tarr, a novel, which was first published in instalments in The Egoist, a little magazine which Pound edited as a continuation of Harriet Shaw Weaver and Dora Marsden's New Freewoman. Perhaps writing taught Lewis to be a visual 'humanist' as he said it did. In his bi-lingual capacity, as he called the alternating role of painter and writer, there is no doubt that he brought into literature new modes of visual awareness.
Like Tarr, Lewis's other early writing can be found in the little magazines which began to appear in England before the war. Ford Madox Heuffer's English Review published three stories in 1909; The Tramp, three more stories and a poem, and [A.R.] Orage's New Age, an essay 'The Wild Body' in 1910. The Tramp published another story in February 1911.
Between 1911 and June 1914, when what Lewis himself described as 'that hugest and pinkest of all magazines,' Blast was launched from the Rebel Art Centre in Great Ormonde Street, Lewis contributed only a few articles early in 1914 to The Egoist and TheNew Age, all on problems connected with the new way of seeing. In 1915 Lewis issued a second number of Blast. In 1921 and 1922 he published two issues of The Tyro: A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Design. In 1927 he brought out two issues of The Enemy and in 1929, the third and last number.
'Through Heuffer I became acquainted with Ezra Pound, through whom in due course I became acquainted with T.S. Eliot, Gaudier Brzeska, Dolmetch, H. D., Aldington and many others,' Lewis recalled. Blast, 1914, published a number of Pound's poems including the censored 'Fratres Minores'. Both Ford Madox Heuffer and Rebecca West contributed fiction, Gaudier Brzeska his notes on the Vortex. In 1915 Lewis published Eliot's 'Preludes' and 'Rhapsody of a Windy Night' and more of Pound's work, as well as another note on the Vortex from Gaudier Brzeska who, by the time of printing, had been killed at Neuville St. Vaast. Lewis also published reproductions of the work of 'advanced' painters and sculptors in England.
Lewis and the English scene: the Camden Town Group, the London Group, and the Omega Workshop
From 1911 to 1914 Lewis seems to have devoted most of his attention to painting. In 1911 he appeared as a member of the newly founded Camden Town Group, an organization of painters who had gathered about Walter Sickert in his Fitzroy Street Studio after his return from France in 1905. In December, 1911, according to Malcolm Easton, honorary curator of the University of Hull's collection of British Art from 1890-1940, who has examined the minutes of the meetings, Lewis was among those who voted for an increase of membership beyond the original limit of sixteen who could comfortably show at the Carfax Galleries. Here Lewis, according to Frank Rutter in Some Contemporary Artists (1922), had exhibited about 1910 a drawing of Breton fishermen in which Rutter, who had begun to see with cubist eyes, had detected a 'certain squareness of shapes.' Another picture, Dieppe Fishermen was lent by Miss Agnes Bedford to the Tate exhibition in 1956.
By 1913 the Camden Town Group had begun to expand into the London Group, that held an exhibition at Brighton in 1913 for which Lewis wrote the foreword to the catalogue. In March 1914 the Group showed at the Goupil Gallery where Lewis exhibited a work called Christopher Columbus which attracted a good deal of baffled attention. In this exhibition, to use Lucien Pissarro's term, Easton says, 'the "drunkards" triumphed over the "teetotallers".' In June, Lewis exhibited Plan of Campaign, a large painting, a completely abstract design, at the Allied Artists exhibition.
Meanwhile Roger Fry, who had organized the exhibition Manet and Post-Impressionism at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 had invited Lewis and other members of the London Group to join his Omega Workshop, a project designed on the pattern of William Morris's community project for the making and selling of objects of everyday use 'designed in the new spirit.' The association, begun in July 1913, was abruptly terminated in October with the circulation of a 'Round Robin' in which Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Edward Wadsworth, not only objected to the direction, but also dissociated themselves from the 'Post-what-not fashionableness' of the Omega tendencies.
Lewis and the hard edge
Some of the work which Lewis was doing between the years 1910 and 1913 has been preserved in the collection which one of his friends, Captain Lionel Guy Baker, willed to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The collection was acquired by the Museum when Baker died in 1919. A number of the works of this period were sold through the intervention of Ezra Pound to the American collector John Quinn. 'My God,' Pound wrote to Quinn, 'the stuff lies in piles of dirt on the man's floor. Nobody has seen it. Nobody has any conception of the volume and energy and variety.' Epstein, Pound recalled, had drawn his attention to the sculptural quality of the drawings.
One of the watercolours bought by Quinn, Two Women, was reproduced in the American periodical, The Dial in 1921, with three other Lewis works which Quinn had acquired. In The Dial this picture is called The Starry Sky. The two figures in this work appear to be carved out of stratified rock. In Blast, 1915, three years after he had painted this picture, Lewis observed: 'The painters have cut away and cut away warily, till they have trapped some essential... things [that] stand up stark and denuded everywhere as the result of endless visionary examination. But life, more life than ever before, is the objective.'
The first phase of the Vorticist enterprise was a movement from soft to hard. In 1951, reviewing The Letters of Ezra Pound, Lewis used the phrase 'hard edge' to characterize this period. In Rude Assignment (1951) Lewis placed himself in the context of those years: 'It was after all a new civilization that I and a few other people were making a blueprint for... a rough design for a way of seeing for men who were not there.... I, like all the people in Europe so engaged, felt it to be an important task. It was more than just picture-making: one was making fresh eyes for people and fresh souls to go with those eyes.'
Sunset among the Michaelangelos
One ink and gouache in the Baker collection Sunset Among the Michaelangelos explains in one visual gesture many facets of Lewis's engagement at the time and much of his comment on cubism and futurism in Blast. Perhaps the most interesting quality of this picture is the simultaneous presence of the dissolving cubist forms to which the Renaissance figures have first been reduced, and the super-realist clarity of the timbers.
Pictures like this, or like Two Women or Second Movement in which forms were reconstituted and given another future, made Pound, as he recalled, see form as he had never seen it before. The painters and sculptors taught him, he said, long before he came in contact with [Ernest] Fenollosa's work, that 'life comes in metaphor and metaphor starts TOWARD ideogram.' He had intended to write a monograph on Lewis's work as he had on Gaudier Brzeska's, but Lewis was too busy to cooperate. When he wrote to Lewis again in 1925 asking him for material for an art supplement in This Quarter, Lewis wrote back to say that he did not want a 'Lewis number' in This Quarter or anywhere.
The camera eye: the dead hand of the nineteenth-century robot
Lewis's concern with camera-vision had brought him into conflict with Marinetti before the war. Marinetti had lectured in London at the Lyceum Club in the spring of 1910. In 1912 the futurist international exhibition had been shown at the Sackville Galleries. In 1913 Marinetti had lectured again at T. E. Hulme's Poets' Club. When, in the spring of 1914, he lectured at the Dore Gallery, however, Lewis, as he said, 'counter-putsched' with a band of miscellaneous anti-futurists, including Epstein, Gaudier Brzeska, Hulme himself, and Edward Wadsworth.
Much as Lewis admired the plastic discoveries of artists like Severini and Balla, he regarded the futurists 'automobilism' as the very passeisme against which Marinetti thundered. To revive the age of the machine as it had developed in industrial England and as it was manifesting itself in industrial Germany with fierce efficiency was to power a ghost which should be laid [to rest]. 'Futurism and identification with the crowd is a huge hypocrisy,' Lewis wrote in 1915. 'Not until art reaches a fresh strata of the people does it find a vigorous enough bed to flourish,' he had written in Blast, 1914: 'It is intelligence electrified by a flood of Naivety. It is Chaos invading concept and bursting it like nitrogen.'
Lewis goes underground
Lewis had gone underground at the time in Adam and Eve Mews to experiment and to write. He was busy at the time constructing a complex of books, which — in a way Eliot could not understand — were being written all at once. The first book finished was The Lion and the Fox, a book about Shakespeare in which Lewis explored the meaning of the artist's role in a period of abrupt change from one set of values to another. In what way, he asked, can the artist provide society with the rallying ground it needs to survive? The Art of Being Ruled is an examination of the extent to which the revolutionary ferment of the time could be attributed to the effects of a mechanical technology which was itself, at every moment, becoming obsolete. Time and Western Man is concerned with the invisible operation of the camera and other instruments of vision on visual sensibility, the consequent development of certain theories, some cosmological in scope, and the influence of these theories of space and time on contemporary writers whose way of seeing had already been subject to the same attrition.
The histrionics of dead concept
The futurist fuss was melodrama, the histrionics of dead concept. 'The present does influence the finest art,' Lewis said. 'There is no ought about it, except for the bad artists who should justify their existence by obedience.' In so far as the futurist discovery of simultaneous vision was based on the multiple exposures of the camera, they were as enslaved to the immediate past as the followers of Muybridge, who had given his first demonstration in London in 1882 after ten years of experiment in America.
Machines are our creatures
As their association with Alvin Langdon Coburn suggests the Vorticists were not hostile to the development of photography itself, even to Photomovemantistics, one of the barbarous names given by Bragaglia to this kind of exploration in his Fotodinamism futurista in 1913. 'When Heine's English engineer had made his automaton, it "gnashed and growled" in his ear, "Give me a soul!" Naturally being an English engineer he had never thought of that,' Lewis wrote in The Art of Being Ruled. 'Someday we shall probably be confronted with some such harsh request. And we shall probably be as ill provided as was the English engineer. We should remember what we owe to our machines, which are our creatures.' They had been brutalized, Lewis thought, as the Senegalese and other native troops had been brutalized by contact with ruthless and too barbarous methods of warfare. The camera had something to learn from the painter.
Combat No. 2 and Combat No. 3
The Darwinian violence of nineteenth century technology is explored in the machine figures of early drawings like Combat No. 2 and Combat No. 3 (1914), which suggest the inevitably destructive nature of idée force in conflict with idée force, of abstraction translated into emotion and brought face to face in a closed environment. Lewis's use of suprematist and constructivist rhythms is an essential part of his images. These pictures have the same quality of wit that Sunset Among the Michaelangelos has. Before the war, too, Lewis explored the possibilities of bio-mechanics. One of the pictures bought by Quinn, Joyeuse, shows how Lewis thought the meaning of the machine might be transformed.
The 'combat' machines go out of Lewis's painting into his fiction and documentary prose works
Lewis's novels are peopled with children of these machines. In his fiction, he said, he had been attracted to the study of those suffering from the mal de siècle and powerfully branded with the Zeitgeist. The geist, as pictures like the two in the 'Combat' series suggest and as the name of the enraged and rusty machine, Otto Kreisler, in his novel Tarr indicates, was at this time the geist of the passionate wheel and of the force-lines of nineteenth-century technology brought to a pitch of absent minded intensity by rapid technological development. Apollinaire remarked that the first abstract artist was the man who invented the wheel because he had imitated not the shape of the leg but its motion. What Lewis saw was the intrusion of the mechanical foot into the electric desert. It might be noticed that the gentle creatures in The Stations of the Dead have no feet at all.
Lewis and the Victorian underground
Before his descent on Marinetti and the publication of Blast, Lewis completed one of his first 'jobs', the decoration of Madame Strindberg's night-club, The Cave of the Golden Calf, an enormous basement room in which figures by Epstein 'appeared to hold up the threateningly low ceiling.' Madame Strindberg had hired a frenzied Hungarian gypsy fiddler to lead an impassioned orchestra. It was, Nina Hamnett said, a 'gay and cheerful place [where] beautiful ladies, young Guardsmen and artists' listened to the Galician gypsies play their accordions and to Lillian Shelley sing Popsy Wopsy and You made me love you.
Lewis got £60 for his share of the work. 'I was quite unknown,' he recalled, 'and would have done it for nothing.' Since it was on the basis of games that experimenting in the arts existed, this 'underground' with the nineteenth-century 'Borrovian snobbery' of its ill-paid gypsies (a fact which Lewis noted in Blast) was useful to him at the time as both studio and gallery. This pseudo-underground was hardly his natural habitat as his comment in Blast suggests. He knew that there were opportunities for the artist in the manipulation of vulgarity. At the same time he blasted the 'gigantic Boehm... of bourgeois Victorian vistas.' London was a provincial city and the English could understand nothing of Beardsley's technique except the decadent literary aspect of his genius.
Lewis recalled much later how some of the artists he knew had quite literally gone 'underground,' as Alexander Trocchi suggested, somewhat belatedly several years ago, the Sigma group should do. He was referring to McKnight Kauffer's Tube Posters. Kauffer's posters, Epstein's Underground Building statuary, and T.S. Eliot's poetry, he observed, had their impulse in the 'tortuous labyrinths of the religionist-at-bay.'
The fact that the 'underground' was not necessarily the germinating place of new and delicate forces, or even the place for casting pictorial spells 'intended to attract the architectural shells that were lacking,' became obvious during the war which followed. He had already observed in The Cave of the Golden Calf how the 'underground' could become the rallying point for previous modes of awareness.
The melodramatic aspect of this insight he dramatized in Enemy of the Stars in which murder and suicide in a wheelwright's yard is acted out. The stage arrangements read like the script for a Happening:
'RED OF STAINED COPPER PREDOMINANT COLOUR. OVERTURNED CASES AND OTHER IMPEDIMENTA HAVE BEEN COVERED THROUGHOUT ARENA, WITH OLD SAIL CANVAS.
HUT OF SECOND SCENE IS SUGGESTED BY CHARACTERS TAKING UP THEIR POSITION AT OPENING OF SHAFT LEADING DOWN TO MINE QUARTERS. A GUST, SUCH AS MET IN THE CORRIDORS OF THE TUBE, MAKES THEIR CLOTHES SHIVER AND FLAP AND BLARES UP THEIR VOICES...
AUDIENCE LOOKS DOWN INTO SCENE, AS THOUGH IT WERE A HUT ROLLED HALF ON ITS BACK, DOOR UPWARDS. CHARACTERS GIDDILY MOUNTING IN ITS OPENING.'
Experience of the fissure
Experience of the 'fissure' into which he crept at Nieuport, 'a little hell away from hell' as the battery cook described it, of the pillbox built inside a cottage, of the 'clay-room by Ypres' in a cliff above a mosquito-infested stream, confrontations in the bog of Passchendaele, brought simultaneously to Lewis conscious awareness of the 'underground' itself and of the terribly exposed pied-à-terre on which, as matter, man flirts with extinction. He had, as it were, a renewed insight into his own colossal preference for 'the shield of the tortoise and the rigid stylistic articulations of the grasshopper,' of his attachment to the externality of things.
The 'new egos'
Lewis had quarreled with the cubists for cubing on a posed model 'instead of taking the life of the man or animal inside the work, and building with its fluid, as it were'; that is, he said, 'multiplying life's possibilities.' In one section of Blast he had taken his bearings as a seaman would on an expanse of open sea:
A portfolio of drawings made to illustrate an edition of Timon of Athens shows that Lewis had already experimented with both the simple black bullet form and also with crowding, overlapping, armorial shapes which appear later in completely different configurations in The Surrender of Barcelona and in The Armada. Early lyrical versions of the confident 'wild body,' like Chickens and Courtship of 1912, were submitted to the pressures of the new 'machine style.'
Reaction against the specialization of the senses
There was no doubt that the rapid specialization of certain senses by the development of instruments of research had enabled men to see variously in unexpected ways. 'The same object under the eye of science, or under the microscope, and beneath the human eye, or alternatively in the mind of the camera, or of the mathematician, or of 'common sense' [sensus communis] would be a very different object,' Lewis argued in his dialogue with Whitehead and Russell in Time and Western Man. There would be quantities of hybrids too. Overspecialization of sight, however, due to the separation, or separate treatment, of the senses, principally of sight and touch, had, Lewis argued, brought about an external disunity and destroyed the common ground of imaginative reality on which as human beings we meet. The problem was to rediscover some principle of unity without capitulation to a fashionable, temporal absolute.
'We are as living creatures, surface creatures, last comers, and for this reason committed to a plurality of being,' Lewis wrote again in Time and Western Man. No metaphysician, he maintained, ever goes the whole length of departure from the surface condition of the mind for such departure results in self-destruction. 'It is we who have to pretend to be real, not to pretend that God is.' If man is to survive he must with secular common sense start from the division and separation of things. It is to this common ground, this field or vortex of 'wild bodies' attempting to vest themselves as they rise in the sea, or leaf and flower among the leaves, arming to meet the needs of life, that Lewis's imagination works.
Rejection of the pure visual
After the war, under provocation which he attempted to dismiss with good natured composure, Lewis drew attention to current critical theory which placed exclusive emphasis on retinal vision and on plastic values and visual sensation alone:
Four years earlier he had remarked that it was no doubt sound as long as sentimentality, both anecdotal and symbolic, dominated painting for the critic to insist on the detached non-human factor, the plastic factor alone, and to judge works of art by it. 'But this is again a human and reactive reason,' he said, 'and for the artist who has passed the test of seriousness in weeding sentiment out of his work, this consideration, proper, perhaps, to the critic, need be no part of his programme.'
An examination of any large number of Lewis's works shows as clearly as what he wrote, that there are no sharp cleavages between his understanding of his medium, the direction of his own visual exploration — the fusion of idea and image, his attitude to his contemporaries, or of his own 'immense predilection,' his conviction about the desirability of certain things. There is very little difference, for instance, between the tone of his early comment on current painting and that in the series Round the London Art Galleries which he wrote for The Listener after the second war, although his later observations reflect the richness which came from years of visual attention. His bias was in favour of the new and untried. He disliked any absolutism that did not have its root in 'some creative necessity.'
Life, literature, and poetry should be the prerogative of the alive
The artist, Lewis once said, is less scandalized at the comprehensible than the public. 'I am not quite sure, sometimes,' he wrote in 1915, 'whether it should not be the Royal Academy where the severity of abstraction reigns, and whether we, who are outside the Academy, should not be conspicuous for our 'life' and 'poetry'.... Life, literature, and poetry should be the prerogative of the alive.' The painting of a recognizable human being, he said, should be bestowed as a sort of freedom of art. 'For my part I would put the maximum amount of poetry into painting that the plastic vessel would stand without softening and deteriorating: the poetry, that is to say, that is inherent in matter.'
Lewis As the Mysterious Man from Mars
Although it has always been part of the Lewis legend that he was born on a boat, it has been ritual practice to associate him with the machine. This association was strengthened by the appearance of the Tyros in an exhibition Tyros and Portraits at the Leicester Galleries in April, 1921. They flashed their teeth, too, on the covers of the little magazine which was called after them. The Tyros, he explained in the foreword to the catalogue, were 'a selected family or race of beings' that served 'to synthesise the main comic ideas' which attacked him at the moment.
Sir John Rothenstein, who devoted a section to Lewis in his Modern English Painters (1956) speaks of him, for instance, as a mysterious man from Mars, as 'harsh and isolated as a new machine in a field.' It would be better to bring legend and ritual together where the 'wild body' and 'primitive brain,' 'all that is physical in a flash of thought,' find a new outside for themselves. The symbolic object would then be the shield of the tortoise.
If it is true as Lewis once observed of Edward Wadsworth that he had machinery in his blood and for this reason his pictures of the blackened labyrinths and the industrial savagery of the country round Birmingham established him securely 'as a genius of industrial England,' it is equally true to say that the sea flowed in Lewis's veins. Perhaps that is why he had little patience with storms in tea cups, Prospero-contrived tempests, and inaccurate weather reports. 'The art instinct,' he had written in Blast, 'is permanently primitive.'
Censored by the U.S. Post Office
While Lewis was enlisted in the Royal Artillery during the first war he had continued to write for the little magazines. He had sent Pound, who was looking after his effects, a story for The Little Review called 'Cantleman's Spring Mate', which caused an issue of the magazine to be suppressed and burned by the United States Post Office. 'Four thousand copies,' Margaret Anderson, the editor, recalled, 'had been placed on (what kind of funeral pyre do they place them on?) all because Wyndham Lewis had written a story about a man and girl falling in love.' He had written half, or more than half, of the series of 'imaginary letters' which appeared there. Pound's contribution was published, unfortunately without Lewis's, by the Black Sun Press in Paris in 1930. The Little Review also published a short play and some other pieces. Art and Letters published another war story called 'The War Baby' in the winter of 1918 and also some reproductions of Lewis's drawings. In 1919 Lewis showed fifty-four pictures in an exhibition called Guns at the Goupil Gallery. As a war artist he was censured in The Athenaeum, although his A Canadian Gunpit was praised when it was shown with other war pictures at the Anderson Gallery in New York.
The Artist is older than the fish
The Catalogue to the exhibition Guns is dated February 1919. In October the Egoist Press published a small book of Lewis's in a mottled sea-blue cover called The Caliph's Design: Architects! Where is your Vortex? 'The energy at present pent up in the canvases painted in the studio, and sold at the dealer's, and written up with a monotonous emphasis of horror or facetiousness in the Press, must be released,' Lewis wrote. 'It must be used in the general life of the community.'
One of the essays is called 'The Artist is Older than the Fish'. In it Lewis speaks of art as an act analogous at least to that inherent in the creative capability of certain beetles, described by Fabre, who have a 'record capacity for turning form and colour impulses into living flesh.' Since the artist shares in the work of creation he too must reach back to the fundamental slime.
Early life and the legend of the boat
The historical basis of the legend of the boat Lewis confirmed in a Vita which he wrote for an American publisher in1949 when he came with reluctant brevity to the routine questions of biography. He was, he said, born on the North American continent in a ship moored to the side of a wharf. At the age of six he arrived in England, a small American. He left for France about eleven years later, a young Englishman, and returned, when he did return, altered again. 'My mother and father's principal way of spending their time at the period of my birth,' he added, 'was the same as mine now: my mother painting pictures of the farm house in which we lived, my father writing books inside it.'
The only detail of his early life which Lewis recalled defines the system of early dreams which began to haunt him again in Brittany: the yacht club at Portland, Maine; the waters of the Bay of Fundy and Chesapeake Bay; a home on the Isle of Wight; the Solent and the grey expanse of Southampton water.
Thoughts about an Armada
When Lewis examined the forms that 'revolution' was taking about 1927, and observed, somewhat ambiguously, that it was desired, with reason, that ambitious building operations should not be undertaken in the popular climate of the clinic and laboratory, he returned to the sea for the image he wanted to define the artist's immediate function. He had been meditating, too, as his satire The Apes of God makes clear, on the outcome of Black Friday, the General Strike, and the powerful pedantry and powers of persuasion of the BBC.
Lewis on the Atlantic seaboard
The earliest photograph we have of Lewis is a picture of a boy in a sailor's cap and jacket with a net in his hand and a lobster-pot behind him. The date and place of his birth have been established.
He was born on November 18, 1882, aboard his father's yacht which was docked in Amherst, Nova Scotia. The place of his birth was recorded during the first war in a report made to the Canadian Government by Lord Beaverbrook after Lewis was transferred from the Royal Artillery to the Canadian Army in 1917.
His Canadian associations, however, were not simply accidental. His paternal grandmother, a sister of Charles Remain, to whose building activities in Toronto Lewis referred in one of his letters, was a French Canadian Roman Catholic. One of his uncles, Will Lewis, had a wine business in the 1880s at 27 & 29 St Sacrement Street in Montreal. Lewis's father, Charles Edward Lewis, who had trained for a time at West Point, fought under Sheridan in the Civil War. After he married Anne Benson Stuart about 1876 he had apparently worked for a while with his uncle, Will Lewis, in Montreal, but in general he seems to have lived the life of an amateur sailor and writer. When his father and mother separated Lewis stayed with his mother in England.
Drop-out from Rugby
After his mother became his principal parent Lewis was sent to various schools. Finally he went to Rugby where he set up an easel in his study. As he said himself he did nothing at all there except to paint. He simply rejected a type of education against which many of his contemporaries finally rebelled. At the suggestion of his masters his mother sent him to the Slade in 1898, where he won the Slade scholarship in 1900. From the Slade he went to Paris. He lived from time to time in Holland, Munich, and Madrid, but Paris was his centre. In 1909 he went back to England.
Notes from the Underground
He had written to his mother from Holland in 1905 — the year in which the English public had dismissed Durand-Ruel's exhibition of impressionism at the Grafton Galleries as an 'extremist craze' — 'My triumphs must be subterranean — that is to say not on the gaudy surface of the exhibitions.' Whether it was from his father's stories of the Civil War and the Underground Railroad or from his constant reading of Gogol, Tchekov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, whose Notes from the Underground (Le Sous-Sol) he picked up one day on the rue des Ecoles when he went to find a book by Fauget, the underground became a contrapuntal theme in his work.
The Cabinet of Caligari
The period of 1909-1914 was one of intense awareness of the forces stirring beneath the surface of the exhibitions. He had begun also to understand his own bi-lingual activity. He observed, for instance, how Kandinsky, docile to the intuitive fluctuations of his soul and anxious to render his mind and hand receptive, had allowed 'the Bach-like will that resides in each good artist' to be warred on by a slack and wandering spirit and had forsaken the material universe for what he refused to recognize, even when it broke through the texture of his painting, as the ghost of created form. By 1927 he suggested that the human mind itself was being hounded from every cell of the organism 'until at last (arguing that independent and individual life is not worthwhile),' the mind 'plunges into the unconscious where Dr Freud like a sort of mephistophelian Dr Caligari is waiting' for it.
The gaudy surface
As 'underground' Lewis rejected Bocklin's Island of the Dead. At every point he resisted the conscious withdrawal of the painter into a private and subterranean world. The esoteric he thought would survive in special environments, as the cactus had survived, as an integral part of the cultural expression; but as an absolute programme, or as a compulsive strategy, he felt that such adaptation to twilight and limitation would bring the artist into a compound like that inhabited by the Indians of Taos, a 'dusty centre of exotic tourism' fatally attractive to the rich visitor who wished to be initiated into the tribal ritual.
He dreamed, as he said in The Caliph's Design, of a new surface, a new shell. In London itself the parliament would go underground into a vast circular theatre. There would be dancing in snow-white palaces on the present site of Scotland Yard. All above was to be given to the festive side of law-making.
Figures in the air
A pen and watercolour drawing of the same year, Figures in the Air suggests the relationship of an architectural construction like Bagdad to the work which Lewis did during the war and to the new images he was creating. The link with the war pictures is the presence of the camouflage net. In this watercolour two figures, painted in purple, copper, and ochre tones, are lifted on a pole or pipe which is connected with a figure lying at the base of textured geometric structures and a glimpse in perspective of a converging cityscape and a block of marble tunnelling. The eye moves from the wooden stump form at the lower right hand corner to the totemic figure apparently carved from its wood to the prostrate lay figure, cinctured with a red cord, and up the pole to the shapes which rise above the camouflage net.
Even in the reproduction which Lewis published in The Enemy, the stump, the lay figure, the cone and the fragment of cylinder at the left are bound together by the predominantly grey tones which are concentrated at the right in the pink grey of the marble blocks. A counter rhythm is introduced by the earth tones of the totem, which appear again in the boat-like structure at the right and in the elevated figures themselves. The picture in its counter-pointing of visual forms and colour values brings together for purposes of contemplation many of the problems which Lewis was debating in the books he was writing at the time. To what extent, he was asking, is the 'wild body' becoming plastic building material in the hands of executive will and intelligence, to what extent is it finding a new outside for itself.
Bagdad: A Panel
Bagdad, an oil painting on two large sheets of jointed plywood, undated but attributed by Mr Handley-Read to the year 1927, suggests the dramatic tensions of any constructive programme. The picture is made of four vertical strips which are bound together by a pervasive horizontal movement which in Lewis's work is associated with one aspect of the sea as his sinuous slanting and curving rhythms are with another. The sea itself appears beyond a ramp like structure at the top of the second vertical strip at a level parallel to the totemic head placed above the potted tree in the first strip at the left. At the base of the second strip under the cylinders and cubes is the diagonal movement of the early suprematist forms. The totemic form in the third strip rises like a rocket from a cylindrical shape. In the fourth strip stands a gentle helmeted heraldic form, withdrawn and quiet.
Meditations on the dugout
The two war canvases, A Canadian Gunpit and Battery Shelled, are in relation to many of the cubed, expressionist, or academic pictures which belong to the War Record, as remarkable for their composure as for their comment. They create, as it were, the aural space between the opening and closing of a door. A Battery Shelled, like A Canadian Gunpit, is a large picture. The three officers in the left foreground, although serenely exposed, are associated with the concrete and steel structures at the extreme left, the figures of the working soldiers themselves, although withdrawn into the folds of the landscape, with the exposed and shattered tree forms at the 'extreme lower right and with the underground structures, the entrances of which open around them at various levels.
In the drawing, also in the Imperial War Museum, A Battery Position in a Wood, two soldiers at the lower right can be seen sunning themselves in the frame of a dug-out, while on the hill above them others are sheltered by a camouflage net, as both the battery officers and their silent helpers are in A Canadian Gunpit. The gesture of the soldier carrying a bucket of water attracts attention to the leviathan-like shape at the foot of the shattered tree form at the left.
The shell pile
The shells stacked under cover like a cord of wood at the left behind the first rise of ground in A Battery Position in a Wood suggest, as the mandolin shapes in the early drawings do, the way in which form is changed or transformed in relation to human need. The shell pile suggests the ambiguous nature of any human act of transformation.
The domestic reference of the woodpile, and of the soldiers sunning themselves in the framed opening of an underground interior, is intensified by the exposed position of the line of clothes strung to the shattered tree. The transformation of the duck-board walk into the steel-shod wheel of the battery gun in A Canadian Gunpit is not simply a repetition of pattern, or the recognition of matching patterns, but observation about the creative activities of the wild body and primitive mind and about the modification of form to use.
Use is always primitive
Before the war, when he had remonstrated with the cubists for cubing on a posed model, Lewis had remarked, 'Use is always primitive.'
'Have your breakfast in the ordinary way, and, as the result of your hunger and unconsciousness, on getting up you will find an air of inevitability about the way the various objects, plates, coffee-pot, etc., lie upon the table, that it would be very difficult to get consciously. It would be still more difficult to convince yourself that the deliberate arrangement was natural.'
All art worth the name is already super-real
The difference between Lewis's Gunpit and many of the other paintings in the National Gallery collection of pictures which were commissioned by the War Records Office during the first war is not only the mastery of a new idiom, but also the passionate detachment of the vision, the play of the intellect among precisely felt and documented forms. I suspect that, despite its claim as a painting of extraordinary technical ability, it is neglected because of the uncomfortable clarity of its statement.
In richness of colour, the Gunpit reminded me, when I saw it, of certain small canvases of Max Ernst into which the surrealist object does not intrude.
'All art worth the name is already superreal,' Lewis wrote in 1929 when he began to interrogate certain manifestations of the Transition based group in Paris. The large canvas in the Imperial Museum, London, in contrast to the Gunpit gains much of its intensity from the cold quality of the paint. Colour in both is an indispensable quality of the statement.
Art as the ultimate necessity
After the second war Lewis called attention to the 'bland intensity' with which certain artists like Van Eyk and Chardin had fastened their eyes upon some object of daily use. At about the same time, in The Sea Mists of the Winter, he had observed, 'When for me the butcher became nothing but a white apron, and the skinned back of a bullock protruding as it hung, seemed to me a fleshly housewife, I ceased to be a shopper.' The comment was a literal statement. It was also a compendium. 'Art,' he had written in the twenties, 'is the ultimate necessity the philosopher comes to out of his discomfiture.'
No true philosophy of the eye could be built on the eye in isolation. If a choice had to be made, however, Lewis had no desire to 'retire into the abstraction and darkness of an aural or tactile world.' The finest art, he wrote in 1914, 'is not pure abstraction, nor is it unorganized life.' The following year he added: 'The moon-light and moon-rack of ultra-pure art or anything else too pure "se serait trompe de guichet" if it sought to move me.'
After his vision of No Man's Land on a morning attack he began to construct visions of a new environment, and to test the viability of other visionary projects.
The enraged puppets under observation
The novels and documentary works which Lewis began to publish in 1927 follow the affairs of the enraged puppets, the heirs of 'automobilism,' the children of the brutalized and absent minded machine, which had been repowered, as the underground railway had been in 1886 by the development of electric traction — or liberated, as they were in Marinetti's immaginazione senzafili, from the syntax which kept the Euclidean machine from running amok.
Paleface (1928), Hitler (1931), significantly illustrated with photographs which repay careful examination, The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator (1931), The Doom of Youth (1932), Filibusters in Barbary (1932) are all documents of this period. In The Childermass (1928), The Apes of God (1930) and One Way Song, a book of satiric verse, the material is transmuted into 'literature'.
The birth of the new electric earth culture
The portrait drawing of Madge Pulsford (1920) suggests the new round headed or ball-headed figures, as Eric Newton called them, which began to appear in Lewis's painting. A drawing, like Portrait of a Girl Standing (1920), also suggests the importance of figure drawing to Lewis at the time. It is from the body, from the casual garments, and from the instruments of daily use that he habitually works.
A witty early drawing on a British Museum call-slip shows happy machine figures emerging from the environment of the scholar's book-on-call. In the drawings of the Twenties the book itself is introduced again in its private role. It appears in the Portrait of Edith Sitwell (1927/35) and in other portraits, and transformed in an apparently incongruous passage in Inca with Birds (1933). Pound, who insisted that literature was news that stayed news, is shown in the Portrait of 1938 with a newspaper and three ashtrays beside him. Behind his lightly sleeping head is an easily identifiable canvas over which sweeps the rhythm of waves.
Anguish of metamorphosis
A drawing like the head of Madge Pulsford was preceded by simpler drawings of women's heads, like two of 1919 which appear in a portfolio Fifteen Drawings, published by the Ovid Press in 1920. In these drawings Lewis calls particular attention to both the eyes and the hair. Praxitella, a canvas of 1921; suggests the anguish of metamorphosis. It shows, not an eyeless, but a blind metallic face capped by an owl-like helmet. The precise nervous tapping gesture of the hand is contrasted with flowing metallic bands of the skirt. Both suggest circuits of electric power. One almost archaic form with clasped hands, reproduced by Lewis in The Tyro, is eyeless, still, and waiting.
Already these individual figures have a clarity and remote candour which attracts them to the world of multiple forms awaiting liberation or rebirth in pictures like The Stations of the Dead where a boat is beached on a rocky shore, or in The Mud Clinic where they rest underground beneath a small vision of moonlit sea.
The operators move in
The Childermass, the first book of Lewis's trilogy The Human Age, was published in 1928. The world of The Childermass is entirely male, although the process of shamanization which Lewis examined with a great deal of insight in The Art of Being Ruled (1926) has already begun. The title alone suggests the ambiguous nature of the new situation — the fear of the old for the birth of the new and the will acting to control the event. The action, if it can be called action, takes place in the Bailiff's camp outside the walls of Magnetic City. In its construction the book is not unlike one of Lewis's canvases, although his control of the large rhythms is not so sure perhaps.
The first hundred and twenty-three pages dramatize the relationship between the artist Pullman and the reluctant fleshly Sattersthwaite who becomes his charge. In the fluctuating time reaches outside the Bailiff's camp the two figures engage in an eclectic search for more congenial outfits than the ones the Bailiff has issued them for all eternity. Pullman's sterile activity is terminated finally by the obscene grating vibration of the Bailiff's trumpet. The drama now centres in the relationship between crowdmaster and crowd. Almost immediately a counter rhythm is set up by the activities of a rival crowdmaster, the sham Greek Hyperides, who confronts the Orientalized Bailiff from time to time as he is borne in a litter round and round the Bailiff's booth.
Le mob c'est moi
The Childermass, to use Lewis's own terminology, has its roots in the comic. It produces the kind of laughter which 'is the representative of tragedy when tragedy is away.' The Bailiff's triumphant cry, 'Le mob, c'est moi,' and his additional claim that it is he who will say who is mob and who is not, reverberates uncomfortably against the rising figure of one of Hyperides' youthful companions, Alectryon, who, tanned by the moon, marked by a bangkok swastika, and wearing the hat of Hermes, is cloaked and 'carries a black leather portfolio of continental cut.'
Totality of the absurd
The two concluding books of the trilogy Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta were written after Lewis's blindness ended his work as a painter. 'Pushed into an unlighted room,' he wrote, 'I shall then have to light a lamp of aggressive voltage in my mind to keep at bay the night.' The concluding books of the trilogy continue to discipline with the intensity of their comic insight and their refusal to capitulate to the totality of the absurd, the absolute identification of man with matter and its functional extensions, the gentle intensity of the creative vision. Man should be a laughing-machine, not a fighting-machine, the image unfortunately of the primitive northern male whose size suggests his manliness. 'I am,' says Ker-Orr, one of Lewis's large blond clowns, 'in a sense working off my alarm at myself.' The 'me', is the product of specialization, of the functional image become an operative fetish.
A Love-in which fails
Malign Fiesta is a vision of a Love-in which fails. It is a consciously contrived Happening into which Hell's Angels intrude. It gives shape and form to the fears which haunt the Third City. By this time Sattersthwaite, who appeared in The Childermass, vested, as the aged Fredigond in The Apes of God is, in fragments of the Victorian imagination, has become one of the flower children. He has meanwhile passed through a whole series of transformations which Pullman, as nurse, guide, guardian, and pensioner of the Zeitgeist, has been unable to control. He is at last seen in an unfinished park, in which everything is still upside down, showing Pullman a peony which he is growing in a large glass-covered box. It is a scene not unmarked by hubris as event suggests.
The Surrender of Barcelona
Paintings of the period between 1927 and 1939 — Bagdad (1927) Inca with Birds (1933), Stations of the Dead (1933/37), The Surrender of Barcelona (1936), The Armada (1937) The Mud Clinic (1937) — all suggest the attempt to find new and viable forms or to provide the fighting machine with a suitable Valhalla. All of these images are haunted by memories of the sea and by the shell-like forms and coverings with which the organism clothes itself.
The Surrender of Barcelona is dominated by the cylindrical tower in the middle of the canvas. From it hangs a banner painted with two disk shaped forms, one figured the other abstract, separated and confined by a series of bars. In the line from the top of the tower to the lower right hand corner of the picture there are three pictorial statements, the lowest of which suggests hieroglyphic script. In the middle of the tower a small figure appears at the depth of an embrasure. Other figures are climbing from a circular opening at the top. Below the tower, suspended from a tree-like block, is the figure of a hanging man.
To the left of the tower a file of figures is being herded out through a narrow exit toward a rocky bay by a mounted figure. The exit is blocked, however, and the figures appear to be moving to the right behind the tower. To the immediate right of the tower a group of less clearly defined figures press forward against an empty helmet shaped form which bars the entrance. To the extreme right behind the next panel another band, bearing tall vertical spikes which reinforce the vertical rhythms of the picture, are waiting, behind the half-concealed figure of another horseman, to make an entrance. The movement of these figures draws the rhythm of the departing figures into a wide circular movement which is defined in the ground shape of the central tower.
At the top of the picture, to the left, a horizontal rhythm is set up by a small fragment of still water on which a yacht floats. Behind a squared timber, flanked by a cube, the heavy form of a docking prow can be seen. To the right lies what appears to be the small model of a six towered building.
The whole scene is sealed off by a frieze of armed figures arranged in groups of three across the bottom edge of the canvas. The faces of two of the figures at the left are exposed. The others are helmeted. Of the two figures which occupy the centre space below the hanging man, one appears to be male, the other female.
The iconography of The Armada is more direct. The picture is dominated by the armoured figure at the right. Although the face is not fully exposed, his helmet is open. The protective gesture directs the eye to the electric blue figure at the left of the canvas. This figure, which bears on its arm the symbol of the fish, supports in its leaf-like hand the model of a ship through which an oar-like pole rises vertically. With its left hand it points across the canvas to the ship at the upper right. The inclination of the gesture is emphasized by the shape and colour of the hand and its diagonal rhythm. The bird-headed prow of boat is reflected in the armoured breast of the guardian figure. Another co-ordinating movement is set up by the helmeted head at the lower left margin, which directs the eye to the unhelmeted and bearded head above it. The still eye of this calm Dionysian profile fastens its gaze on the festive ship where men are suspended like flowers in the hanging dinghies. The protected central figure, with its sealed metal hand, rises from the depth of the boat. It is bathed with the colour of the ceremonial ship. The colours speak directly to the eye. It is possible that Malign Fiesta is a comment on this vision.
In Toronto, during the second world war, Lewis continued work on the series of Creation Myths which he had begun in 1927. At the same time he made a number of pen, ink and watercolour sketches which form a crucifixion series. In these the stark sketch of the traditional crucifixion in the Portrait of Naomi Mitchison flowers and takes on new rhythms as it is combined with the images of the Creation Myth series or transformed by them.
Sometimes the images which Lewis painted in Canada appear in contrasting pairs, like the two sketches in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario: Allegresse Aquatique and Lebensraum: The Battlefield or in two pictures in the Douglas Duncan collection: Still Life in the Belly of the Bird and The Empty Tunic. 'You must talk with two tongues, if you do not wish to cause confusion,' Lewis had written in 1915.
In Allegresse Aquatique some of the round headed creatures which began to take shape in the drawing of Madge Pulsford are allowed to play in a stream of water below a hill dominated by a red barn. In Lebensraum: The Battlefield the same moon-headed creatures lie exposed and helmeted without any suggestion of escape in the mud at the base of a distant group of skyscrapers. Like the barn, the skyscrapers join the line of the earth to the line of the sky. The curved lines of earth and sky in Allegresse Aquatique place it among the creation myth images of the same date.
Living art, the history of the future
A portrait, like the Portrait Drawing of Avrion, Son of Mrs Mitchison, has a particular beauty and strength. Like many of Lewis's portraits it derives much of its intensity from the painter's awareness of the reluctance of the subject to transformation by a human power outside itself. Figures in the early pictures like Two Women and Second Movement rejoice in their liberation. They do not resist the imperious vision. The figures in the portraits are watchful or withdrawn into their own inaccessible underground. Occasionally, as in the portrait sketch of Pauline Bondy, there is a serenity which allows the painter to create directly the first lines of a new world in the floating shape of a hat or to multiply the possibility of life in the fold of a garment.
'You handle with curiosity and reverence a fragment belonging to some civilization developed three millennia ago. Why cannot you treat the future with as much respect?,' Lewis wrote. 'The future possesses its history as well as the past. All living art is the history of the future.'
The resistance movement
A problem of revaluation, Lewis had said in The Doom of Youth, was the extent to which the purely destructive material of revolution was taken into the brick making for the new Jerusalem. The disappearance of the 'childish' child, of the 'manly' man, of the 'womanly' woman would in itself be a notable achievement. Meanwhile, however, as he observed the growth of organized Youth Movements, he noted 'that the big business mind has gazed on 'youth' and it is found not 'fair' but 'profitable.'' The youth politician, too, had his eye on this abstract human plastic. First of all, however, like the Eskimo hunter, who crept into a seal skin to hunt his prey, the crowdmaster disguised himself in the pelt of his quarry.
What the press had to say about 'youth' Lewis documented with effective diligence. 'In a general way,' he wrote, 'the Politics-of-Youth is not designed to affect the upper social layers, as at present constituted. Obviously the supreme leaders of the world will not be the blushing schoolboy at any time. The popular Press is strictly reading matter for wage-slaves; it is the bulletin for the slaves. And the 'Politics-of-Youth' is hypnotic instruction for cannon-fodder.' With all the resources of his wealth, Lewis affirmed, the democratic magnate had been able to drag the poor into depths of spiritual poverty undreamed of by any previous ruling class. That accomplished, he joins them.
artscanada #114, November 1967
Text: © Sheila Watson. All rights reserved.
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