Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Canadian Gun-Pit, 1918, oil on canvas, 305 x 362 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

© National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921. 


Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919, 1919, oil on canvas, 182.8 x 317.8 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

© Imperial War Museum.

The age of artillery

38 - Percy Wyndham Lewis

Despite the difference in format and the - less obvious - difference in style, these two works may be considered as being two moments from the same story. Through his training, Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) belonged to the Vorticists, the London branch of the Cubo-Futurists. Along with the poet Ezra Pound, he edited the magazine Blast and stood out as a leader of that movement, if only because of his provocative stances and his taste for controversy. In March 1916, he signed up in the artillery. In May 1917, he met Orpen and, paradoxically modelling his style on this painter whose art he considered outmoded, he in turn became "official army painter" with the Canadian and later British troops. This took him to the Vimy sector, before he transcribed his observations onto monumental formats.
A Canadian Gun-Pit and A Battery shelled are examples of this original enterprise - at the risk of disconcerting, Lewis combined the geometrical stylisation of Vorticism and more immediately figurative elements, close to the portrait for instance. The former offers a wealth of detail, with the sheet metal of the dugouts, the mechanisms of the gun, the uniforms and camouflage nets. The latter is more elliptical; a group on the left observes impassively the devastation caused by the bombing as a dead gunner is buried by his comrades. More deliberately modernist in tone, it is based on a plastic language of angles, lines, changes of scale and schematisation of silhouettes. These paintings are thus the product of one of the rare attempts at inventing a modern style of war painting.