Wyndham Lewis – Tarr,1918

W Lewis_Tarr

Part VII. Swagger Sex. Chapter 2

‘I am an artist.’

‘Yes I’ve heard that before!’ she blustered gaily with a german conviviality that made him feel more than ever at home. ‘But the artist has to hunt and kill his material so to speak just as primitive man has to do his own trapping butchering and cooking – it will not do to be squeamish if you are to become a great artist, Mister Tarr!’

Tarr looked the great artist every inch as he haughtily replied:

‘Nevertheless there stands the fact that life is art’s rival in all particulars. Tehy are de puntos for ever and ever, you will see, if you observe closely.’

‘That I do not see.’

‘No because you mix them up in your own practice.’

‘The woman, I suppose?’

Tarr gave her a hard dogmatic look and then asserted roundly, and probably finally:

‘As such, and with such resources, you are the arch-enemy of any picture.’

Anastasya looked pleased, and looked a picture.

‘Yes I see how I might be that. But let us have a definition here and there. What is art? – it sounds like Pompous Pilate!’

‘Life with all the humbug of living taken out of it: will that do?’

‘Very well: but what is life?’

‘Everything that is not putrified so that it is art.’


‘Very well: Death is the one attribute that is peculiar to life.’

‘And to art as well.’

‘Ah but it is impossible to imagine it in connection with art – that is if you understand art – that is the test for your understanding. Death is the motif of all reality: the purest thought is ignorant of that motif.’

‘I ask you as a favour to define art for me, you have not. A picture is art if I am not mistaken, but a living person is life. We sitting here are life, if we were talking on a stage we would be art.’

‘A picture, and also the actors on a stage, are pure life. Art is merely what the picture and the stage-scene represent, and what we now, or any living person as such, only, does not: that is why you could say that the true statue can be smashed, and yet not die.’


‘This is the essential point to grasp: Death is the thing that differentiates art and life. Art is identical with the idea of permanence. Art is a continuity and not an individual spasm: but life is the idea of a person.’

Both their faces lost some of their colour, hers white, his the strong, almost the ‘high’ yellow. They flung themselves upon each other socratically, stowing away course after course.

‘You say that actors upon the stage are pure life, yet they represent something that we do not. But “all the world’s a stage,” isn’t it?’

‘It was an actor that said that. I say it’s all an atelier – “all the world’s a workshop” I should say. Consider the content of what we call art. A statue is art. It is a dead thing, a lump of stone or wood. Its lines and proportions are its soul. Anything living, quick and changing is bad art always; naked men and women are the worst art of all, because there are fewer semi-dead things about them. The shell of the tortoise, the plumage of a bird, makes these animals approach nearer to art. Soft, quivering and quick flesh is as far from art as it is possible for an object to be.’

‘Art is merely the dead, then?’

No but Deadness is the first condition of art. The armoured hide of the hippopotamus, the shell of the tortoise, feathers and machinery, you may put in one camp; naked pulsing and moving of the soft inside of life – along with elasticity of movement and consciousness – that goes in the opposite camp. Deadness is the first condition for art: the second is the absence of soul, in the human and sentimental sense. With the statue its lines and masses are its soul, no restless inflammable ego is imagined for its interior: it has no inside: good art must have no inside: that is capital.’

‘Then why should human beings be chiefly represented in art?’

‘Because it is human beings that commission and buy art.’

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957  – Tarr,1918

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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