Praxitella, Wyndham Lewis, c.1921. Oil on canvas, 142.2 x 101.6 cm, Leeds Museums & Galleries.
I’ve been a certified Person of the Internet for around a decade now, and like most of us, I’m sure, have been through approximately three trillion usernames and pseudonyms in that time. I fell upon @praxitella as a twitter handle in summer 2013, after discovering the original on a trip to Leeds Art Gallery. I’d half-seen the image floating around online before, but in person the painting is 4’7″ tall, elevated so the base of the frame approaches eye level, and situated at the top of the main staircase — an arresting introduction. The colours are far richer in the flesh than they appear onscreen. The varying blues create a real depth and sense of texture, complemented by the dark mauves, golds, and moss greens. You can almost feel the velvet pile of her dress with its silk trimmings, the cool mottled stone of the wall behind her. But the tonal harmony is disrupted by the stark contrast between sharp points (sleeves, hems) and round swells (torso, knees), repeated in both the modernist design of her chair, and the peculiar cubistic depiction of her face and body. The bold primary red of her lips jars against the larger palette, declaring her primal womanhood. It is an image whole, complete, gestalt, harmonious — but troubled, subconsciously uneasy. I circled back to her three or four times during our visit, and couldn’t shake her from my mind the whole way home.
The palpable conflict at the heart of Praxitella may be an echo of the sitter herself: Wyndham Lewis’s lover Iris Barry, who ‘could be very amusing or quite truculent, always long on mockery and short on tact’ (Jeffrey Meyers). Barry had two children with Lewis in the early 1920s, and was a creative individual in her own right, who would go on to become not just the Spectator‘s first film critic in 1924, but also the MoMA’s first cinematic curator in 1932. The portrait’s name is a feminisation of Praxiteles, an Attic sculptor c.4BC, renowned for his prowess in marble, and his apparent affair with courtesan-muse Phryne. Though the explicit connection is uncertain, it really is a wonderful title: a name that at once summons the ancient world and the age of the machine, the eternal feminine and the robotic femme du monde. The strong, self-assured, full-length sitting pose also evokes for me the queens and priestesses of the tarot, further emphasising this timeless quality.
I’m generally very drawn to mythic and archetypal female representations, and I always liked the idea of a handle in that vein, but most were snapped up long before I was even internet-born. I was (perhaps obtusely) surprised then to find Praxitella free on just about every site that requires a username. To me, she feels almost like a new archetype for the modernist age — the Queen of Spanners, the Postwar Priestess, the Mechanical Bride redux. She is often described as wearing a kind of armour of “Vorticist spikes”, both in her clothing and her aura — a response to the cultural trauma of World War One, which necessarily instigated an emotional and spiritual hardening against the horrors of the modern world — and that seems pertinent too. Not simply on a level of general existential despair, but in that much of my academic thinking and writing in the past few years has been about psychotechnology: the ways in which technological advances affect how we experience ourselves as human beings, and our relationships with other people, and the world around us.
Finally, I’m just so drawn to the notion of depicting a lover in this way. Would Iris Barry have been flattered by such a likeness? Being figured as some kind of patron saint of human disconnection? But what a singular presence she evidently was in his life, how much it makes me want to know everything about their lives together, rake through their private letters. This is a woman I want sitting right next to me at my proverbial imaginary dinner party.