- Pioneering British Modernist painter, now „revered“ for his brief (c1912-14) astonishing burst of idiomatic quasi-abstract brilliance pre WW1,
- But notable too for later colorful forceful Expressionism, especially three powerful sequences of self portraits.
- But sadly ironic these sometimes compelling self portraits were the bitter fruit of a long personal struggle for recognition.
- For the career of the young rebel never took off. He remained unheralded, conspicuously ignored by the British art establisment till the end.
- Why? Bigotry, antisemitism? And wrong side of the tracks? His lowly East End Polish-Jewish context obscured the content of his art.
- But compounded by his stubborn „pugnacious“ personality?
- Thus his brilliant early works „disappeared“ for half a century?
- As good a painter as say Francis Bacon? Only his journey was more interesting?
- Bomberg is now rightly famous, „revered“, for his astonishing burst of singular, geometric quasi-abstract „Cubo-futurist“ works just before WW1, 1912-14, as a confident outgoing young (22-24) artist in training, responding to the post 1908 Cubist seachange in France, and its Futurist ripples, to the ongoing modern industrial age, but also his Jewish heritage.
- For its time his colorful, angular, fractured geometric style was quintessentially idiomatic, his alone, as distinct as any in the British avant-garde.
- And he was prescient as well as different, No wonder Wyndham-Lewis (8 years older) noticed him in 1912. Bomberg’s blindsiding first major painting Vision of Ezekiel, painted later in 1912, was way ahead of him.
- But then suddenly, like the rest of his generation, he was swallowed by the calamity of WW1 – served in the horror of the Western Front, lost his brother and friends (like Isaac Rosenberg and TE Hulme) – such that post WW1 he abruptly dropped abstraction and experiment.
- The rest of his work over about a 35 year period (1920-55) was Modern but not avant-garde, mostly in a bold, colourful Expressionist vein, sometimes quasi-abstract. And he now switched to landscapes and portraits, notably sequences of moving self-portraits.
- He always remained his own man, reluctant to sign up to movements, notably in the creative hothouse before WW1.
- He is now famous, feted within the British art scene, now acknowledged as one of the boldest Modernist British artists in that pioneering early 20th C period.
- But sadly, poignantly he remained largely unheralded in his life time. Despite his pioneering early work, he long battled for recognition, languished in obscurity, basically ignored by the British art establishment, and it pained him. Thus even in his 50s during WW2 he struggled for recognition from the War Artists Advisory Committee, despite his keeness to contribute. Herbert Read did apparently remark early, in 1919, but cautiously: „possibly a great artist’. But not till 1988 did the Tate hang him in his own show.
- Why this rejection? Which upset him to the end. Snobbery, garnished by anti-semitism? Wrong side of the tracks?The British art establishment could not see past his immigrant (Polish) East End Jewish roots to his art, his Cubo-futurist fireworks.
- But it seems likely too his own „stubborn and uncompromising personality” contributed?
- Ironically, the personal pain, the depression occasioned by his rejection (which helped trigger long periods of no painting), spilled into three sequences of self portraits, of which the last – four works painted over about 2 years in his mid 60s, near death, and after a period of near 5 years of no painting – is powerfully moving. But our appreciation will be forever clouded by their context.
- His other painting outlet after WW1 of landscape, on and off for about 40 years, was his own meditative engagment with nature also provoked, reinforced by his isolation? Thus he wrote (1953) that to draw was driven by a belief that ‘we have urgent need of the affirmation of [man’s] spiritual significance and his individuality‘.
- David Bomberg was part of a brilliant Jewish avant-garde cohort in pre-WW1 British art. Did their Jewishness stimulate creativity? Their „outsider“ status, their coping with, reacting against bigoted resentment?
- Arguably he is as good as, as interesting as say Francis Bacon, in his originality, the content and wide span of his work.
Bomberg as Jewish
· Bomberg was one of a group of Jewish immigrant artists, including the so-called Whitechapel Boys (a group of Anglo-Jewish writers and artists), who profoundly impacted British avant-garde art in the opening decades of the 20th C, ie also including Alfred Wolmak, Mark Gertler and Jacob Epstein.
- Why was this so? Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times (July 2015) mused, “Have Jewish artists traditionally been responsive to radical currents because they have felt outside the mainstream?”
- Makes sense. But one could be franker. In many cases, arguably including Bomberg’s, they didn’t just “feel outside the mainstream”, they were clearly treated that way, which would, yes, encourage questioning about a society behaving thus.
- And, “.. does Jewish art tend to the expressive because collective Jewish experience has been so dislocated and tragic?”
- Yes, there seems little doubt Bomberg’s struggle for recognition deeply informed his later self portraits, and darkly.
- We also know Jewish performers impact disproportionately in other cultural areas, like music.
What became of the others? Bomberg’s Slade set? „the second and last crisis of brilliance’ [work in progress]
Mark Gertler (1891-1939, 48). Gassed himself, depressed esp after DC shot herslef 1932. Like DH produced (a few) dramatic singular eye catching images. A few quirky standouts, esp The Merry Go Round (), but also Gilbert C and his mill. A lot of portraits, and still lives. Stayed firmly realistic, figurative. If colorful. No sign of abstraction, or Cubo-Futurism?!
(Sir) Stanley Spencer (1891-1959, 68). Died happy? And feted. CBE 1950, knighted 1955. Stayed REAL! And quirky, comical caricatures. Prolific. Religious firmly, but his own take, Jesus come to an English village. Neo-Romantic.
CRW Nevinson (1889-1946, 57). Died in relative obscurity? Another bright burst of preWW1 avant-garde enthusiasm in London. Keen and imaginative Futurist post the March 1912 London show, when he met Severini, then moved to Paris, studied Academie Julian, flatted with Modigliani! 1914, with Marinetti he published the Futurist manifesto in London. Then adapted it powerfully, memorably to depict WW1. Frankly, realistically, the full horror. Striking images like La Mitrailleuse (1915), Bursting Shell (1915), Flooded Trench on the Yser (1916). His frank images at a Sep.1916 show in London shocked, but he was still recruited as an official war artist in 1917. After the war, like Bomberg, he retreated from his Futurist passion, after a last splash in New York, to a restrained more traditional realism.
William Roberts (1895-1980, 85). Roberts was not a great innovator, like Bomberg, but developed his own distinctive Cubist-leaning style just before WW1, when he was part of WL‘s Vorticism movement, and he applied it especially to figurative scenes of urban life. His masterpiece is The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918).
Dora Carrington (1893-1932, 39). Shot herself.
· Bomberg is rightly famous for series of four distinctive, striking, colorful geometric quasi-abstract „Cubo-futurist“ oil paintings completed in a single two year burst just before WW1: Vision of Ezekiel (1912), Ju-Jitsu (c.1913), In the Hold (c.1913-4) and The Mud Bath (1914). The young painter (only 22-24) was still at art school (the Slade) but already developing his own forthright idiom.
· All the works were quasi-abstract but addressed real topics from his life, his Jewish religion, or activities like the baths, or stevedores in a ship hold, which may allude to his immigrant parents.
· However the fractured patterning in Bomberg’s novel style might refer to his modern world, even to then giant strides being made in science to understand the sub-atomic structures of compounds?
· And there were other important works in the same vein, especially the 6 color lithographs (c1914) in the booklet about the famous Ballet Russes company (which performed in London from 1911), and a wholly abstract waterolour The Dancer (1913).
He wrote: “the new life should find its expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions. I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery, into an art that shall not be photographic, but expressive.’”
- But then soon after the trauma of WW1, including losing a brother, that was it with the avant-garde! He largely gave up his trademark fractured geometric abstraction.
- He still leaned to abstraction in some works, but now in a bold Expressionist style. Like Circus folk (1920), and The Tent (1920-23), in some landscapes, and also in the energetic, coarsely abstract – and prescient? – The Bomb Store (1942) in WW2.
- In 1919-20 he painted two powerful figurative Modernist urban life images, with a restrained brown-base palette: At the window (1919), an evocative dark image of a pensive (the war?) solitary woman at a window, leg upon a chair, back to us like CD Friedrich’s man, and secondly Ghetto theatre (1920), a dark compressed clipped image of a theatre audience, where the angled balcony rail speaks to his abstract works.
- Both these reflect the eye of one of his early teachers? The cosmopolitan eccentric, engaging Walter Sickert (1860-1942), a founder of the Camden Town Group, taught and inspired by Whistler and Degas, was keen on the theatre, and keen to depict the gritty reality of modern urban life.
- But also in 1919 he painted a quieter Modern realistic image, of barges on a canal, Barges (1919).
- This contrasted sharply with his commission for the Canadian War Records Office, Sappers at work (1919), depicting a crowded angular timber prop structure populated by real figures in a furious life and death scene underground on the Western Front in 1914, Canadian army engineers (sappers) in action in France. The degree of abstraction in the initial study offended the client and was tamed in the final image.
- After WW1, from around 1923, he turned mainly to landscapes and portraits.
- He discovered landscape painting in Palestine and Jordan (1923-27), then especially in Spain (1934-35), and later in the English West Country and Scotland, all in a bold, colorful Expressionist style, sometimes leaning close to abstraction, like The Virgin of Peace in Procession etc (1935), or Trees in sun, Cyprus (1948).
- Why the sudden and sustained preoccupation with landscapes? And why abandon any more images from urban life? It seems very likely an escape from, reaction to his personal struggle, his failure to gain traction commercially and critically as an artist? Bomberg was a thinking artist. He felt let down by failure to successfully engage society and his art peers so perhaps he sought some relief through a meditative painterly engagment with nature, in his own words as a search for the „spirit in the mass“?
- And he painted portraits, like the feted The Red Hat (1931), but especially three powerful sequences of self portraits. We have five in oil from 1930-32, a total of nine in one year (1937), then late in life (1954-56) another four. The pressure from lack of critical and customer support for his work seems to have engendered intense, sombre and sustained introspection.
- There was little output for 3 years from 1938-41, and indeed little right through the war except in 1942 when he finally secured a commission from the WAAC, to depict a bomb store. But then typically the Committee rejected his paintings as too abstract and only accepted 3 drawings.
- Bomberg had a penchant for creative bursts and in 1943 it was.. still lives of flowers! The story runs that his (second) wife Lilian used flowers to encourage her husband to resume painting.
- In 1944 he painted a now well known image of St Pauls in war torn central London, using a similar palette to his landscapes.
- After WW2 he painted on an off for about two years, 1946-48, all landscapes, in England’s west country and Cyprus (1948).
- Then for nearly five years again he painted nothing – when he was teaching, and also still wrestling with lack of support – until 1953 Lilian coaxed him to resume, and he painted his neighbour, Portrait of Eunice Levi (1953).
- Bomberg opened his career with a burst of strident youthful originality, and now closed it with another powerful creative burst which could hardly be more different. Then was the exuberant confident young student at the Slade School, revelling in hard-edged abstraction, and now was the ageing beleaguered artist, belaboured, cowed, bowed by life. This anguish he fed into a painful sequence of portraits, including three more self portraits (or four counting Hear oh Israel), now about 17 years after the large 1937 tranche. They are astonishing works. Now the artist is barely recognisable, is more like a wraith or a spirit man, like a man drained by life being swallowed geologially by the earth which bore him.
- In the 1954 self portrait (London South Bank) he could be an alien, saw himself metaphorically thus? At a time of popular curiosity for UFOs. The 1955 Hear oh Israel, painted in Spain, could be a self portrait as the artist calling a last time to his faith.
- Also in Spain he painted the obscure Vigilante (1955), using a gypsy lady as his model but maybe again it is a personal statement, the artist as the lone outsider.
- In his evocative singular final Self portrait (1956), the ailing artist at 66, and only a year from death, shows what might be a robed Biblical like figure sat arms crossed on his lap, his face dissolving, or mangled, turned right towards a gash of blue light behind. The painter, bloodied by life, is surrendering to the landscapes which drew him, to eternity. We see echoes in Francis Bacon?
- But in this last of the many self portraits he relaxes the Expressive palette, allows more colour, like perhaps he is relaxing his life demeanour? Accepting his reality as a forgotten or overlooked artist, but one ultimately confident in his achievement?
- Or maybe this is wishful thinking and his affliction was relentless, allowing no glint of light at the end.
- Because life’s travails interrupted his painting for extended periods Bomberg did not leave a large oeuvre.
Life and times
- Bomberg was born Birmingham, the 7th of 11 children to an immigrant Polish family, which moved to London 1895, to Whitechapel in East End. He lived St Mark’s Street, Aldgate.
- He studied with Walter Bayes at the City and Guilds Institute (circa 1905), and at both the Central School of Arts and Crafts and Westminster School under Walter Sickert (1908-1910).
- In November 1910 he saw Roger Fry’s famous first show of new art from Europe (Manet and the Post-impressionists), at Grafton Galleries, including Cezanne. In November 1911 the Stafford Gallery showed work by Gauguin and Cezanne.
- With help from the Jewish Educational Society (and John Singer Sargent, whom Bomberg met 1907) Bomberg continued his training at Slade School of Art, 1911-13, part of distinguished group of students including Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), CRW Nevinson (1889-1946), William Roberts (1895-1980) and Dora Carrington (1893-1932). He won a drawing prize in 1911. Poet and fellow student Isaac Rosenberg, sometime artist, also a Jewish East ender, became a close friend.
- Around 1911 five of these artists were briefly grouped as Neo-Primitives, influenced by early Italian artists like Giotto et al, and famous Renaissance painters available at the National Gallery (and beloved by Tonks), following too a visit by Augustus John to Italy 1910.
- 1912 was a key year. In March 1912 he saw the Italian Futurist show open in London at the Sackville Gallery, followed by Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition from 1912.
- Bomberg’s own remarkable Vision of Ezekiel (1912) launched his dramatic new style, applying his own Futurist take on the new Cubism to Polish Jewish heritage (his „pariah aesthetic, arguably diasporic…”). This painting followed the sudden death of his mother and seems to refer to the prophet’s Vision of the Valley of Dried Bones (Ezekiel, Chap. 37).
- However while he drew on the Futurist style he resisted being formally recruited by its Italian protagonist, FT Marinetti who had visited London for the 1912 show (but first visited London in 1910), or by Wyndham-Lewis.
- Meanwhile he showed with the New English Art Club (NEAC), established 1886 to promote „progressive“ art, per contra the Royal Academy‘s (RA’s) traditional stance.
- Bomberg was a young rebel, and also personally refractory? „Difficult“? A fellow Jewish Whitechapel painter, Joseph Leftwich, later said Bomberg around 1911 was „..very „blasty“ – pugnacious is too mild.. he wanted to dynamite the whole of English painting..“. Thus he led mock tours lampooning the Royal Academy (RA) on Piccadilly which caused the RA to formally complain to the Slade.
- Bomberg was expelled from the Slade in the summer of 1913 for his rebellious art. The forthright, opinionated Henry Tonks who loathed Cubism and its ripples, warned students against being „contaminated“ by it. Frederick Brown and Philip Wilson Steer were sympathetic to the new art, but agreed. However Bomberg‘s „pugnacious“ personality likely contributed, well as his poor Jewish origins?
- After leaving the Slade he explored different groups, including a brief but „acrimonious“ experience with the Omega Workshop in 1913. And later in 1913 he visited Paris with the older important avant-garde Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), to select work for the planned London Group show at Whitechapel Gallery, and where among others he met Modigliani, Derain and Picasso.
- In 1913 he was a founding member of the London Group, formed by merger of Camden Town Group and Fitzroy Street Group, and he exhibited with Camden Town Group Dec. 1913. He helped organise the first London Group exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements’), in May 1914.
- He had been noticed by the older Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) who visited his studio in 1912, was sympathetic to his Futurist style. And he did relate to WL’s Vorticist style, concern with Form. Thus he exhibited Dec. 1913 in Brighton in the „Cubist“ room at The Camden Town Group and Others exhibition organised by WL.
- Again with the Vorticists he showed 5 works at the May 1914 London Group show at the Whitechapel Gallery, including the signature paintings In the Hold and Ju Jitsu (then titled Japanese Play), plus Acrobats, and Racehorses. But he was wary of WL, and of the political context of Vorticism, and he rejected a formal association.
- Thus July 1914 he refused to contribute to WL’s inaugural issue of BLAST, and in June 1915 he was hung on edge of the first dedicated Vorticist show, at Dore Galleries, though ironically though arguably he was the „the Vorticist group’s most original artist.” Thus through WL’s new Rebel Art Centre Bomberg met TE Hulme, the “poet and speculative philosopher”, who wrote, “his work is certainly much more individual and less derivative than the work of the members of [the Vorticist] group’.
- July 1914 he had an important solo show of 55 works at the Chenil Gallery, at 183a Kings Road, Chelsea, dubbed ‘ Bomberg’s Futurist Bombshells’ by The Pall Mall Gazette, and featuring his centrepiece, The Mud Bath. He wrote in the exhibition catalogue: „I look upon Nature while I live in a steel city…. I appeal to a Sense of Form … My object is the construction of Pure Form. I reject everything in painting that is not Pure Form.”
- It worried more than the critics, is said that an image of The Mud Bath hung outside to advertise the show caused horses confronting it to shy!
· In 1914-15 he painted many watercolours on the theme of Dance, following his booklet about the famous Ballet Russes company (which performed in London from 1911), and his abstract waterolour The Dancer (1913).
- He then joined WW1, enlisting November 1915, initially with the Royal Engineers, transferring 1916 to King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In March 1916 he embarked for the W Front, just after marrying Alice Mayes.
- Like other artists he sought work commissions during the war, and finally in 1917 succeeded through the Canadian Govt, but he struggled to gain approval. To his distress his first version of Sappers at work (1918-19) was rejected as too Modern, so he tamed his style for the final version.
- The trauma of his war experience – including the loss of one of his brothers and of friends (like Isaac Rosenberg and TE Hulme) and such that he apparently shot himself in the foot – ruined any affection for the modern world, the new „Machine Age“ which had helped inspire his abstraction. Thus after the war he abruptly abandoned the new art, the avant-garde! He abandoned his Cubo-futurist quasi-abstraction, and reverted to „a more figurative style“, keeping a richer palette and coarse Expressionist brushwork, applied mainly to landscapes and portraits.
- In 1919 a one-man show of ink-wash drawings at the Adelphi Gallery was favourably reviewed by Herbert Read, and he again exhibited with the London Group.
- After WW1 he travelled, especially to Spain and Palestine.
- A 1922 visit to Lugano to paint with Ben and Winifred Nicholson did not work out well.
- The visit to Palestine April 1923-27, there assisted by the Zionist Organisation, triggered an interest in landsapes. Alice separated from Bomberg, stayed in Palestine.
- He left London August 1929 for Spain, mainly to Toledo, returning April 1930, via Morocco and Greek islands.
- Now lived with Lilian Mendelson, also a painter, at Fordwych Rd, Hampstead. Encouraged by Bomberg’s sister Kitty and her husband James Newmark, they join the Communist Party in 1933. But on visiting Odessa (USSR) from July 1933 for 5 months, they saw enough to resign.
- In 1934 he and Lilian went to Spain, to Cuenca and Ronda (returning there 1954-57), and to Asturias 1935. He returned to England Nov. 1935, just before the Civil War erupted.
- Their daughter Diana was born 1935. And they married September 1941.
- In the mid-late 1930s he struggled to gain support, despite actively seeking such from friends and beyond. A one man show in June 1936 did not succeed, sold nothing, and in particular in July 1937 the Tate Gallery rejected four paintings he offered for purchase. He even approached Kenneth Clark at the National Gallery. Wyndham Lewis also was of no help.
- Once WW2 started Bomberg wrote to The Times on 20.x.1938 („’In a war fought for freedom and progressive culture, the artist surely has a vital role to play..“), but it then took 3 years to persuade the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), chaired by Clark, to offer a commission, and then a minor commission in 1942 to paint a large bomb store near Burton-on-Trent.
- Later in WW2 (1944) he also executed his famous painting of London, Evening in the City of London, looking west from a church tower just south of Cheapside, showing beleagured St Pauls, but using the same warm expressive colors as many landscapes. Critic Martin Harrison described it as the “most moving of all paintings of wartime Britain“? Bomberg remarked, ‘I want to translate the life of a great city … into art that shall not be photographic, but expressive’.
- Cyprus he visited 1948. Also Devon and Cornwall in the summers of 1946 an 1947.
- Post WW2 he still battled for recognition and support from the British art leaders. Thus in 1951 he was omitted from the Festival of Britain exhibition and also – extraordinarily – from Herbert Read’s influential 1951 monograph Contemporary British Art.”, while many other artists now regarded as minor were included. And in 1952 he was overlooked in Sir John Rothenstein’s 1952 Modern British Painters (in three volumes!), though he was added in a reprint 30 years later! JR was director of the Tate Gallery 1938-64!
- In a 1956 Tate show on ‘Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism’ he was still treated as a minor player, represented by “just one untypical drawing of the ʻJewish Theatre.ʼ”
- In the period 1945-53 he taught in London at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank Univ.), students including now well known followers like F Auerbach and L Kossoff: “Unable to get a teaching position after WW2 in any of the .. prestigious London art schools, Bomberg became the most exemplary teacher of the immediate post-war period in Britain, working part-time … at the Borough Polytechnic (now London S Bank Univ.).. in the working-class borough of Southwark… his students received no grant and were awarded no diploma [but] he attracted devoted and highly energetic pupils, with whom he exhibited on an equal basis … in two important artists’ groupings in which he was the leading light, the Borough Group (1946–51) and the Borough Bottega (1953–55). He developed a deeply considered philosophy of art, set out in several pieces of writing, which he summed up in the phrase, “The Spirit in the Mass”.”
- Bomberg moved to Hampstead in 1948, with his second wife, the painter Lilian Holt and then did not paint for the best part of 5 years, occupied now with teaching but also battling depression triggered by sustained neglect by the art establishment.
- Finally in 1953 he painted his neighbour in Hampstead (Portrait of Eunice Levi): „.. painted a year after Bomberg’s recovery from a long bout of depression.. brought on by the repeated rejections …for commissions and failure to sell work. He was bitterly disappointed when Tate rejected the purchase of his works in 1937 and these continuing fits of depression prevented Bomberg from painting. In an attempt to inspire her husband to start painting again, Lilian began placing a vase of flowers on a table in their living room and encouraged him to paint them. Initially reluctant, Bomberg soon began buying flowers every day to paint…”.
- In 1953 he founded Borough Bottega, which held its first show Nov. 1953 at Berkeley Galleries, and a 4th and final show in 1955.
- From February 1954 to May 1957, near his death, he lived and painted back at Ronda, in Spain.
- Only after his death did just recognition slowly, finally start to emerge. In 1958 the Arts Council of Great Britain staged a a travelling exhibition, though omitted major early works like his now iconic 1914 The Mud Bath. In 1964 Marlborough Gallery held an exhibtion of his work, the gallery that had become the agents to Auerbach and Kossoff . The Whitechapel Art Gallery mounted a show in 1979 (David Bomberg: The Later Years, curate by N Serota). After a small 1967 show the Tate finally mounted a full retrospective in 1988.
- Bomberg’s dramatic early Futurist works remained out of sight, stored, for near half a century, from the 1914 Chenil Gallery show till after his death.
Art critics were generally ambivalent about Bomberg in his life? David Sylvester was an early champion, from c1958. And not till Richard Cork’s 1987 account did a serious and approbatory critical examination emerge.