Manierre Dawson: Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

Manierre Dawson (Dec. 1887 – Aug. 15, 1969, 81)

Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

  • Pioneering young American abstract painter from 1910, clearly one of first in Western art.
  • His Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates work of the later great Kandinsky.
  • But age 27, despite a remarkable busy and productive start, the retiring outsider curiously hung up his brushes after 4 years to farm cherries. Did not stay in, play the game.
  • This seems astonishing given his propitious start, including a visit in 1910 to Paris, of all times and places.
  • Striking too is he came from nowhere, from minimal formal training in art, notwithstanding Europe 1910.
  • Why did he quit despite the promising start? Basically not the fire in the belly?
  • But most oddly, despite his achievement, and being American, he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition.

 

FEATURED IMAGE:  1910, Prognostic (centre panel). Oil on canvas, triptych, 85.7 × 90.8 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum

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1910. Coordinate Escape, Oil on Composition Board, 48.3 x 36.8cm, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills, California

COMMENT: striking abstract paintings from early 1910, from a young (22) untrained artist, without doubt near the earliest abstract paintings in Western art, and clearly derived from his maths training meeting a keen artistic mind.

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1913 Wharf under mountain, 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida.

COMMENT:  striking is how different from his other work is his abstraction approach, both the imagery and bright bold colors. But is it abstract? Some will say there is clearly a ship there. Maybe sea below, a mountain behind, and green fields above that?

Famously it was his surreptitious entry to the Chicago (March/April 1913) version of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.

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1913, Figure Party-Colored, Oil on board, 44 x 36 inches.

COMMENT:  another quasi-abstract Cubo-Futurist work, but more colourful.

 

SUMMARY

Dawson was a curious pioneering American modernist, an outsider, now largely forgot.

Though in his painting he struck abstraction / non-objective gold early – like from 1910 – he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 show.

This seems astonishing for a number of reasons.

First, not only was he clearly the first US abstract painter he was one of the first abstractionists in “Western” art, alongside the big names of Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia et al in Europe.

Second, astonishing is that his Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates later work of the lauded Kandinsky. And some of his geometric abstraction motifs might even look ahead further to some Abstract Expressionists?

Third, he then mined this seam busily for about 4 years, fashioning his own take on Cubo-Futurist quasi-abstract modernist figuration.

So while his post 1911 Cubo-Futurist work is indeed derivative, and while his effective active career was only a brief 5 years or so, overall he left a remarkable and distinctive, if truncated, body of work, abstract and quasi-abstract.

Moreover one of his 1913 abstract works was hung in the Chicago showing of the seminal 1913 Armory exhibition.

Striking too is how, compared with peers, he came from nowhere. In 1910 he was young (23), had just finished an engineering degree and was painting part-time, working as a first year employee with an architects firm, had no formal training in art (but for one class in high school), and no exposure by then to the dynamic modern art scene.

 

Born and raised in Chicago, he started painting during his engineering degree (1905-09). Early 1910 he painted his first fully abstract works, then visited Europe for about 5 months in the back half of 1910.

But after painting keenly for about 4 years, after showing at the Armory in 1913, and in two significant exhibitions in 1914 (where he also sold some works), despite this achievement and his apparent passion, at 27 he quit full time art for good, disappeared to rural Michigan, his art with him, to become a full-time cherry farmer, and only an occasional artist.

 

Why did he abruptly abandon ship after such a promising start?

Dawson will remain something of an enigma.

Basically it appears he simply lacked the fire? He was not hungry and determined enough? Thus while he obviously recognised the importance of the 1913 Armory show he was timid in his response. Invited to show by the main organiser he refused, then when pressed by Pach he agreed to show a work in the Chicago viewing (ie his home town) but it went in late (so was omitted from the catalogue) and, at his request, was anonymous.

So he succumbed to short term domestic circumstances. Summer 1914 he met his future wife, from a family near his family’s country farm, the area where he then settled down, marrying July 1915.

Interesting too  is that, despite signs in 1912, he never really persevered with his pioneering bolt-from-the-blue 1910 abstraction approach. He was perhaps too distracted by the Cubo-Futurism he met in Europe 1910.

 

He was not to be “discovered” for about 50 years, until well after WW2, near the end of his life, after the ageing artist contacted a nearby Florida museum.

 

ART

Startling abstraction in Year 0: 1910

Manierre Dawson leaves quite a story.

There is no doubt this man (first name is his mother’s maiden name) from 1910 became a pioneering “Western” abstract painter, working keenly in Chicago for about 4 years, up there with the relevant big names in Europe, like Delaunay, Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and Picabia.

In 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

The most striking is Prognostic (1910), a triptych with a big centre panel 86 x 91cm) and two wings about 2/3 as big (62 x 51cm). The abstraction motifs are clearly prescient of Kandinsky, as also is the smaller Differential complex (1910). (“Differential” referring to calculus), but before Kandinsky by some years, even 10 years? Kandinsky’s abstraction is far denser, more intricate and colourful, but anticipate him Dawson clearly does.

The primary inspirational source of his abstraction – the lines and circles – is commonly associated with his engineering education (1905-09), called “geometric”, and that certainly fits his 1910 work, like Xdx, Co-ordinate escape, and Discal Procession (showing a nest of curves). Prognostic is more complex, seems to use both maths and natural landscape references?

Colour was not a preoccupation with Dawson. Most of his works were subdued, monohromatic. All his abstraction is subdued, in monochromatic browns / oranges.

 

Why abstract for him?

Interesting is that his motivation for going abstract, after a brief (2-3 year?) figurative phase, was not spiritual (as the Whitney exhibition text of 1988 claimed) or philosophical (like for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) but simply curiosity stemming from his academic engineering training, especially the mathematical content.

This seems entirely valid for mathematics is certainly abstract, yet also profoundly important, “real”, because maths is the universal language used to express the underlying laws of physics which describe, underlie, the visible world, and which apply across our known universe.

 

Dawson on where his art comes from?

Dawson wrote in April 1911: “In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, “What does it mean?” “What does it represent?” I have to start with a statement that sometimes helps. Art is a human invention.

In nature there was no art except that all creations of the Almighty are part of that Almighty.

“Art” as a word for us to use describes the invention of that part of creation that is man.

All nature is bearing down on us day after day. We cannot avoid it. Every form that we could use is there.

But away from nature and in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else. One answer to the question, “What is it?” is to point to the picture and say, “It is that. It exists nowhere else.”

This doesn’t seem to say much?

Yet “we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else” seems the essence?

 

Outsider?

As an artist he was, like some other pioneers, an outsider. He was largely self-taught, driven by his powerful interest.

Yes he was exposed early to Europe and some of its art, like about 23, and there briefly touched Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein.

And yes back then in the US he engaged with Arthur B Davies et al in New York, which led to his 1913 Armory appearance, but he was never formally trained in art, and after his brief early brush with the industry (including being shown in two exhibitions in 1914) he basically disappeared to fruit farming in Michigan.

He never pursued a full time career in art, cultivating support from dealers and museums.

So he remained little known till well after WW2, only near the end of his life. So “the first real recognition.. [finally came].. 1966 ..a retrospective .. by the Grand Rapids Art Museum [Michigan]..”. Exhibitions followed 1967 in Florida, catching the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969 and March 1981.

 

Why overlooked so long – despite his obvious contribution?

Easy. After striking gold early, for about 4 years, he just disappeared, to work full-time as a farmer.

So the art scene –which end of the day is a business, is about selling products (art works, museum and galley visits) to make money – passed him by for about 50 years, did not re-engage with him till the mid 1960s.

 

But omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25” seems absurd?

There is no doubt Dawson’s omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition was an egregious oversight, especially as an American who (after first declining an invitation to the NY show) was famously hung in the Chicago chapter of the important 1913 Armory show which showcased leading modernist European painters. His entry of Wharf under a mountain (1913) – the only abstract painting there by any American – hung alongside Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky etc.

Also, unlike the German Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), another stunning omission from MOMA’s blockbuster, Dawson’s abstract oeuvre, from 1910, was prolific and substantial, creative and diverse, in the pioneering 4 year period to 1914.

Certainly he made it hard for the art scene to notice him, disappearing after only about 4 years. But that’s no excuse. And certainly by 2013 Dawson had been noticed by many in the field.

Thus his omission is even harder to understand given a 334 page catalogue raisonné (Ploog, Bairstow and Boyajian) of Dawson’s work was published 2011 by The Three Graces and Hollis Taggart Galleries.

The curators of Inventing Abstraction seem either careless or lazy, or perhaps possessed of some obscure political resistance to acknowledging this painter.

 

Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 7 years older, and who visited Europe and its art 1907-09 (ie before Dawson) is often cited as the first US abstract painter. He painted abstract early, motivated mainly by Nature, natural forms, and he was important, but he was not the first, clearly beaten by Dawson, in time (just) and also in terms of emphatic output, Dawson executing 6 meaningful such works in 1910.

But both Dawson and Dove were among the first abstractionists in Western art.

Dove is far better remembered simply because art remained his full time job, so he stayed painting, and he evolved. Returning from Europe in 1909 he was keen to stay in art and in this was strongly supported in New York by the keen photographer and pivotal modern art promoter Alfred Steiglitz, and his 291 gallery, where Dove showed 1910, again 1912 in a one man show.

 

Dove was included in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, along with Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), another important American modernist who also contributed to abstraction early on, from around 1912.

 

Another important American modernist painter, briefly mentioned in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, and who also showed in- made a splash in – the Armory, was Joseph Stella (1877–1946). Also supported by Steiglitz he contributed Futurist abstract images by 1914, but was energetic and imaginative across a wide range of styles.

 

What if?

The outcome invites speculation, like how might his art have evolved had he made it a full-time career – say in Chicago and maybe beyond, like NY – and how might his evolving output have impacted other artists?

Unfortunately we’ll never know, but we know he was industrious, committed and creative when for a short time he was focussed on art.

 

His path:  the first abstract painter in the US and one of first in Western art.

Pre 1910

Dawson started painting c1906, executed a few realist works before 1910, simple figurative outdoor scenes, a vase of flowers, and a modernist Still life (1908).

December 1908 he wrote in his journal, “This winter I am very hard at work . . . on several arbitrarily constructed paintings of arranged figures, blocking things out without rhyme or reason other than to make the picture look right.”.

1910 opened with two distinctive quasi-abstract paintings in monochrome browns, one (Rocky Pool) a landscape .

 

1910: abstraction

Then suddenly in 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

 

1911: after Europe, Cubo-Futurism

But still young (23), his 5 month trip to Europe abruptly shifted his art. He discovered Cubism, presumably in Paris and from 1911 he applied his version to interpreting a number of Classical subjects and Old Masters paintings, what Dawson himself referred to as his “museum paintings”.

Some critics have complained Dawson fell so madly for “Cubism” after Europe, “became a follower rather than a leader” (LACMA, Nov.2013), veering away from his distinctive abstraction. “He seems never to have been the same after Paris..” (Roberta Smith, NY Times August 1988). Thus there were no pure abstract works in 1911.

This is perhaps unfair, but is at least unfortunately he did not pursue his pioneering stark geometric abstraction of 1910.

His style did evolve, but mostly never far from variations on Cubo-Futurism?

So he painted a number of quasi-abstract figures, all in a distinctive modernist fractured monochromatic Cubo-Futurist style. And he did return to abstraction, albeit Cubist derived.

His Futurist reminds us of the approaches of some European modernists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in France / US, also the Englishman David Bomberg (1890-1957), cf Island of Joy (c1912).

Madonna (1911) apparently refers to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other Cubo-Futurist figurative works of Classical subjects are Hercules, The Three Graces, Lucrece, and Birth of Venus (1912).

In 1912 he applied the dynamic Cubist style many times, now including three larger paintings, all around 1.5 x 1.2 metres, like The Three Graces, Desdemona.

 

1912: more abstraction

Interestingly 1912 Dawson returned to abstraction, in a number of ways.

Two simple works – the subdued simple glyphic Painted wood relief, and the “geometric” Untitled (Study #30) – do recall his “geometric”1910 approach.

Untitled abstraction is more colourful and is again in the vein of Kandinsky

Blue complex moves on, is busier, denser.

And Personal Presentation is abstract after Cubo-Futurist.

Also in 1912 he suddenly paints a more colourful modernist quasi-abstract landscape, Red mur, but the lines of which clearly relate to his abstract works.

And in 1912 we again see a number of figurative Cubo-Futurist paintings, like Figures in Action (Struggle).

 

1913: more abstraction

1913 is another busy year, sees his style meaningfully evolve, him execute some major works, mostly abstract, now less figuration.

It includes a suddenly different abstract / quasi-abstract work, the colourful Wharf under mountain which was hung in the Armory (Chicago) show, though only after Walter Pach insisted Dawson show it. Dawson wrote 4 April 1913, “Walter said he had no trouble getting the painting hung.” It’s a bolder, darker, more Expressionist painting, lots of royal blue and some green and an intriguing title.

Essay in Brown (1913) clearly advances his abstraction, shows a tumble of jagged “objects” apparently against a rectilinear background.

Afternoon II is again monochromatic but denser, more intricate, seems to blend geometric and Cubist abstraction? And Compages of Classical Figures and Conversation also shift his abstraction.

We see a lot more Cubist abstraction (like Arroyo, Ascension, Figure Party-Colored (more colourful than usual), Meditation, Observation, The gate, and Thirteen).

And we see much less Futurist figuration (eg the larger Hercules I and II, and Trio), still in subdued monochromatic pale orange-brown tones.

Finally, different, we see two small Arthur Dove-like quasi-abstract paintings, Night flower and Beech.

 

1913: Armory (Chicago, Mar. 24-Apr. 15, 1913)

Dec.1912, Arthur B Davies invited him to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913) but he declined! He said he had nothing handy (recent) worth hanging, and worried that in winter he could not transport paintings in time, from their location at the family farm, ie his earlier 1910 paintings, which even he knew then were more important.

For the Chicago show Walter Pach persuaded Dawson to change his mind. There too he visited the show a number of times, and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911-12?) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase.  Dawson was impressed by Duchamp’s work, not surprising because it chimes with his own. The painting he bought it now hangs in Guggenheim Venice because he had to sell ir not long after to pay the bills.

Chicago’s offering was a cut down version (634 works) of New York (where approx. 1300 works showed). Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained.”. The show was championed by a few, condemned by many. But “Scandal and outrage bred interest” and 189,000 visited in 23 days, averaging about 8,200 per day, a higher outcome than NY.

 

Around the time of the Armory in Chicago (April 1913) he left his job, and wrote:

Since I left Holabird and Roche I’ve had a glorious time painting. Hanging over the mantel in the library is the Duchamp. I am having a good look at it. These three paintings I am doing now, Hercules I, II, III, may show D’s influence. I am contemplating more colorful things to come.

Did his viewing the Armory show (eg seeing Duchamp) change his art? Not significantly? Thus his Cubo-Futurist style – evident after Armory in Hercules – was well established by then.

But 1913 was a big year for his art and he did evolve.

 

1914: Dawson bails from full time art, but still evolving.

1914 also sees some variety, and shifts, and a fateful emphatic career move.

Meanwhile his abstraction motifs evolved, like in the more colourful Equation, and like Figure in Pink and Yellow.

Letters and numbers is what it seems, shifts again, has a Stuart Davis feel.

The darker Futurist Night figures again recalls David Bomberg, while geometric derived Untitled (Pictogram II) again recalls Kandinsky, but showing Dawson’s finger prints.

Then there are two similar figurative works, one much larger, both showing Futurist friezes of groups of people, Seven and Configuration.

Then mid 1914 he suddenly quits full time art.

 

After 1915 Dawson, now farming full time, executes far fewer works, paints little, though is still valid, still moving, especially the colourful quasi-abstract Figure by the window.

His Loft (1918) seems another pioneering work, an abstract image carved from laminated wood then painted, again monochromatically.

Then the more colourful quasi-abstract glyphic Untitled(c1920) is different but still Dawsonian.

Later too he began to sculpt, using materials encountered through his work.

He struggled financially and Rauschenberg-style began to make art from whatever was lying around, “cement, scraps of lumber, pieces of plywood”. Sculptures he made from “sheets of composite wood .. laminated together ..”

 

Discovery

Dawson disappeared from the art world for 52 years, 1914 to 1966, when he showed at Grand Rapids Michigan, then 1967 at the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota, Florida, near his then home. There he was noticed by a NY dealer (Robert Schoelkopf) who showed him there 1969 and 1981.

He was shown in a 1977 retrospective at MCA Chicago, and 1988 at the Whitney.

 

Exhibitions

Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Montross Gallery in New York, February 1914; the Detroit Museum of Art, March 1914; Cincinnati Museum of Art, March / April 5, 1914; and the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, April / May 1914.

Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in ‘The Modern Spirit,’ Milwaukee Art Society, April 16–May 12, 1914.

Manierre Dawson, Milwaukee Art Institute, Jan. 1923.

Retrospective Paintings by Manierre Dawson, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, April 1966.

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1909-1913, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida November 1967, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, January / February 1968.

Manierre Dawson, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, April / May 1969

A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1977. Indiana University Art Museum

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1910-1914, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1981

Manierre Dawson: American Modernist Painter, Tildon-Foley Gallery, New Orleans, May / June 1988.

Manierrre Dawson Early Abstractionist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July / September 1988.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, October 1999.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, December 2000.

Manierre Dawson: New Revelations, Hollis Taggart Galleries, Chicago, May / June 2003.

Manierre Dawson: A Startling Presence, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, March / August 2006.

Manierre Dawson, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, April 2011.

 

LIFE

Manierre Dawson was the 2nd of 4 sons born to George Dawson and Eva (Manierre) Dawson in Chicago, a middle class family, father a lawyer, who supported the arts but as a hobby but not a career.

Dawson’s only formal art training came from classes with Miss Dorothy Dimock at high school in Chicago. Here he met Arthur W. Dow’s instruction manual Composition (1899). Dow favoured “beauty over representation.”, which can be read as “let your mind go.”

Dawson really discovered art during a 4 year civil engineering degree course at the Armour Institute of Technology [he wrote: “All these days of hard study at Armour Tech, where I am taking a course in civil engineering, are brightened by continuing the making of pictures on week-ends.”] so when he graduated 1909 he quickly switched to painting, commencing his first abstract paintings as early as spring of 1910, in this apparently influenced by some of his engineering training (analytic geometry?), while a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm.

But granted 6 months leave he departed in mid-June 1910 for his one and only trip abroad, to Europe. He travelled across England to France (Paris), south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy (in Siena meeting John Singer Sargent), back north for a second stay in Paris, and around northern Germany, leaving for home late-November. On his 2nd visit to Paris he met Gertrude Stein (who reportedly bought a painting), saw paintings by Cézanne (and others?) in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery.

In NY, on the way home, he met painter Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder, another painter.

Inspired by Europe – and meeting Davies? – he painted keenly 1911 through 1914

Dec.1912, Davies invited him to participate in the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913). He initially declined but did show one work in Chicago.

April 1913 he left his architectural job.

In 1914, Dawson participated in two group exhibitions. One called “Fourteen”, meaning 14 current American artists, was organized by Arthur B Davies and Walter Pach, sponsored by the Montrose Gallery in NY, highlighting abstract painting, and went to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore (Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University).

The other, in Milwaukee, Paintings and Sculptures in “The Modern Spirit”, organized by the forerunner of the Milwaukee Art Museum (by a high school friend there) sold two paintings to collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. “The exhibition was a sort of recap of the Armory Show. It opened in April and included contemporary European and American work from Midwest collections.

Early he spent summers at the family farm in at Ludington, Mason County, Michigan (about 2/3 the way up the east side of L Michigan), where he also painted a lot.

Mid 1914 he quit full time art.

He wrote April 1914, “I know there is work to be done on a farm in winter, yet I have the hope that if the bridge is crossed I can find painting or carving time in that season..

Summer 1914 he met Lilian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, then by autumn 1914 had decided, and with help from his father, he moved permanently to lakeside Ludington, and July 1915 married Lilian, thereafter raising three children.

In the mid-1950s he and his wife began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. There, after diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he died August 1969 (25 days after Armstrong walked on the moon).

some works………

 

1910

 
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1910, Xdx, Oil on paperboard attached to particleboard, 19 1/8 x 14 7/16 in. (48.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum

 

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1910, Discal Procession, oil on wood 30 1/2 x 24 7/8 in. (77.5 x 63.2 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

 

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1910, DIfferential complex, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 30.cm, Tilden-Foley Gallery, New Orleans

 

 

1913

 

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1913, Essay in Brown, oil on cardboard, 45.7 x 66.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum, “Employing a now-familiar palette, Dawson created a group of paintings in 1913 which were completely abstract ….. With Essay in Brown the artist creates visual tension by contrasting a series of rectilinear shapes in the background with a cascade of overlapping forms that tumble from right to left. …… The interlocking and floating elements of this might be compared with Willem De Kooning’s Excavation (Art Institute of Chicago), created 37 years later.”

1914

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1914, Equation , oil on cardboard, 91.44 x 70.17 cm, Joslyn Art Museum

 

1915

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1915, Figure by the Window, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum,”…  1915 was momentous for .. Manierre Dawson… decide to commit himself completely to farming…. t married Lillian Boucher, a neighboring farm girl ten years his junior….  We see a female looking out a window. …  a classic theme. … Randy Ploog, in his 2003 essay “Metaphor and Autobiography in the Art of Manierre Dawson”, posits that Dawson borrowed major compositional elements of his Figure by the Window from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-67). Certainly Dawson has shifted the ambience of the picture. Vermeer’s young woman is a picture of calm composure. In Dawson’s treatment, an aura seems to emanate from the woman’s central position outward, like waves of energy affecting everything they encounter. The space folds and refolds until it is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a visual metaphor for the newlyweds’ relationship.’

 

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1920. Desert, oil on canvas. 22 by 28 inches, Illinois State Museum

 

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Manierre Dawson, 1950s?

COMMENT: Still gripped by his trademark lightning bolt Cubo-Futurist motifs

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John Marin. More derivative than a driver? And played within a small sandpit?

 

John Marin (1870-1953, 82)

More derivative than a driver? And narrow: played within a small sandpit?

Big time in own time but not now: eclipsed by his US peers!

 

(Featured image: 1922, The Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor with opaque watercolor, scraping, and wiping, and fabricated charcoal with stumping, on thick, rough-textured, ivory wove paper (all edges trimmed), 542 x 665 mm. Art Institute of Chicago)

 

  • Important American modernist painter who had his moments
  • He fed off the European pioneers. But:
    • He did not innovate? More derivative than a driver?
    • He was narrowly focussed, monotonous, in subject and style.
    • And stayed there, marked time across near 40 years?
  • Despite closely overlapping a revolution in Modernist art!
  • Always representational, strayed near abstraction but was never abstract.
  • But only ever painted outdoors. No figurative work.
  • Why was he popular in his time? Because he remained generally accessible, and painted appealing distractions from the turmoil and press of modern life.
  • And why forgotten? Eclipsed, ironically, by his barnstorming US peers!

 

SUMMARY

John Marin had his moments

Images which catch include some among the Weehawkin series of pocket-sized oils (early, c1910-16, painted fresh from Europe), like some other early watercolours (Red sun, Brooklyn Bridge, 1915), and later watercolours (Cape Split, Maine, 1941), and some of his later energetic, vigorous expressive seascape oils (like Gray sea, 1938, Two boats and sea, Cape Split, 1941, and Sea and boat fantasy, 1944). Nudes in Sea (1940) is striking too for its figures!?

 But overall he played within a small sandpit?

He was basically a side player? In particular he did not really innovate, remained more derivative than a driver?

And his realist art was narrowly focussed in subject and style, remained broadly within a narrow ambit across about 40 years.

…. a late starter

His known work did not emerge till he was around 40, c1910, with the Weehawkin series (named for the town where he was raised by two aunts, or maternal grandparents?), about 100 small oil sketches completed c1910-16.

But watercolours predominated until when in the 1930s (now in his 60s) he turned also to larger scale oil paintings, though still generally small.

…narrow in subjects.

Thus he only ever painted outdoors, especially landscapes (especially the sea and coasts, especially in Maine) and some cityspaces, especially New York.

He was always representational, like Picasso never abstract, though obviously straying towards, near abstraction in some of his landscapes.

There is virtually no figurative work, even in his urban paintings. No genre paintings, no interiors, still lives and in particular no portraits.

In terms of image content he never painted Modern Life.

… and style.

His art style, in both watercolours and oils, from woe to go remained narrowly constrained: variations on ragged, loose-limbed generally colourful Cubist-hued quasi-abstraction, and later, to an extent, on expressionism.

His early Weehawkin series clearly reflects his pre WW1 exposure to the radical currents in Europe – the bold Fauvist colouring and the dissonant Cubist fragmentation – and some of his later oils recall Expressionism, in brush strokes if not color.

After a burst of color in the Weehawkin series his palate later was generally more muted, less exuberant.

Despite his life overlapping dramatic, radical change in visual art.

His life span, from 1870 to the early 1950s, closely overlapped a revolution in visual art, which moreover he saw first hand when he visited Europe for about 5 years (1905-10, age 35-40) during a dramatic period in modern art.

So his whole career was backdropped by ongoing restless experiment and change in Modernist art: the pre WW1 birth and development of abstraction, the post WW1 eruption of Surrealism.

Marin and Abstract Expressionism?

Through the 1940s his art seems to have interacted with the emerging Abstract Expressionists (AE). Marin in his 70s and well known was no doubt familiar to the emerging younger artists but it’s unclear how much he influenced Pollock et al? Like through his quasi-abstract “Expressionist” landscapes? But he in turn may have fed off the younger artists? Eg his Landscape (1951).

In this AE context however one observation comes to mind, namely the horizontal bands of sky colour Marin uses in at least two modest size watercolours on paper (not oils), from 1940 (Nudes in Sea) and 1941(Cape Split, Maine) clearly resonate with Rothko’s similar later famous Color Field bands.

Once was famous.

Marin is now not well known to the lay public, outside the museums and galleries, but his acclaim grew steadily in his time so by later in his career he was among the most esteemed living artists in America.

Thus in 1942, critic Clement Greenberg enthused: “it is quite possible that he is the greatest living American painter.” And “In 1948 a Look magazine poll of museum directors and critics had him as American’s foremost artist. And in 1950 he was the most prominently featured artist in Alfred Barr’s selection of seven painters — including Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock — for the American pavilion of the 25th Venice Biennale.” (Ken Johnson, New York Times, August 2011)

Why was he so popular in his lifetime?

Probably because through his landscapes he remained generally accessible, because his style was fashionably “modern” but not radical. Thus he did not succumb to abstraction.

But also his oeuvre definitely leans toward an aesthetic purpose and not towards any uncomfortable polemical or didactic mission.

Unlike some other modern realist painters – like David Bomberg, Stuart Davis, Fernand Leger – he never painted, engaged with Modern Life, except for a passing reference to skyscrapers in New York.

Thus generally he painted appealing distractions from the turmoil and press of modern life, did not comment on it.

And why no longer popular?

Because he was overtaken, eclipsed by fashionable new twists in the rollicking onward journey of modern art, and (ironically) especially by events in his US homeland, by the post WW2 rush for Abstract Expressionism (the New York School, their success partly driven by the buoyant “victorious” relatively prosperous US), thence by Pop and beyond.

 LIFE

John Marin was born and raised in New Jersey, early worked as an architectural draughtsman, then 1899 to 1901 studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He called at the Art Students League in NY in 1905 before that year travelling to Europe for 5 years (visiting Paris, Holland, Belgium, England, Italy, and Austrian Tyrol in 1910), returning permanently to NY in 1911.

Alfred Stieglitz staged his first one man show in 1909 at his Gallery 291 in New York, and the pair worked together 40 years (as he also supported O’Keefe and Arthur Dove). In 1913 he exhibited in the famous Armory Show.

He strongly preferred landscapes, usually wintered in New Jersey, then often summered in northeastern rural locations, especially coastal Maine.

His first retrospective was in 1920, in NY. Early 1926 collector Duncan Phillips bought his first Marin, and became a big supporter. 1936 MOMA held a retrospective, one of the first for an American artist.

Beyond Maine, Marin visited Europe (though only once), New England, New Mexico (around Taos) and the Hudson River Valley.

 

 Select Works……………

              aa1                         

c1916. Weehawken sequence No. 30, oil on canvas board, 11 3/4 x 9 in, Phillips Collection

 

aa3

1925. Back of Bear Mountain, watercolor and charcoal, 43 x 51cm (17 x 20 in.), Phillips Collection

 

aa4

1938. Grey Sea, oil on canvas, 55.9 x 71.1cm, National Gallery, Washington

aa5

1940. Nudes in Sea, Watercolor with blotting, wiping, and scraping, and black crayon, with brown colored pencil, on heavyweight, moderately textured, ivory wove paper (all edges trimmed), in original frame, 39.1 x 53.3cm; Art Institute of Chicago

aa7

_16, 10/15/10, 2:49 PM, 8C, 4790×5887 (246+602), 88%, Custom, 1/60 s, R116.1, G89.6, B85.8

  1.  Sea and boat fantasy. Oil on canvas, 71 x 87cm (28 × 34 1/4 in.). Private?

 

aa8

  1. Hurricane. Oil on canvas, 64 cm × 76 cm (25 x 30 in.), Indianapolis Museum of Art.

 

 aa10

  1.  Landscape, collection?

 

david garshen BOMBERG: a brilliant, singular eruption pre WW1? But then battled the whole way home.

  • 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?

 

Summary

  • 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.

 

Art

·  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 thespirit 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.