David Bomberg: Better late than never
From precocious, early success, the British painter's career moved to subsequent obscurity, via misfortune and prejudice. But, as FLORENCE HALLETT reports, a new exhibition reclaims him as one of the 20th century's great artists
In his Last Self-Portrait, the despair of a man cruelly neglected in his lifetime, but defiant as death approached, marks a singular and unforgettable moment in 20th century painting.
Painted in 1956, one year before his death following a long period of illness and decline, here David Bomberg's physical presence seems already to be diminishing, his face as indistinct as a fading memory. Creating during his self-imposed exile in Spain, where he lived with his second wife Lilian from 1954 until his death, having left England barely able to secure a part-time teaching post, it suggests the deluge of emotions engulfing him as he looked back at his life from the vantage point of its impending end.
As much as it exudes the grief and rage of a man systematically spurned by the British art establishment, this is resolutely the image of a painter, his brushes prominently displayed, the vigorous brushwork belying his frail condition.
This flash of determination discloses something of the spirit that sustained Bomberg through years of obscurity, made all the more humiliating by his initial, precocious success.
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By his early 20s, bold examples of near-abstraction, notably The Mud Bath, 1914, Ju-Jitsu, c.1913, and In The Hold, c.1913-14, had secured Bomberg's reputation as a leading light of the avant-garde, earning him an acclaim that eluded many of his subsequently better known contemporaries.
His independence of spirit, and confidence in his own vision made Bomberg an exceptional character in the burgeoning modernism of pre-war London, and along with the sculptor Jacob Epstein – several years his senior – he was the only modern artist of his generation to stage a solo show in the years before the First World War.
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Fiercely independent, and refusing to ally himself with any one movement or group, his determination to pursue his own course made him a perpetual outsider. Facing prejudice as a Jew and the son of immigrants, he failed during his lifetime to receive the critical attention he deserved, suffering a catalogue of misfortunes and slights that he bore with fortitude, but that in the end surely contributed to his death.
While Bomberg's legacy began to be evaluated almost immediately after his death, it would take a further 30 years for his reputation to be secured through a monograph by the critic and art historian Richard Cork, followed in 1988 by an exhibition at the Tate Gallery.
Marking the 60th anniversary of Bomberg's death, a new exhibition curated by the Ben Uri Museum and Gallery, London and staged at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, offers a fresh evaluation of the artist's career, revealing the extent of his involvement with 'little magazines' after the Great War, and his relationship with Ben Uri, the art society established in 1915 by Lithuanian immigrant Lazar Berson.
The most comprehensive survey to date, co-curator Rachel Dickson, of Ben Uri, explains that the exhibition 'is the first monograph that really says with enormous confidence that David Bomberg is one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century. It brings in spheres of his life that weren't known and we have filled in the narrative relating to Ben Uri, Jewish heritage and Yiddish culture. We're also for the first time revealing his participation in the literary and artistic publication Renesans.'
If Bomberg struggled to find his place within the British art establishment, it was a pattern set in train by the circumstances of his birth, his upbringing in the Jewish ghetto of Whitechapel a world apart from the privileged circles of the London art scene.
Born in Birmingham in 1890, Bomberg's parents had fled Poland to escape the persecution and hardship afflicting Jews across eastern Europe. They were amongst the tens of thousands of Jews who between 1870 and 1914 rebuilt their lives in the cramped and poverty-stricken slums of London's East End, which was, say the show's curators, 'a microcosm of Yiddish-speaking, eastern European Jewish life'.
In a family of 11 children, all accommodated in two rooms and sustained on a single wage, the notion of becoming an artist was no doubt an extraordinary one, and yet Bomberg received great encouragement from his mother Rebecca, who not only helped him with materials, but somehow found him a place to paint.
Evening classes were supplemented with trips to the capital's museums and galleries and eventually Bomberg was offered a place at the Slade School of Art, the fees loaned to him by the Jewish Education Aid Society, a fund that assisted an impressive roster of Whitechapel Boys, including the painter Mark Gertler and the painter and poet Isaac Rosenberg. Painted a year before his death in 1957, this portrait is infused with the knowledge of approaching death, and yet in its energetic brushwork and prominent display of his paintbrushes it reasserts Bomberg's identity as a painter
Founded in 1871, the Slade School of Art's formidable reputation in the years before the First World War hinged not only on its legendary teaching staff but on the generation of artists, including Augustus John, Percy Wyndham Lewis and William Orpen who had studied there in the last years of the 19th century. Bomberg's generation of students was just as exceptional, with Stanley Spencer, CRW Nevinson, Dora Carrington and Paul Nash and others constituting the school's second 'crisis of brilliance' in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.
For all the radicalism of its students, teaching at the Slade reflected the essentially Victorian sensibilities of the British art establishment, dedicated to a tradition that through British masters like Turner and Constable extended back to examples of the High Renaissance.
Drawing provided the foundation of the Slade regime, and a student could expect to spend the first year drawing from antique casts, before being permitted to join the life room.
Many students were terrified of the drawing master Henry Tonks, but Bomberg's draughtsmanship was sufficiently well-honed that he escaped the criticism that reduced many of his peers to despair.
Writing to his friend the poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley, Paul Nash said of Tonks that 'his manner & sarcastic comments rather damp hope. He never praises and can find more faults in five minutes than another man could think of in a fortnight'.
If teaching at the Slade was firmly rooted in the past, it only reflected the almost unimaginable insularity of the London art scene. When in 1910, the now legendary exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists was staged at the Grafton Galleries by the critic Roger Fry, it introduced the British public to a generation of artists never previously encountered in this country, even though by then figures like Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat were dead, and their works decades old. The impact was immense, compounded in 1912 by an exhibition of Italian Futurism, in all its nihilistic glorification of war and machinery, followed by Fry's Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, which this time introduced recent developments from Paris, notably Picasso's Cubism.
One critic described Fry's first exhibition as a 'plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting' while Tonks attempted to dissuade his students from exposing themselves to such contaminating influence.
Bitterly opposed to Cubism, Tonks was appalled by the mesmerising effect it had on his students, none more so than Bomberg whose engagement with these new influences is evident in the angular, simplified forms that characterise works like Figure Study, 1913.
If Bomberg's identity was multi-stranded, it was reflected in his art; in 1913, he won the Henry Tonks Prize for his portrait of fellow Whitechapel Boy Isaac Rosenberg, the same year he was labelled a 'disruptive influence' and thrown out of the Slade. Bomberg's terrible experiences in the First World War permanently changed the way he saw the world, his retreat from abstraction echoing a wider 'Return to Order'
Ju-Jitsu, completed before he left, is testament not only to the extent of his defection, but to the mature and original style he had developed so soon after his first encounters with Cubism and Futurism.
Bomberg would have witnessed the martial art at the gym where his brother was a boxer, the grid structure of the painting suggesting its rigorous choreography, the fractured space heightening the effect of exertion and movement in its simplified figures. The crowded composition suggests the frenetic atmosphere of the East End, Bomberg's own environment explored in the new pictorial language of European modernism.
While Bomberg always regarded himself as an Englishman, it is perhaps indicative of the nature of his experience as a Jew and second generation immigrant that the language best suited to exploring it was both foreign and radical.
The force of his immigrant identity, nurtured in the Yiddish-speaking ghetto of Whitechapel, drives his work at this time, with pieces like Ju-Jitsu, Jewish Theatre, and In The Hold, speaking to a distinctly urban sense of otherness.
Whether it was simply showing solidarity with the Whitechapel Boys, or pursuing some more complex agenda, the Whitechapel Art Gallery included a Jewish section in its 1913 survey Twentieth Century Art, which it invited Bomberg and Jacob Epstein to curate.
If today a separate section seems somewhat dubious, it undoubtedly presented Bomberg with an opportunity to show his stunningly modern canvases to best advantage, alongside his Whitechapel peers as well as notable representatives from abroad.
Bomberg had travelled to Paris with Epstein to research the exhibition, meeting Picasso and Modigliani amongst others, an experience that can only have cemented his ties with the European avant-garde. He refused to commit to any particular movement or style, however, a position that caused friction with fellow artists including Wyndham Lewis, who as the leader of the Vorticists, the homegrown response to Futurism, was keen to bring Bomberg under his wing. Bomberg's solo show at the Chenil Gallery in 1914, comprising 55 works and accompanied by a blunt statement of intent declaring: 'My object is the construction of Pure Form', was a clear indication of his commitment to pursue his own course.
If Bomberg's increasingly abstract style made him an undisputed leader of the avant-garde, his association with Cubism and Futurism would not serve him well in the sudden and momentous change of climate that occurred with the First World War.
A disastrous period of active service preceded a commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund for a painting to commemorate the sappers, whose feats of underground engineering had resulted in a notable success on the Western Front in 1916. Having been warned that Cubism would not be acceptable, Bomberg carefully modified his style, only to have his painting rejected as a 'Futurist abortion'.
It was a terrible blow, and after his harrowing experiences in the trenches which had culminated in a self-inflicted injury, the rejection of Sappers at Work, 1918-19, marked the beginning of an extended low-point.
Perhaps his painting Ghetto Theatre, 1920, reveals something of his state of mind, the old stamping ground of the East End subjected to a startling new treatment, in which the barely-contained energy that characterises his pre-war work is dissipated in the listless and menacing figures of the theatre audience.
Perhaps most obviously, Ghetto Theatre marks a retreat from abstraction, reflecting a widespread conservatism that took hold as the world emerged from the shock of war.
Picasso's work from this period seemed to owe more to the French master Ingres than to Cubism, while Matisse's odalisques – the exotic concubines so beloved of 19th century orientalists – were widely interpreted as a regrettable rejection of modernism.
In this difficult climate, Ben Uri, an art society and later gallery set up by the Lithuanian immigrant Lazar Berson, provided a lifeline for Bomberg. With no money and no premises, the society mirrored the plight of the Jewish community it sought to assist, providing a visual arts platform that would otherwise have been unavailable.
Amongst Ben Uri's first acquisitions in 1920 were Ghetto Theatre and several other paintings by Bomberg, the association providing not only an injection of cash and a modicum of recognition, but access to a network of potential patrons. Even before he left the Slade School in 1913, Bomberg's work had achieved a remarkable maturity, with ideas gleaned from Futurism and Cubism informing subjects taken from his everyday experiences in the Jewish East End
One of Ben Uri's founder members and financiers was Moshe Oved, who commissioned Bomberg in 1919 to design a poster for his jewellery emporium Cameo Corner. It was a period that saw Bomberg increasingly occupied with graphic projects, from posters to illustrations for the 'little magazines' that proliferated after the war.
One of these was Renesans, a Yiddish-language art and literary magazine, supported by Ben Uri and publishing an impressive range of material by Jewish artists and writers including Chagall, Lucien Pissarro, Epstein and Modigliani.
Bomberg's own inclusion in the periodical, which folded after just six issues, suggests the degree to which Renesans, and other 'little magazines' afforded artists and writers a vital support structure that nurtured different aspects of their output.
Bomberg designed two covers for Renesans, while the magazine's reviews of his exhibitions provided him with support and recognition at a difficult time in his career. Renesans also published three of his poems written while he was in the trenches, his description of the 'very hell about our heads', providing some measure of the horror he had experienced, but also indicating his interest in verse, which recurs elsewhere in his output.
There is an equivalence between his commercial work and his paintings at this time, and the strikingly graphic style of Barges, 1919, while more obviously representational than his pre-war work, continues to simplify and reduce form.
If this series of paintings suggests Bomberg's growing interest in subjects beyond the figure, other works indicate his deepening disillusionment, as he found it increasingly hard to earn a living as a painter.
The extent of his disappointment was reflected in a brief and unlikely stint as a chicken farmer, which coincided with a series of figures on the margins of society, with vagrants, circus performers and travelling players painted in a loose, semi-abstract style.
When it came, the opportunity to travel to Palestine to document the progress of the Zionist movement could not have been more fortuitous, even if, as with his commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, it seemed loaded against him, his patrons at the Palestine Foundation Fund favouring a documentary style some way removed from Bomberg's known output.
Nevertheless, on arrival in Jerusalem in 1923, Bomberg was so captivated by his new surroundings that he exercised precisely the topographical scrutiny that was required of him, abandoning the figure altogether as he absorbed the sun-drenched landscape of Palestine. At times, he returns to a more characteristic analysis of form, and in Roof Tops, Jerusalem, 1927, he reduces the scene before him to a series of interlocking rectangles, semi-circles, triangles and squares.
Like generations of artists before him, from Delacroix to Van Gogh to Matisse, Bomberg was captivated by the effects of brilliant sunlight, remarking, 'I was a poor boy from the East End and I'd never seen the sunlight before'.
His experience in Palestine would leave his palette transformed and for the rest of his life he was drawn south, the monumental Spanish landscapes that distinguished his later career painted with a new freedom and expressive energy.
If Bomberg's patrons were happy with his work, his home audience was less receptive to his new direction, and while he continued to have exhibitions, often facilitated by his ongoing relationship with Ben Uri, he struggled to find buyers for his work.
Having left Spain as the Civil War loomed, he struggled to paint once he was back in London, and despite consistently positive exhibition reviews, he faced a systematic hostility that, in the febrile atmosphere of the 1930s, seems to have been decidedly anti-Semitic. The art historian and critic Richard Cork has observed that in its impassioned expressivity, Bomberg's work was found to be notably un-English, writing, 'at a time when fashionable innovation centred either on Surrealism or Abstraction at its most cool and refined, Bomberg's Jewish fervency seemed anomalous and even irrelevant'.
As his repeated attempts to sell paintings failed, an increasingly distressed Bomberg attempted to instigate a takeover of Ben Uri, apparently with the aim of benefitting its members, writing to fellow artist Jacob Kramer in 1938, 'the Jewish artists are starving, none of us can work', a turn of phrase that seems to imply the ingrained anti-Semitism of the time. Bomberg in 1925
Certainly when, in 1939, Bomberg approached the newly-formed War Artists' Advisory Committee, its chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, rejected his application, writing to a colleague, 'like so many of his race his work looks artificial and done for effect, which is the last thing we want our war records to be'.
His eventual commission to paint a bomb store was derisory, and in a terrible repeat of his experience with the Canadian War Memorials Fund, Bomberg's submissions were rejected by the committee. Bomberg's horror at the existence of this vast underground stockpile of explosives infuses his paintings of the bomb store, which in their vigorous brushwork and vivid colour evoke the destructive energy so hazardously contained there. In fact, his response proved to be tragically prophetic, and an explosion in 1944 would be the biggest ever recorded in Britain.
With exhibitions becoming fewer and fewer, Bomberg was omitted from every major artistic initiative of the 1940s and 1950s, from a survey of British modernism in 1944, to the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Wyndham Lewis pondered over the fate of his once great rival in 1949, writing, 'What happened to Bomberg after 1920? ... He ought to be one of the half-dozen most prominent artists in England'. His observation preceded perhaps the cruellest blow of all, the Tate Gallery's 1956 exhibition Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, which included just one drawing by Bomberg.
If David Bomberg is only now achieving recognition as one of this country's finest artists, a daring and original talent who was beset by misfortune and prejudice, it is fair to say that his importance was always understood by those artists fortunate enough to have been taught by him. Having applied for countless posts in the years between 1939 and 1944, Bomberg eventually took up a teaching position at Borough Polytechnic where he established a reputation as an exacting and inspirational teacher, attracting a following of students who established two exhibiting societies, the Borough Group and then the Borough Bottega.
Perhaps it is as fitting a tribute as any that two of our greatest living artists, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff were taught by him, Auerbach reflecting in preparation for this exhibition that 'My great respect for David Bomberg and his work has never abated'.
'Bomberg' is curated by the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in association with Pallant House Gallery and runs until 4 February 2018
Florence Hallett is a freelance writer on art and visual arts editor at theartsdesk.com