Friday 2 September 2016


The Dance of Machines

Back in the early Nineteen Tens, David Bomberg was pretty much the bad boy of British Modernism. An East End roughneck, it had been his undeferential attitude towards his tutors which had seem him “asked to leave” the prestigious Slade school. But that was pretty much analogous to his approach to art. Typically, the lesson he brought away from the experience was to take things further. He had soon fallen into the company of the Vorticists, self-styled as the most avant garde group in Britain. (Whose antics we looked at here.)

For reasons we'll come onto, the show skates past this early era. But one paintings it does provide is 'The Dancer' (1913/14, above), a classically Cubo-Futurist agitation of lines and shapes in the place of of a fixed image. (On the continent Cubism and Futurism were not just separate but pretty much opposing art movements. But often in Britain, as with Russia, their arriving together meant they were taken as one.) Perhaps what's unusual about the image is it's more muted palette, with that salmon background, and - despite the title – the way it's almost fully abstract. This is Bomberg absorbing his influences, not yet painting like himself.

His most celebrated work, 'The Mud Bath' (1914, below), isn't included here. But it was in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective and now part of the permanent (and therefore free) collection at the Tate Britain, so let's cheat and drag it in. It's hard not to speak of. Not only was it the best of his works from this era, almost everything else subsequently seemed seemed preparatory towards it. And sometimes this was quite literally true, with works like 'Vision of Ezekiel' (1912) and 'Bathing Scene' (1912/13) pointers on the path of reduction which led to it - each time a bit more boiled down. After all, as Bomberg said at the time “where decoration happens it is accidental. My object is the construction of Pure Form. I reject everything in painting that is not Pure Form.”

Famously, it was exhibited on the street outside his first solo show, as if the gallery confines couldn't contain its explosive force. He always maintained it stopped the traffic. (Or scared the horses. The two still overlapped in those days.) With it, Bomberg didn't just reach his apogee but semi-abstraction reached its epitome. (In the same way that Munch's 'The Scream' is the epitome of Expressionism.)

That black column might initially look incongruous. In fact it's literally and figuratively central. It's like the monolith of Modernism, the totem pole of the dance, reducing (or raising) the dancing figures into an undifferentiated geometric mass of angled limbs. And this is perhaps emphasised most of all by the boldly reductive use of colour, that block of bright red, the strikingly solid lines of white and blue. And if it looks coloured rather than painted, like he could have handed the job to a sign-writer, then later artists would do precisely that.

The foot of one figure remains planted on the ground (in the lower right), an attachment leading to it casting a shadow. It probably won't be there for long, soon it'll be caught up in the whirlygig along with everything else. But its inclusion is important. The painting evokes the loss of self that ecstatic frenzy can induce, but seems pitched at the last few seconds before that sense was extinguished.

In has striking similarities to Matisse's 'La Danse' (1909/10). However, it's probably the differences between the two which are more instructive. It's more than Matisse's figures being more humanised. Not just holding hands but twisting their bodies in line with the gesture, the separate figures form a circle - become one. (It's the companion to a piece titled 'Music', reinforcing the idea of the figures as notes in a composition.) 

And with Bomberg the figures also cease to be separate parts. But at the same time they are reduced to separate parts within themselves – limbs detaching from torsos. While instead of being rounded and semi-shapeless they're geometrically precise. They're become like components of some greater mechanism.

Modernism championed the machine as the epitome of the age. This is a dance where the machine is setting the beat. And 'Mud Bath', not about finding the individual in a portrait but reducing the human body to a set of parts, makes that manifest. Bomberg had said “I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery into an art that shall not be photographic but expressive”.

And if he'd given semi-abstraction it's perfect form, his experiences of the Great War were similarly archetypical. Not long after exhibiting 'The Mud Bath' he'd enlisted. The painter of such striking colours was no shrinking violet. From the wrong side of the tracks, Jewish in an anti-semitic era, he'd frequently respond to racist abuse with his fists. But his battle experiences, including at the Somme, understandably affected him profoundly.

And not least artistically. Yes, Modernist art had matched its times. Better than anyone had thought. But that now became the problem. Reducing the human body to parts had once seemed audacious and thrilling, now it too closely matched what machine gun fire had done for real, in a war where men had been merely components and collateral. In short war had proven the machine's greater efficiency extended to the act of slaughter. As I said on encountering 'Mud Bath' in the flesh for the first time at the Tate's Vorticist exhibition, “it’s depersonalisation is simultaneously seducing and alarming”. Modernism's success had become its failure.

The Great War had acted like an accelerator on the conveyor belt of human progress, whether artistic, social or technological. But what hastened the pace of art shortened the lifespan. When it was over the conveyor belt suddenly stopped and artists were thrown off the end, tangled up in themselves, unsure what to do next. Solutions usually involved some combination of 'back' and 'out'.

The Desert Years

At the Slade Bomberg had been part of the 'Crisis of Brilliance' group. Having been told by their tutors to stay away from those continental Modernist exhibitions, the bright young things had taken that warning as an invitation. And, to varying degrees, the War induced the same crisis in all of them. And once it was over, they all went somewhere new. (Though for Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer that “somewhere new” was the English countryside.)

Bomberg went to Palestine and took up landscape painting. Given his previous avant garde reputation, these works were at the time dismissed by critics as a retreat. Figuratively, he was out in the desert. The bold blocks of colour, the quest for pure form – all seemed gone. They even abandoned those evocative titles for flatly descriptive names. (As a rough and ready comparison, think of when Dylan swapped electrically charged iconoclasm for crooning Country standards.)

But are they as conventional as this suggests? 'The South East Corner, Jerusalem' (1926, above), a sedate, recognisable landscape, is not an obvious successor to 'The Mud Bath'. But then look at the way it is painted – quite literally with broad strokes. While it is clearly of somewhere, there is no effort at all to disguise the fact it is made up of marks upon a canvas. It's only the way the composition is so light in palette (as the opposite of bright), and made up of gradations of tone, which initially obscures this.

We all know that 'Mud Bath' was inspired by life, it was a scene from public baths. But we know that because we've been told it. The resulting work is universalised, sanded smooth of any localising signifiers, part of a movement which saw itself as internationalist. Whereas this post-war turn, as the title of the show suggests, is back towards art which evokes a sense of place.

And that place can be seamless. 'Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopes' (1925, below) places at patchwork of terracotta roofs in the lower foreground which are then echoed in the patchwork of fields in the upper background – the city effectively blending into the landscape. (The roofs' triangular formation virtually points up at the fields, with only a couple of verticals in the composition as a counter-measure.)

While alongside place comes moment. There's an attempt to capture time of day reminiscent of the Impressionists. Look at the long shadows running alongside the figures and down the building on 'Outside Damascus Gates' (1923, below). Early morning, late afternoon and bathing moonlight became his favoured times.

These works have been reappraised in more recent decades, a process of which this show would seem a part. Some then take this talk of place further, and suggest the Jewish artist was returning to his homeland. (A question the show does not weigh in on.) It may have been a factor in his choosing Palestine, when others in his group picked Paris or New York. We're told he had even originally planned a series of 'Jewish return' works. But these were abandoned. The figures in 'Outside Damascus Gates' are rare, and even they are reduced to incidental blobs and ciphers.

The truth is simpler. He simply painted what he saw. And what he saw most, as ever, was what was unfamiliar to him. Which explains the works' fascination with light. He'd joke that, after an East End upbringing, it was something new to him. Palestine was to Bomberg more muse than homeland.

”The Spirit in the Mass”

In 1929, Bomberg visited the Spanish mountain town of Toldeo. The show suggests this became his new 'place', and by 1935 he'd moved to Andalucia. Certainly it precipitated what Alexander Graham Dixon, in a BBC documentary shown in the exhibition, called “a whole new phase in his art”.

Take 'Valley of La Hermida, Asturias, Spain' (1935, up top). It's not just that the vibrant colours are back. If 'Mud Bath' was pure blocks of colour and the desert paintings made up of an elegant sufficiency of marks, the brushwork here is a flurry of frenzied strokes. This can reach such a fervour that the works almost become semi-abstract all over again, take for example the blur of marks in the lower half of 'Ronda Valley' (1954, below).

If the desert paintings in some ways referred to the Impressionists, this time we're right back with the Romantics and their evocation of the sublime – nature experienced as an overwhelming force. And if the last great Romantic to get a British show was Turner, then there seems something of a similarity. See for example, 'Sunset, Mount Hilarion, Cyprus' (1948, below).

Except a frequent feature of Romanticism is vertiginous scale, often achieved by incorporating diminutive human figures. Whereas Bomberg leaves the works as unpopulated as the desert paintings, while they are not physically large (particularly compared to his often gargantuan early pieces). Which then throws the emphasis elsewehere, onto the power of nature as a set of forces. These forces are present in Romanticism too, but they’re often depicted transiently – as Turner's sea storms, and so on. Whereas Bomberg paints forces which are inherent, and therefore unabatable.

If the distilled essence of early Bomberg lies in the quote about “pure form”, there's another which sums up this era - “our search is towards the spirit in the mass”. What Bomberg really does is paint solid objects as though they're not. Because of course they're not. Look again to the hillsides of 'Valley of La Hermida', they're not painted as something stable or steady, for walkers to plant their boots upon, but by vigorous downward strokes.

David Sylvester, one of the first critics to rediscover Bomberg, commented “the scene under our eyes… shifts about as we watch it. And we realize, with a sort of transport, how intuitively true this is of landscape. It is not still. It has its own weird anima, and to our wide-eyed perception it changes like a living animal under our gaze.”

If the desert paintings are about capturing a moment, tied to a time of day, these take things which seem solid and immutable to us (as in expressions such as 'solid as a rock') and portray them as convulsive and ever-changing. And those geological forces are never at rest, they only seem solid to us because we are so fleeting. Bomberg said at the time that he found the past and the present indistinguishable.

And in this way, even if Toledo did act as a kind of muse, they're not about place. Or at least only in the sense that nature has to be instanced through place. Place implies a presumption of permanence, somewhere that could be departed from then returned to, which is being over-ridden here. Bomberg only left Spain when the Civil War drove him out. But he subsequently painted across Europe, notably visiting the Romantic hotspots. In Britain for example, his favoured locations were Devon, Cornwall and Wales. And the results are remarkably similar wherever he roved.

It's easy to see how those concerned with notions of linear progress in art, a frequent pitfall of Modernism, would have been as tempted to overlook these works. Furthermore, the Modernist notion that we have changed the world, or even that we could, lies buried beneath his brushstrokes. But chiefly, Modernism set itself the task of becoming universal, a global reach whose spread left it uninterested in time. It's defining value was 'now'. The longstanding genre of history painting was effectively brought to a close. Cubism, as mentioned a huge influence on the young Bomberg, was about flattening time into a single image - as if taking to it with a blacksmith's hammer.

The past was gone, and I'm not sure Modernism was all that concerned with how history would perceive it. Some of its movements, such as the Futurists, explicitly stated their fervent wish was to be supplanted by the still-more-modern, and then forgotten. Whereas from Spain onwards, all of Bomberg's work is about the inescapable force of time.

'The Mud Bath' could be described as a hit single - a combination of “the most purely distilled essence of something” and “the one everybody knows”. But musicians will tell you a hit singles can become an albatross, and indeed it came to overshadow Bomberg's later work. Few thought to ask what the bad boy did as an adult. In this way, it's an advantage it's absent from this show. An audaciously large work, it would dominate over the others even physically.

Perhaps the desert paintings are not as exciting as his early years, rating a very good rather than a great. But with the 'spirit in the mass' works Bomberg finds a whole new direction which is fully compelling. Alas, no-one at the time thought so. He died in 1957 virtually forgotten, sidelined by Wyndham Lewis in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective, none of his works in national collections, his plans to resume art tutoring come to naught. Badly malnourished, he effectively died of poverty. Only gradually was his work rediscovered, first – perhaps inevitably – through Vorticism and then the later years. Which in a sense is fitting. 'Mud Bath' struck people there and then. The rest took us time...

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