Saturday 22 June 2019


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”Drawing [is] the representation of form. Not the representation of appearance of form.”
- Bomberg

The Bright Young Thing

Now attending three exhibitions devoted to one, perhaps not particularly well-known, artist might seem like overdoing it. But after the Tate’s look at Bomberg’s iconoclastic early years as part of their Vorticist retrospective, and the Towners’ focus on his lesser-known later landscapes, this more chronological hang gives a clearer idea of his development. And its the first career-spanning retrospective for a decade, to mark the Sixtieth anniversary of his death. And besides, it’s time this boy was better known.

Speaking of which… though the show is keen to stress how neglected he’s been, it’s probably truer to say he became an art equivalent of a one-hit wonder. The bold Vorticist works, a dynamic combination of Cubism and Futurism into what he called Pure Form, are seen as a very brief flowering of British Modernism. A heady and exciting time, sure, but the First World War soon came along to knock the sense back into us. In fact those works became a burden to his later career. No-one, least of all him, wanted him to carry on in the same way. But when he didn’t, when he broke from that style, no-one wanted to know.

So the temptation now is to downplay them, as if their brilliance (in both senses) still risks outshining what follows. The classic ’Ju-Jitsu’ (c. 1913), owned by the Tate, is here represented only by a charcoal study (both above). The study reveals the figures in actual pictorial space beneath those dizzying Cubist shards of colour, which may be akin to revealing a magic trick.

Perhaps more important is the way the sketch is ‘squared up’, (the commonly used phrase, even though it incorporates diagonals), standard practice for transposing sketches onto larger canvas. Except Bomberg then incorporates these lines into the finished painting. In the middle left, for example, he doesn’t distinguish between the horizontal grid and a diagonal originally drawn to be part of the room. He then fills in between them with solid colour, like a child with a colouring-in book.

Maurice Denis had said, back in 1890, “a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”, a back-to-basics stance which is at the root of a great deal of Modernism. Why should art be about maintaining illusions, going to lengths to conceal that obvious truth as if were some awkward secret? Anyway, what was the point of art which was merely imitative of things which already existed? Why couldn’t art be about the things it was made of?

All of which might now seem a classic case of art-for-art’s-sake, a fixation with subjects which could only interest artists. But at the time it was often seen as the reverse. Like Brechtian theatre, art which was undisguised as art was more obviously encountering the world. It’s aim was not to seduce and reassure but to challenge and stimulate. Brecht’s own credo was “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Bomberg was, at last at this point, definitely painting hammers.

Form Becomes Bars

At the same time, with hindsight to magnify, the downside of all this seems clear. Given the subject matter, the charcoal drawing ‘Family Bereavement’ (1913) should be a human work. Yet it’s style makes it the very opposite, particularly with the lead figure sporting a triangle for a head. It looks disquieting, but perhaps more absurd. (Is there an old comic with a cover like this? ”Help, me, Superman, we’re all being turned into geometry and my head’s now a triangle!” “I can’t, Jimmy. I’m a rhomboid myself!” I suppose there must be.)

And compare ‘At the Window’ to the early ‘Woman Looking Through The Window’ (c. 1911). The older work (above) looks influenced by Walter Sickert, with whom Bomberg studied. There’s the cluttered confines of an interior, with it’s complex array of mirrors and apertures. In a very Sickert gesture the figure is turned away from us, as if trying to escape the picture they’re in. It’s a dark palette, almost all shades of brown.

After the Great War Bomberg often returned to his East End subjects, and with ’At The Window’ (1919, above) he echoes the earlier composition. But in so doing he condenses it, simplifies, reducing the elaborate wrought iron of the bedstead to a simple angle. The tightening of focus leaves a work dominated by downward strokes, of which the figure seems to become a part. But perhaps most significant of all is the almost complete elimination of the view. (Perhaps the suggestion of a chimney pot remains above the figure’s head.) Even the shadow the outside cast is now gone.

This continues in ‘Ghetto Theatre’ (1920, above.) Now there’s not even a window, opaque or otherwise. Instead there’s regressive levels of figures, like something out of Dante. The safety rails seem less guards than bars on pens, holding people in place. It’s more ghetto than theatre. In both works the bright, Modernist colours of ’Ju-Jitsu’ have been replaced by ruddy reds, sombre browns and greys.

Compare this to another work made by a fellow Vorticist the same year, William Robert’s ‘The Cinema’. Roberts is, as I put it, “celebrating the crowd, its carefree, good-natured unruliness, its true nature lying unabated beneath those bureaucratic rules and regulations.”The twocould scarcely be any more unlike. (And significantly Roberts never entirely abandoned pure form.)

At the Arts Desk, Katherine Walters finds in this “an apt metaphor for his experience of the war”. Which tends to be the general view, that this style was tied to the rise of the machine. “The integration of the parts in the mass” was another of Bomberg’s favoured phrases, and he designed his works almost the same way an engineer would a machine – fitting together a sum of components. And this love of the machine was one of many things which could not survive the Great War. Certainly, that’s what I went for last time.

The show, however, suggests a different interpretation - it was the War Office reneging on their commission for the memorial work ‘The Sappers’, calling it a “Futurist abortion”, turned him against Pure Form, rather than the War itself. (A modified version was duly completed in 1919.)

But what if the reasons were more formal, less historical, than even that? What if it was not war but Pure Form itself that became those bars? New art styles often first offer liberation, only to ossify into another orthodoxy as time goes on. Which raises the question – how pure can pure form go? In the explosive burst of ‘Ju-Jitsu’, it seemed to be throwing things open. But soon it was closing in, trapping its subjects. With their tight focus they’re claustrophobic works, with simply no space in them. And if Bomberg is now imprisoned within his own much-trumpeted style, why not paint that? Perhaps the horrors of the First World War merely accelerated an inevitable process.

”The Spirit in the Mass”

From 1923 to 1927 Bomberg painted landscapes in Palestine. This being his most conventional era, and covered previously, there seems little extra to say here. But let’s take two works, ’Jerusalem, City and Mount of Ascension’ (1925) and ‘The Broken Aqueduct, Wadi Kedt, Near Jericho’ (1926). ’Jerusalem (above) is quite a typical work from the time. A landscape from an elevated perspective, it’s chief feature is its evocation of the radiant desert light – where everything appears luminous and almost insubstantial.

Whereas ’The Broken Aqueduct’ (above), though painted only a year later, is much more solid and looks forward to his post-Palestine era. The foreground in ’Jerusalem’ looks to be passing beneath you, as if it’s been painted from floating in the air. Whereas the foreground in ’Broken Aqueduct’ comes out at you, as though those rocks are within reaching distance.

Moreover, while ’Jerusalem’ almost shimmers smoothly, the paintwork here is much rougher. And in fact it’s at it’s roughest, composed of bold and undisguised strokes, in the foreground – at the same time the foreground is given more significance. It seems reminiscent of the way ancient art used ochre (ie earth) as paint. Romantics were always depicting ruins, and while they didn’t reduce them to a single theme they commonly stood for human hubris yielding to an ever-patient nature. That man-made aqueduct might once have dominated the landscape, but now is inevitably morphing back into it. It’s almost the opposite of ’Family Bereavement’, where geometric shape gives way to volatile formlessness.

While ‘Cathedral, Toledo – Evening’ (1929, above), painted after Bomberg was back in Europe, is another city view like ‘Jerusalem’. But, as with ‘Broken Aqueduct’, the nearby roofs do not fall away below our vision but jut out at us. The wall running the right side of the frame further emphasises this. The paint is as roughly applied as ‘Broken Aqueduct’, but given the city scene the effect is stronger. ‘Jerusalem’ is painted as a set of separate buildings alongside one another, here the town feels more an organism - like an outgrowth of the Cathedral.

‘The Gorge, Ronda, Spain’ (1935, above) is like a sequel to ’The Broken Aqueduct’, one where the aqueduct is at a much greater distance, inhabiting only the uppermost part of the painting, a painting mostly given over to a riot of coloured brushstrokes. His wife has said that at this time he produced paintings “very quickly, one after another”, sometimes without preparatory sketching.

In this era Bomberg is depicting nature is not a fixed view to be passively contemplated, but a powerful force, a perspective he called “the spirit in the mass”. A later pupil, Dennis Creffield, recounted his own definition of this phrase: “living vibrant being found in all nature, not simply the sheer brute physicality of the object.” So a natural subject for him was seascapes. In ’Cyprus’ (1948, above) he doesn’t show land and sea as opposites so much as in a relationship which will always be shifting and indistinct.

Though another work arguably goes still further down this route. In’The Virgin of Peace in Procession Through the Streets Of Ronda, Holy Week’ (1935, above) Bomberg painted the procession from a balcony, eschewing artificial light to work only “from the flickering lights of the processional torches”. You can make out the crests and sides of buildings, but the figures become a blur. In one way it’s very much a verite work, strictly adhering to the rule the artist must paint what he sees. Yet it’s also a sort of return to ’Ju-Jitsu’, taking an original scene and abstracting from it, even as the effect’s almost the opposite to it’s sharp geometry.

The Mysterious Self

In 1935, the Spanish Civil War forced Bomberg to return to London. At which point, in the show’s words, “he largely turned inwards, producing a masterful series of searching self-portraits”. Which raises an interesting paradox - just as he turns to portraits, and often to self-portraits, he becomes more mystical.

‘Soliloquy: Noonday Sun’ (1954, above) was painted post-war, when he could return to Spain. Though the model was a neighbour of just thirty, in Bomberg’s hands she seems to become an aged if not timeless figure. The composition is dominates by burnt oranges and browns, shades she shares with the background, as if dissolving into it. A soliloquy is of course the dramatic device which allows a character to speak their thoughts aloud, which seems a somewhat ironic title for so mysterious a work. A visitor to a country, however regular, might well see it’s people as inscrutable in this way.

Yet it’s scarcely dissimilar to his own self-portrait the same year (above). Both figures are painted as if barely graspable, bodies covered in formless robes or shawls, faces which may or may not be masks.

In the Telegraph, Mark Hudson related the works to Judaism: “he appears to be aiming for a kind of aesthetic reconciliation with his Jewish faith in these vaporous, often only partly realised images.”

However Bomberg’s interest doesn’t seem to be in illuminating, revealing esoteric truths, so much as shadowing, painting the distance between the viewer and the figure. Even when that figure is himself. It’s reminiscent of what David Tibet said of his own mystic/autobiographic music: “All I know about is myself, and I don’t even know very much about that”.

Then again, Hudson’s view would seem to be the show’s intent. It relocates Bomberg from the Vorticists to the Whitechapel Boys (the Gallery magazine mentioning the V-word only to point out he was never formally aligned with it) largely in order to establish him as a Jewish artist. As mentioned after the Tate’s Vorticism retrospective, their self-elected head Wyndham Lewis was not only an anti-Semite but an avid Hitler fan. (Though of course it’s quite likely the useful idiot proved a decoy for ‘mainstream’ racism, a distraction from the less flamboyant but much more institutionalised anti-Semitism which then plagued British society.)

Which raises two associated questions - how much did anti-Semitism play in the critical neglect of Bomberg, and how much did he identify as Jewish? There seems some evidence that, from a poor background, Bomberg was originally a leftist. (Though a dalliance with the official Communist party was brief, following a disillusioning visit to Russia in 1933.)As said of ‘Mud Bath’,though it’s origin was Jewish bath-houses in the East End, the work was “universalised, sanded smooth of any localising signifiers, part of a movement which saw itself as internationalist.”

But perhaps those questions are linked. Certainly they overlap chronologically, when he was being most overlooked his Jewishness became more avowed. Perhaps in response to being sidelinedhebecame, to paraphrase NWA, Jewish With Attitude - self-identifingnot despite anti-Semitism but precisely in response to it. Works start to take on Judaistic titles such as ’Talmudist’ (1935), while herequested a Jewish funeral. Yet all this suggests he was not relating to a Jewish community so much as Judaism. If anything, it made him more of a loner. Lack of popular success made him mystical, as if turning his back on earthly things.

People are wont to say there were no significant British Modernists. Yet we had David Bomberg, and this is how we treated him... He tried to become an official War Artist, to be rejected. He offered works to the Tate, again to be rejected. He tried to take up teaching roles, but only found one with the unprestigious Borough Polytechnic. (However, though they gained no formal qualification, he was highly regarded by pupils who included Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and so he influenced the School of London group. More of which another time.)

But now with a second show devoted solely to him, perhaps things are finally changing. The curators states “despite scandalous critical neglect within his own lifetime, Bomberg is now recognised as one of the Twentieth Century’s leading British artists.” We can only hope they’re right.

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