Catalogue and Exhibition Review: Young Bomberg and the Old Masters at the National Gallery
27th November 2019 - 1st March 2020 Catalogue by Richard Cork, National Gallery Publications 2019
In some ways, this little gem of an exhibition represented the antithesis of what we have become used to seeing in the major galleries. Two floors down at the same time was the hugely popular show of Gauguin portraits, and this October a genuine blockbuster event will take place when the first ever individual show of Artemisia Gentileschi opens —an exhibition guaranteed to be both well attended and significant. By contrast, Bomberg was given one small room with only a handful of works on display, yet all are of the highest quality, and it was a special experience to see them in a close proximity which illuminated the processes that his art was undergoing just before the war broke out in 1914, and the impact of his war experiences upon the life-changing commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund that resulted in two quite different versions of Sappers at Work.
That Bomberg was (and still is in many respects) a neglected artist is beyond question. He has not had a major solo exhibition in this country since 1988, and while Richard Cork’s 1987 monograph is still the authoritative work on the artist, he is too often viewed as one who never quite made it. His work is not to be found in many of the regional galleries, and he remains outside the mainstream of modern English art. Notoriously, Herbert Read did not even include him in his widely-read 1951 book Contemporary British Art, despite finding seventy-two others to write about. However, when the art in this exhibition is considered in its entirety, it makes a compelling case for re-evaluating him as one of the finest artists of the past century, consistently producing paintings of the highest order.
The first work on display was a self-portrait from 1913-14, shown alongside Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (1480). Bomberg used to visit the London galleries, and admired this picture so much that when he decided to execute a self-portrait, he asked his father to make him a shirt similar to the one worn by the young man in the Botticelli work. A self-portrait is significant in that the artist himself decides which attributes he wishes to display to the world. Bomberg may be compared to Rembrandt in the way that he composed self-portraits throughout his life that reveal not only his artistic development, but also his humanity at different stages. This early work is full of the self-confidence and arrogance of youth, with a defiant quality that one can only admire. Bomberg came from a very poor Jewish family and his chances of making a living from his art would have been slim, yet here he successfully combines two almost conflicting achievements: a clear reference to an earlier master to whom, through imitation, he pays due homage, but with the addition of his own manipulation of form to make the image of himself.
Following the death of his mother Rebecca in October 1912, Bomberg produced a series of stunningly original works that perhaps show him still searching for his own style following his exposure to the Futurist exhibition earlier that year. The Vision of Ezekiel (1912) was one of the first paintings in which he employed a symmetrical grid to achieve his design, a technique that he may have learnt from Walter Sickert, whose art classes he had attended. The young artist was very close to his mother, and despite the very real poverty of their circumstances, she had encouraged him in any way she could —he must have felt acute sadness at her sudden death. The inspiration for this unusual work comes from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, and in particular the passage in which the dead are resurrected: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. The Lord says to these bones: I am now going to make breath enter you, and you will live. I shall put sinews on you, I shall make flesh grow, I shall cover you with skin and give you breath and you shall live.”
Bomberg has chosen the moment when the dry bones begin to come back to life, as they are re-covered with sinews and start to move. The setting seems to be a deep pit from which the angular, stylised figures are emerging. The preparatory study displayed alongside the painting is of enormous significance, showing the formal structure that Bomberg created, which can be difficult to see in the finished painting. In the centre the figures are almost colourless, with suggestions of pink and yellow as if these were actual bones in the process of being clothed again in muscle and skin. In the very centre one of these figures holds, above its head, a child darker in colour, suggesting that the process of rebirth is near-complete; this may be read as a tribute to Bomberg’s beloved mother and their relationship. What is most striking, however, given the date of the painting’s completion (1912), is the clear direction towards abstraction that Bomberg was already taking. While the figures are clearly based on the human body, their angular forms make shapes and designs that arrest the viewer’s attention in the unusual ways that they combine. The human features have been reduced to straight lines weaving together to create the illusion of both movement and resurrection. Given the date of its production, this is an extraordinary statement of intent from a young artist still exploring the possibilities of his form.
The remaining three works in the exhibition are linked to The Vision of Ezekiel in that they all are constructed around the theme of human figures emerging from, or engaging with, spaces in which they are enclosed. One of the strengths of this small exhibition that this key factor becomes apparent. It is of the utmost importance in understanding each of these paintings, among the finest of the period in which they were produced, either here or in Europe.
Bomberg continued to experiment with the grid design with In the Hold (1913-1914). Once thought to be based upon observations of East End stevedores unloading a ship in the docks, close study of the preparatory sketch clearly shows that this is not the case. As with the earlier Vision of Ezekiel, the painting itself can be difficult to unravel but the sketch makes the subject clear: figures are emerging from the bowels of the ship, not dissimilar to the dry bones coming forth from the ground in the earlier work. Beneath them two arms can be seen stretching out, as the next person struggles to make it into the sunlight. In the study for the painting these features are quite clear, but with the added dimension of colour the figurative details are less obvious. What is obvious, though, is the pure dynamism that Bomberg has succeeded in capturing. The grid format has the effect of compressing the space, creating an environment of colour and form from which the central figures seem to be forcing their way out. Again, considering the date when this painting was completed, it is remarkable that its significance has been overlooked for so long.
What followed was perhaps Bomberg’s best-known painting, The Mud Bath (1914), the setting for which was Schevzik’s Vapour Baths in Brick Lane. The visible grid has been abandoned but the angular figures are still there, emerging from the bath. In the catalogue Richard Cork makes reference to the theme of purification that is also present in The Vision of Ezekiel. Cork cites Michelangelo’s The Entombment (1500-01), which Bomberg had seen and admired in the National Gallery, as a significant influence on how the artist approached this subject. While at first glance this might seem unlikely, given the abstract nature of The Mud Bath, on closer scrutiny the connections are quite clear. Michelangelo excelled at imbuing his figures with a monumental dynamism. In this particular work the figure of the dead Christ is wrapped in bands of cloth, as St John the Evangelist and two Marian figures struggle to carry him to the tomb. The strain of the body’s weight can be seen in the limbs of the figures, as they seem close to letting him slip from their grasp.
The angular strength of legs and arms is equally visible in Bomberg’s work. He has eliminated all reference to location other than a central pillar which splits the pictorial plane almost in half, and the bath has been reduced to a simple block of deep red. The figures, and the power of their movement, form the real subject. These human limbs seem to be pushing and pulling against the edges of the painting, like prisoners trying to escape from the confines of their entrapment. When Bomberg displayed this painting at his ill-fated one-man exhibition at the Chenil Gallery in the summer of 1914 —has any artist ever been so damned by the timing of his first solo show?— he hung it outside, where it apparently frightened the horses. It must be admitted that Bomberg rather courted this reaction by draping Union Jack flags around the painting, obviously in an attempt to draw attention to it. Given the dominance of the identical colours of The Mud Bath to those of the British flag, he may have been hoping to connect with or satirise the nationalist feelings of the nation in the immediate period leading to the outbreak of the war.
For Bomberg the experience of war was not a happy one. He volunteered in 1916, just weeks before he would have been conscripted. As a volunteer he at least had the choice of which branch of the Army to join, and he enlisted with the Royal Engineers, to be later transferred to the 18th King’s Rifles. He soon saw action at the Front and worked with the sappers, men who tunnelled underground to set explosives under the enemy lines. It was highly dangerous work, often beset by dreadful conditions, and in 1917 Bomberg reached a point at which he could tolerate it no longer. News of the death of his brother and then the art critic T. E. Hulme (author of the only positive review of his Chenil Gallery show) brought his spirits down, and one evening he deliberately wounded his own foot. Thankfully his commanding officer was sympathetic and did not press charges, and Bomberg recovered. Later that year he was fortunate to be chosen to paint a work for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, a commission which took him out of the front line and brought him home. The result was his monumental masterpiece Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St. Elio (1918-19).
Bomberg must have had great empathy with the men whom he portrayed tunnelling, for their heroic strength and power are clear. Muscles are straining with the physical effort of tugging pulley ropes, tightening giant bolts or lifting heavy beams. The darkness in which these men worked has been replaced with bright colours, as if in celebration of their effort and brave endeavours. At the very centre a figure wears a cap on which a maple leaf-shaped badge can be seen, clearly identifying the men as Canadian. Bomberg worked enthusiastically and was excited when the painting was finally finished. He took it to be seen and approved by the art critic P. G. Konody, adviser to the Canadian War Memorial Fund. The meeting was a disaster, with Konody calling the work a “futurist abortion” and refusing to accept it. Bomberg’s wife Alice came home to find her distraught husband in tears. After protracted discussions Bomberg agreed to paint a second, more naturalistic version, which was accepted but lacked the dynamic force of the earlier effort.
Richard Cork, who probably knows more about Bomberg than anyone, draws out the connectivity between these early works and some of the treasured masterpieces with which Bomberg was familiar at the National Gallery. Besides those already mentioned, El Greco’s Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (1600) and (in particular) The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (1590s) are reference points for the first version of Sappers, while Manet’s Execution of Maximilian (1867-68) and Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (1438-40) have features which also resonate in these early Bomberg works.
While the influence of these predominantly Renaissance paintings upon the young Bomberg is both interesting and significant, the overwhelming impression left by this small exhibition was that of the paintings and studies themselves. They rarely, if ever, have been seen so close together, forming an immensely powerful reminder that Bomberg was exploring the boundaries between abstraction and naturalism at a time when —certainly in this country, at least— few others were particularly interested. That he was mostly misunderstood, and became disillusioned by this lack of appreciation, is both his tragedy and ours. Throughout his life he remained true to his artistic principles, and while changing his formal style, in his paintings he always tried to capture the essence of his subjects, not simply their outward appearance. Overlooked, undervalued, and on the edge of our mainstream art history narrative, Bomberg still awaits the recognition that he truly deserves.--Paul Flux