David Bomberg: Spirit in the Mass
17 July - 28 October 2006
Although he is now considered one of the most important and influential British painters of the twentieth century, at the time of his death in 1957 David Bomberg was a forgotten figure. Despite achieving extraordinary success in his early career as one of the brightest stars of the British avant-garde, Bomberg’s outlook was irredeemably altered by his experiences during the First World War, and in subsequent years he became increasingly isolated from the art world, spending long periods living and working abroad. Ignored by critics and collectors back home, and shunned by the art establishment throughout his career, Bomberg’s contribution to the history of British art was overlooked during his lifetime (the celebrated art critic Herbert Read completely excluded Bomberg from his 1951 book on ‘Contemporary British Art’). Tragically it was only after his death that Bomberg’s importance was finally recognised.
In order to place him in the context of the development of British figurative art, we must go right back to start of his artistic training, when he studied under Walter Richard Sickert before entering the Slade School of Art. Sickert had changed the face of British art in the early years of the twentieth century when he brought the urban realism of French Impressionists Manet and Degas to English art. His fleeting snapshots of everyday urban life revelled in the ‘gross material facts’ of the city streets and his painting style was innovative, using thick, roughly hewn, marks that draw attention to the ‘material reality’ of the painted surface, rather than describing the subject in detail. Sickert recognised the importance of understanding form through the practice of drawing from life, and his ideas provided an important early influence for Bomberg when he attended Sickert’s life classes at the Westminster School of Art in 1908-10.
Bomberg would return to Sickert’s example later on in his career, but in 1911 he entered the Slade School of Art during an exciting period of intense artistic activity influenced by Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism. His contemporaries at the Slade included Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Edward Wadsworth, William Roberts and Christopher Nevinson, a brilliant generation of young artists who, like Bomberg, had been profoundly affected by Roger Fry’s seminal exhibition of Manet and the Post Impressionists in 1910, which brought the innovative paintings of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin to a British audience for the first time. Fascinated by the simplification of form and mass in their pictures, Bomberg later described how this exhibition helped bring “the revolution towards Mass… to fruition” in his own work.
Two years later, in 1912, an exhibition of the Italian Futurists in London introduced Bomberg to the dynamic abstract paintings of Picabia and Severini, and soon after that, in October 1912, Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition revealed a new wave of French art, including works by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Derain and Vlaminck, as well as examples by radical young British artists Wyndham Lewis, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Rebelling from the Slade School’s traditional teaching methods of life drawing, Bomberg began to develop his own unique visual language inspired by the geometric abstraction of Cubism and Futurism, in which the human figure was reduced to angular, geometric shapes, expressing the dynamism of modern urban life. By the end of 1912, while still at the Slade, Bomberg produced his most ambitious and innovative painting to date, Vision of Ezekiel, bringing the young student to the attention of Wyndham Lewis, who was by now seen as a revolutionary figure in British art.
After leaving the Slade in the summer of 1913, Bomberg sought to establish himself within the circle of avant-garde artists whose radical approaches to painting were similar to his own. His admiration of Cubism and the Italian Futurists allied him with the emerging group of artists, led by Wyndham Lewis, who later became known as the ‘Vorticists’, and Bomberg exhibited alongside Lewis, Wadsworth, Nevinson, Epstein and Etchells later that year. Unveiling his first works to embrace ‘Vorticist’ themes, Bomberg declared that he wanted to “translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery, into an art that shall not be photographic, but expressive”. However, when Wyndham Lewis published the first edition of the Vorticist magazine ‘Blast’ in July 1914, Bomberg refused any involvement in the publication. Confident in his artistic vision, he instead asserted his independence from the Vorticists by mounting his first solo exhibition, the centrepiece of which was his masterpiece The Mud Bath. Representing the culmination of Bomberg’s experiments with mechanistic form, this canvas was the equivalent of iconic Vorticist works such as Epstein’s Rock Drill, created during the same period.
However, the outbreak of the First World War brought an abrupt end to this dynamic phase in British art, and a momentous change in Bomberg’s artistic outlook. Like so many of his contemporaries, Bomberg’s first hand experience of the devastation and destruction wrought by the new weapons of the machine age shattered his enthusiasm for modern technology. After the war he sought a ‘return to order’ in his art, turning to more traditional, figurative concerns, and working from nature and ‘the life’. Travelling to Palestine in 1923, he embarked on a focused study of the scenery in and around Jerusalem, dispensing completely with the mechanistic imagery of his pre-war work, although his fixation with the complex architectural structure of the city reveals the same concerns with pictorial structure, form and mass demonstrated in his earlier works.
The Palestine period instilled in Bomberg a love of working directly from nature, and landscape painting would dominate his output for the remainder of his career. In 1929 he travelled to Spain for the first time, painting mostly in Toledo. Returning in 1935, he visited Cuenca, Ronda, and the Asturian mountains, later spending time in Morrocco and Cyprus. Moving away from the meticulous style of his earlier landscapes, he evolved a more forceful, free and expressive style of painting, and his mature works are characterised by vigorous brushmarks, applied swiftly to the canvas, giving a powerful sense of physical energy. Following on from Sickert’s belief in the “gross material reality” of painting, Bomberg felt that his paint marks should not merely record the physical appearance of the landscape, but become an embodiment of his subjective response to the landscape. The tactile qualities of the paint express a heightened awareness of the subject matter, which Bomberg described as “the spirit in the mass”.
Throughout every period of his career Bomberg’s works reveals his passion for expression and his desire to challenge the possibilities of painting, despite going against the prevailing fashions of the day. However, despite his lack of commercial and critical success during his lifetime, Bomberg’s legacy still permeates the work of subsequent generations of figurative artists who have followed in his footsteps. After the Second World War, Bomberg’s career was dominated by teaching, and his inspirational drawing classes at the Borough Polytechnic attracted many young art students, including Peter Richmond, Cliff Holden, Dennis Creffield, Leon Kossoff, Leslie Marr, Anthony Hatwell, Gustav Metzger and Frank Auerbach, who later described Bomberg as “probably the most original, stubborn, radical intelligence that was to be found in art schools”.
The expressive vigour and emotional power of his art continues to be relevant in the development of figurative painting in Britain to this day.