David Bomberg: When a Vorticist is not a Vorticist

I have been purchasing old exhibition catalogues and two are of particular interest at the moment: Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism: The Tate Gallery, 6th July -19th August, 1956 and one from the 2nd March-9th April 1967 retrospective of David Bomberg.

Everywhere I go at the moment, there seems to be a Bomberg.  Love popping into the Mud Bath at the Tate; went specifically to Bristol for Figure Composition, 1913; stumbled across The Moorish Wall, Cyprus in Nottingham, of all places and was hoping to bump into him at the Higginson Bedford -result!

So why are these catalogues so interesting?  The exhibition of Wyndham Lewis’s work had a section entitled, ‘Other Vorticists’ in which Bomberg was included, despite the fact that he didn’t class himself as a Vorticist. He never signed the Manifesto, although he did exhibit with the rest of the group in their one exhibition.  The work in question, Jewish Theatre 1913 is not in the stripped down form that characterised other artists who joined Lewis in the celebration of the machine, therefore, it is not surprising that Bomberg was so unhappy with his inclusion in Lewis’s show.

The early works by Bomberg are, for me, the most interesting  and the retrospective catalogue has a fantastic essay about the Mud Bath, comparing it with Wyndham Lewis’s Two Mechanics. Think it is worth quoting:


Two Mechanics


“Lewis applies the machine image literally by pretending  that the figures he is drawing is a kind of machine. The two mechanics…are really just life-room models transformed into robots.  But the Bomberg figures are not like that at all.  Curiously, for all that they are sharp-edged as a pile of girders, they have a kind of spring about them, a muscularity which is entirely human.”

The Mud Bath, David Bomberg 1914

And it is that comment about the humanity of the figures that is so true. This painting is positioned low on the wall, so you are looking down -well you do if you’re taller than me!  The author of the essay, Andrew Forge, says that the more you look at this, the more impressed you become about its “vitality”.  Once you realise that the white and blue is light and shade, you start to see the forms in their different guises: the man diving in, the one on the bath’s edge, the head and arms of the man cutting through the water amongst them.

The one that I would love to see is hidden in the Tate’s storage: Vision of Ezekiel:

Here, the shading brings these figures to the fore and each figure differs to the next. The vibrancy of this can only be imagined.  Perhaps, at some point, this will come out again.

After the war, Bomberg moved into a more representational style and away from his mechanised, angular forms.


The recent BBC series, British Art at War, looked closely at Bomberg’s work and is well worth viewing.

David Bomberg: Prophet in No Man’s Land


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