In this photograph from taken at the annual Slade School of Fine Art picnic from 1912, a remarkable set of students stare out at us.
In the front row, Christopher Nevinson sits with his closest friend, Mark Gertler; the young working class lad assuredly sitting with his more affluent friends. Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer sit alongside and, at the further end, sitting slightly out of line is Dora Carrington. All artists who changed the face of British Art from this time. But, in the back row, centre, standing shoulder to shoulder with the professors is one man who does not quite fit the mould. His hat, clothing and even his stance are out of sync with the other students. This is David Bomberg.
With ten posts that mention his work, it is safe to say he is one of my favourite artists but, despite owning several exhibition catalogues, my viewings of his works have been isolated ones. When would there be an extensive retrospective for me?
Yesterday, thanks to the Ben Uri Gallery in London, that actually happened. It was a privilege to see so many Bombergs in one place; and to see the chronological development of his skill as an artist.
Two of his most famous early works, Ghetto Theatre and At the Window were here and I wrote about these for Daily Art Magazine but what was remarkable here was that they were able to hang other versions of the same painting, side by side. With At the Window, the earlier version, entitled Woman Looking Through a Window, from 1911, was very much influenced by Bomberg’s teacher, Walter Sickert with its bedroom interior of the family tenament flat. Bomberg’s sister Raie was the model for this work and Bomberg’s studio can be seen through the open door.
By 1919 however, Bomberg was in the midst of his reductionist works and the close cropping, lack of realist detail and enhanced colour palette brings more pathos to the scene than the cluttered aspect of the earlier work.
Bomberg’s early work has always had more appeal for me – once you have been ‘vorticised’, you can’t go back! But, I have grown to appreciate his landscapes and self portraits which are a complete contrast to the reduced forms of earlier times. His brushwork is loose and almost wild when you get up close as you can see in The Broken Aqueduct, Wadi Kelt, Nr Jericho from 1926:
The standout work for me was one that simply glowed in the basement room of the gallery; Cathedral, Toledo from 1929:
Close up, there are moments of sheer delight. The dome, in particular, was so beautifully rendered, the whole effect was breathtaking! Although this is a landscape, it is the way in which Bomberg sees the individual buildings that resonates with his earlier reductive style. The catalogue quotes from Andrew Forge’s essay on this particular painting in which he says:
“Each brush stroke defines the experience of a form as well as the form itself; in these pictures he recognises that whatever the artist means by a form is something that he himself feels subjectively.”
For the boy who grew up in the back streets of Birmingham and the East End of London, seeing the bright sunlight of Toledo was a revelation and his work from this period demonstrates how his confidence as an artist was at a premium here.
History tells us that Bomberg did not achieve the acclaim that was his during his lifetime. His self portraits reveal the sadness that his later life brought him. Seeing his works in this exhibition, it is such a pity that was the case.
This exhibition is free and is on until 16th September 2018.