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Bomberg, the painter ‘without a mask’

David Bomberg’s work, virtually ignored by the art world during his life, is enjoying something of a revival

08 December, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

David Bomberg’s Evening in the City of London, 1944. IMAGE: MUSEUM OF LONDON

HE was born into poverty in 1890, the fifth of 11 children to Polish-Jewish immigrants, and died virtually penniless in 1957 having been brutally excluded from the art world.

Madcap may be the best word to describe the peripatetic life of David Bomberg, one nevertheless always filled with radical response to any blatant opposition and religious prejudice, as well as living through the trauma of the dead-filled trenches in the First World War.

A life filled too with audacious talent, typical of the defiant “Whitechapel boys” of London’s East End, among them the remarkable Isaac Rosenberg, Mark Gertler, Jacob Epstein, Joseph Leftwich, who created a new world of modern 20th century art and poetry so revered today.

Writing to a friend, Bomberg revealed: “The Jewish artists are starving, none of us can work, most of us receive one form of charity or another.”

Yet, in typical, fashion, he urged: “We can make a market for ourselves if we organise.”

No doubt Bomberg would be amazed by the art market of today, where his work sells for thousands galore and the magnificent production by the Ben Uri Gallery, in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, of a monograph to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his death.

And it coincides with an exhibition of Bomberg’s genius at the Pallant House Gallery, in Chichester, which runs until February 4 next year before travelling to Newcastle and then comes to Ben Uri in June next year.

You almost feel a sense of guilt as you touch and delve into this sumptuous tribute to Bomberg when you read of his failure in his fight for recognition and how teaching future generations has equally – and thankfully – become his lasting legacy.

Bomberg’s portrait of publisher John Rodker, 1936

It is the excellent work of Ben Uri curators Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson, who have organised a series of Whitechapel Boys exhibitions at Ben Uri dating back to 2004, using its own archive of their works of art and career history.

“We always had Bomberg in mind as the culmination of this series,” Sarah says. “But it wasn’t until 2012 that the idea of the monograph was first mooted. Even so, it was not possible to begin writing until at least after 2015, which was Ben Uri’s centenary year. And we always wanted to tie it to this anniversary year of 2017.”

Their critical and comprehensive reassessment of Bomberg’s tumultuous life, both at home and abroad, comes not only as a welcome posthumous birthday present but reveals too his local connections as one of the artists who initially frequented the Whitechapel Library and Art Gallery.

They went on to the Slade School of Fine Art, probably its most amazing group of students ever. Bomberg developed his Cubist techniques, becoming a founder member of the London Group and showed with the Camden Town School alongside the emerging power of such artists as Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, CRW Nevinson, Jacob Kramer and Dora Carrington.

Many of them found cramped bedsits and back garden studios in and around Hampstead before their careers flourished.
Subsequently, Bomberg, after a failed first marriage, met the artist Lilian Holt, who became his wife, the couple living from 1928 in Fordwych Road, West Hampstead, where he had a small studio too.

Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre, 1920. IMAGE: BEN URI GALLERY

Still his pleas for financial support were rejected, in particular from Sir Kenneth Clark, himself a Hampstead resident and later the creator of TV’s Civilisation programmes. Clark considered Bomberg to be one of “those pure painters who are interested solely in putting down their feelings about shapes and colours, and not in facts, drama and human emotions generally”.

Indeed, frustrated Bomberg even spent a year chicken farming in Hampshire to escape his woes.

However, Bomberg returned to teaching at the now-celebrated Borough Polytechnic against Lilian’s wishes, Bomberg saying: “Artists will always paint as they do, about that we are certain. It is rather the struggle for existence that is the root problem.”

It was here, from 1945 to 1953, that his magic was appreciated and he became an icon for dedicated pupils like Islington-born Leon Kossoff, now 90. “It was through my contact with Bomberg that I felt I might actually function as a painter,” he said.

“Coming to Bomberg’s class was like coming home.”

And in the Ben Uri monograph Kossoff writes: “I sometimes walk down Fordwych Road, not far from here, where Bomberg and Lilian lived for a while in the 30s… I remember my first evening in his class.

“Though I can’t remember the things he said to me as he passed from student to student, I do remember his presence.

“Once he drew on the board for a moment. I watched him and realised that in drawing what you are seeing and experiencing you keep your freedom. This is what Bomberg taught me.”

To that you can add the admiration of another celebrated artist, Frank Auerbach, still at work in Camden Town. He has described Bomberg as “probably the most original stubborn, radical intelligence that was to be found in art schools,” adding in the monograph: “He was a ‘A man without a mask’ and a great painter.”

Bomberg. By Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson, Ben Uri Art Identity Migration, softback £29.99, hardback £45

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