Lunch-time talk on Bomberg for the Ben Uri Gallery at Christies, Tues 31st May 2016
Welcome and thank you for coming. I’d like to thank the Sarah McDougall for asking me to do this and to Christies for hosting this wonderful exhibition celebrating 100 years of the Ben Uri Gallery. I’m a British born painter and writer of Anglo-Indian background and have lived in Australia since 1989-I’m here on the ACMEs International Artists in Residence Program. The diasporic perspective was the focus of my PhD from Melbourne University and as a migrant in Britain and Australia it has shaped my personal and professional life. In my thesis I wrote about the impact of diaspora in David Bomberg’s life and work and it is Bomberg who I want to focus on today.
I’ve had a passion for Bomberg since I was a student of Arnold Van Praag’s. He also introduced me to work of Chaim Soutine, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, all painters from Jewish backgrounds and migrants whose work, Van Praag thought I had an affinity with. They all employ a ‘painterly’ and embodied approach to creating images that play with form and content, in an often ambiguous way. The migrant condition, being and insider and an outsider can make one feel out of place or out of synch and this ‘double consciousness’ can offer a different perspective of the host culture.
In Bomberg’s case, I would argue that despite early success before the first World War, the lack of critical attention he suffered was largely because of his cultural difference to those who were influential in the art world, such painter and writer Wyndham Lewis and critic Herbert Read. The context for Bomberg’s life, creative output and the devastating experience of being ‘cold- shouldered’ by the art establishment during his lifetime can, I would suggest, be viewed through a diasporic lens.
Bomberg’s late painting was hit or miss affair and when it was successful the handling and materiality of paint resulted in an ambivalence between form and content that was poetic thereby challenging the categories of abstraction and naturalism in painting.
In many ways Bomberg’s experience of exclusion foreshadows the experience of many artists who formed the Black Art Movement in Britain in the 1980s.
The being ‘double conscious’ aspect of the migrant condition is often referred to as diasporic. The term ‘diaspora’ derives from the Greek word ‘diaspeiran’; ‘dia’ meaning ‘over’ or ‘through’, and ‘spieran’ means ‘sow’ or ‘scatter’, and originally referred to the Jewish experience of dispersal, but has since come to have wider applicability following the rupture and upheavals of modernity, such as the dissolution of Empire and the subsequent post-war migration to Britain.
Brief overview- Bomberg’s work evolved from a highly innovative approach that was near abstraction, early in his career, to the most luscious painterly expressionism.
While he did experience some critical acclaim very early on in his career – Herbert Read stated, somewhat reluctantly, he was ‘possibly’ a great artist – he nonetheless suffered critical neglect and personal humiliation throughout his lifetime-from sales and commissions that he didn’t get to major omissions in exhibitions and publications. In a recent talk at South Bank University to celebrate Bomberg’s legacy, as represented by the Sarah Rose Collection, Dennis Creffield, a former student of Bomberg’s at the Borough Polytechnic, stated that he thought Bomberg’s career was ‘the wrong way up’. What he meant was that Bomberg received critical acclaim early on and then was ignored, rather than start from obscurity and gain acclaim and have his work collected etc. by National institutions, be accepted into the story of British art etc.
Bomberg’s early innovative art should have been enough for him to cement a reputation as a radical modernist.
Bomberg’s relationship with Lewis is telling-Lewis visited him in his East End studio in the 1920s
Whilst Bomberg was flattered by Lewis’s attention since Lewis already possessed a reputation as a radical artist, he mistrusted Lewis from this very first meeting as he was an artist of a different culture and class. Lewis wanted Bomberg to join the Vorticist’s at this time and Bomberg refused to be part of his group. This early mistrust proved warranted; Lewis completely ignored Bomberg during the period 1920-50 when he most needed support.
Whilst Bomberg aligned himself with Lewis’s aestheticism, he might not necessarily have appreciated Lewis’s authoritarianism, elitism and reactionary leanings. Lewis viewed the individual creative artist as a civilising influence on those lowly aspects of British culture he deemed as unruly and degenerate, otherwise known as ‘the crowd’. He wrote, ‘The tripartite profile of ‘the Quaker, the homosexual and the Chelsea artist points to a group “diseased” by pacifism, decadence and dilettantism’. His anti-democratic stance, combined with allegiances to known anti-Semite poets, Ezra Pound, Roy Campbell and T. S. Eliot left Lewis open to accusations that he too possessed fascist sentiments.
Even though Bomberg was the most radical of pre-war avant-garde artists in Britain, his practice was never just about new pictorial form; it emerged from a humanism embedded within his Jewish history, which was at odds with the brash, machine age aesthetic of the Vorticists, or Futurists.
His radical intervention in early modernism was behind him and he was out of synch with the trajectory of his peers and cold shouldered by the cultural gatekeepers of modernism including Read and Lewis.
After the war, suffering from trauma, Bomberg received funding from the Zionist association in the 1920s to travel to Palestine where the warmth, colour and light would have been welcome after the East End. Travel, when he could was always a good thing for Bomberg as the new landscapes presented him the with opportunities to develop his mature style. It was as if the landscapes were a vehicle to say something about the outward representation of a place but also the inner topography of his mind and express his inner feelings, such as joy and frustration. So his ambivalence which I suggest is characteristic of the diasporic plays out to various degrees in this way.
Noteworthy are the paintings from 1942 of a bomb store in Burton-On-Trent and it was a hugely productive time for Bomberg, even though the War Commission only agreed to buy three drawings and he later had the humiliation of fighting to get them exhibited. The painterly approach to representation is modernist in that the picture plane is ‘flipped up’ as western perspective is ignored-they look very European to my eyes. Curiously, I am thinking about the parallels that exist beteeen this work and with John Pipers 1940s work.
He travelled to Spain in the 1950s where some of his best work was produced and his mature style emerged. He was certainly absent from the country for long periods-it has been suggested that this was a reason for his neglect in Britain – a neglect that plagued him throughout his career.
So I want to take a few of the paintings on show and draw out the threads of this aesthetic of diaspora and displacement and also, their ambivalence of representation.
Slide 1 At the Window, 1919
The woman in dark brown hat and clothing is looking out of a cluttered, shuttered apartment with one leg on a chair, her left hand is visible covering her left ear, perhaps her right hand does likewise? We see her back and can’t tell if her eyes are open to a strip of blinding light that cuts across the picture plane. The tension between western perspective and the generally flat colour uses a modernist angularity and dynamism to produce a picture space that is ambiguous. She is shut in and shut out -what can’t she see and hear? She has turned her back on us. Painted in the aftermath of a war it is suggested in the literature that she is perhaps in mourning.
In this moving painting perhaps the nation’s mourning is a trigger for the personal trauma that Bomberg suffered. Who is he turning his back on? Or rather, who has turned their back on him?, What is he blinded to? What is it he is blocking out of sight, sound and from his mind? Perhaps, it’s the hostility of the critics that confirmed that he didn’t belong and ignored him because of his cultural and religious difference.
An internal diaspora
It was suggested to me by Van Praag that Bomberg suffered from an ‘internal diaspora’-perhaps what he alluded to was his ‘bloody mindedness’ and ‘difficult’ personality, I suggest born from childhood poverty, a feeling of inferiority, displacement and critical neglect. So perhaps the external diaspora impacted upon his mental health. Creffield illustrated this point-he described how emigre artist Josef Herman, aware that Bomberg needed help, sent potential buyers to Bomberg, only to hear later that he had refused to sell any work to his visitors-because he didn’t like what they said about the paintings.
Slide 2 English Woman, 1920
In the works on paper that Bomberg produced in 1919, the human presence is present, sometimes
prominent. In this painting the angular representation fits almost too tightly into the design to the extent the woman appears trapped.
This work English Woman, 1920 has the strong sense of design of the early work, however, the large warm shape of the woman’s dress is fragmented. Bomberg wanted to go further than
Bell’s concept of ‘Significant Form’ not simply in terms of pure form but to achieve ‘an more intense expression’ but extend the reach of his work beyond the parameters of Vorticist form. This ‘intenser
expression’ referred to the synthesis of Bomberg’s radical pictorial method with his humanist, outsider aesthetic, arguably diasporic approach.
The anxiety wrought by the Canadian War Commission project of 1918-19 (it is well documented by Cork) together with Bomberg’s post-traumatic stress syndrome, was a powerful blow to his mental health. According to his wife Alice ‘the committee’s rejection of his first version came as an awful shock to David, a shattering personal blow, and he didn’t really recover his earlier strength ever again’.
The end of the war and this experience marked a turning point for Bomberg. His independent approach positioned him outside any group and this exacerbated his isolation. Just as British art was embracing the move towards total abstraction, the human presence which was always included, even in the most abstract of Bomberg’s work, became more pronounced.
The sense of confinement of the woman bending down experiences might possibly represent his state of mind-he felt trapped and out of step with the trajectory of British art.
Slide 3 Broken Aquaduct, Wadi Kelt, 1926
Though not a committed Zionist, Bomberg had few reservations about aligning himself with the movement as money was in short supply. The Palestine paintings accurately depicted landmarks and were well received by dignitaries. However, he was criticised by others, including fellow artists, for his commitment to the Zionist cause; ‘Bomberg, though entirely Jewish, was strongly anti- Zionist’ and ‘Bomberg has no Jewish sentiments whatsoever’-which appear somewhat contradictory statements. However, they illustrate Bomberg’s predicament as a diaspora artist: in Britain he was a despised outsider, yet in Palestine he was also seen as an interloper, Jewish but not Zionist. Bomberg had his doubts about the Palestine paintings; he vowed never again to put himself in a position whereby he had to please patrons. At this point he stopped painting, since the negative criticism from fellow avant-garde artists impacted upon him to the extent that he felt his work lacked direction.
Painted in 1926, Broken Aquaduct, has a direct, economical approach with a fluidity that is echoed in some of Auerbach’s work-that zig zag movement of discovering a space and place. Perhaps the confidence and swift execution is a result of temporary reprieve from his studio in the East End and the joy of painting, plein air in the warmth of the Jericho sun-it may have been a liberating experience for him.
Slide 4 John Rodker, c. 1936, oil on canvas 71.5 x 57 cm, Framed 91.5 x 78.4 cm
This portrait of friend, poet and writer Rodker presents the sitter in a ‘Soutine’ kind of way. It shows
a loss of confidence at a time of financial difficulty and critical neglect-a neglect that he suffered from the 1920s until his death. Perhaps the fact that it, as a commission, it might have resulted in a certain hesitancy e.g. in the painting of the eyes and mouth where the tension between naturalism and metaphoric (abstraction) painting, becomes strained as Bomberg attempts a good likeness.
Conclusion and my view
For me, as both a painter and writer, authentic painting is art that communicates something about the subject but also, significantly, a great deal about the artist which, in turn speaks to the viewer. I do, however, accept the postmodernist position concerning a plurality of meanings etc. – that hopefully doesn’t entirely derail my argument. Bomberg’s oeuvre is an example of such authentic work more interesting when one considers his diasporic position cast him as ‘inauthentically’ British.
He pursued a tough, direct modernist approach that was more daring and innovative than those Vorticists he never belonged to. From the end of the first great war to his death he maintained a singularity of vision, even though his work evolved from near abstraction to figurative expressionism. His work was out of synch with the direction of modernism and he faced a hostile cultural and critical art world who, reluctantly installed his legacy as part of the British story-albeit after his death after much lobbying from his family.
Walking into the Tate Britain where the Bomberg’s The Mud Bath is the prominent painting in the room with Lewis’s work on a side wall, suggests quite a different relationship from the one actually that existed, however, the story of his exclusion should not be forgotten.