I belong to that final generation fortunate enough to spent their childhood and teenage years in total ignorance of the Internet and mobile technology. I still find it slightly bonkers to recall those Sunday nights in my student days, dialling friends and family from a freezing phonebox near my halls of residence. The world seemed bigger then, with everything so inaccessible and far flung, yet at the same time smaller somehow in scope.
Images meant more to me because of this. I couldn’t access them with a click of my finger – which made them that bit more precious. In 1990, my parents bought a huge Encyclopaedia Britannica. (It would now fit on a USB stick, I imagine, with room to spare.) It came with a free ten volume overview of visual art. Aged 13, I absolutely lost myself in this new treasure trove of pictures. One of them punched me between the eyes at the first flick through. It was a small inset panel of an abstract painting called ‘In the Hold’ by David Bomberg.
The caption gave me the date of 1913, but that didn’t seem right somehow. 1913? It seemed absolutely modern and fresh, crisp and perfect, by no means that close to the Victorian world. There was the suggestion of figures in motion, fractured through a grid like a fly’s eye view of reality. I bought some gouache paints and methodically worked on an exact scaled up version of it, so I could examine every inch and spend hours with the book spread open. My Dad seemed less keen. ‘What does it mean, can you tell me that?’, he wondered.
I wondered too, to be fair. This was the first Modernist painting that I had unabashedly loved without the need to seek some explanation.
A year later, age 14, I was visiting my great aunt Monica in Bedford. She took me to the local art gallery, then known as the Cecil Higgins (rebranded now as The Higgins). It’s a gem of a gallery, with a powerful collection of prints and works on paper by British artists. As we wandered round, Monica noted that the curator of the gallery, Lady Halina Graham, was pacing restlessly in the corner of one of the rooms. I was a precocious kid, with none of the social shyness that was so very soon to descend on me. I marched right up to Lady Halina and introduced myself, saying I loved her gallery.
Flattered, she engaged me in a little light conversation about my tastes in art. Her expression changed as I started talking about Ford Madox Brown and John William Inchbold. I may well have been an irritating teen, but I was still an unusual find.
‘Would you like to come into my office for a tea?’ she enquired.
We sat for an hour talking about art. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to anyone who understood my passion in quite this way. I’d had to keep my love of art a solemn secret in school. She pulled books off her shelf, free associating names. ‘If you like abstract art, perhaps you’ll like Jeremy Moon?’ she wondered. ‘Lowry is all very well but do you know the work of Lowndes?’ Gradually a small collection of books for my consideration mounted up on her table – twenty or so volumes. She produced a carrier bag. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In those days before Google images, when pictures were my passion but in such short supply, and books were something I saved up my pocket money for… Could she be serious?
My aunt and I left her office with two bags of books, a little red faced and disbelieving, feeling like thieves. (I can see now that Lady Graham was probably taking the opportunity to declutter her office a bit) I got back to my aunt’s flat and sifted through the hoard. It was a gift beyond price. There at the bottom was an old 1980s Tate catalogue. David Bomberg. It felt like a weird wriggle of fate.
The Bomberg catalogue was, to me, a story book which narrated the tale of a singular life lived on the move. It started with the explosion of Modernism, and conjured the excitement and sheer bravery of this artist and his friends as they broke with the figurative tradition of the past. Against a backdrop of the poverty of Bomberg’s own upbringing (his father was an East End leather worker) we imagine him, expelled from the Slade School for his Cubist tendencies, living hand to mouth and existing only for the thrill of these strange, fractured, hard-edged abstract pictures. He was involved in Vorticism, a British version of Futurism in which radical art celebrated the speed and dynamism of urban living, and the optimism of the coming machine age. In an essay of this period, he wrote that he hated ‘the colours of the East, the modern Medievalist and the fat man of the Renaissance.’
Yet for Bomberg, this period was only to be the start of a lifelong exploration of his own role within tradition and history. As for so many people, the horrors of World War I changed everything. He fought in France and produced no paintings between 1914 and 1918. After the war, when the dust had settled, nothing would ever be the same. We can only imagine how silly and useless Vorticism’s glorification of engines and machines must have looked after the hellish reality of trenches, tanks and bombs. He started again from scratch, resisting the temptation to plough the Modernist furrows of his pre-war life. After breaking with the avant-garde, he became a figure isolated from the narrative of modern art – travelling overseas with his family whilst exploring internal and external landscapes.
Bomberg’s journey began in Palestine, where he was assigned by the Palestine Foundation Fund to record the resettlement of Jews in Jerusalem. For the most part, it looks like he ignored this brief and just painted the city. Few of his pictures from this period contain figures. His painting of ‘Jerusalem looking toward Mount Scopus’, however, shows how far he’s come from the radical London scene. The rooftops of Jerusalem feel like a distant echo of the jagged abstract forms of ‘In the Hold’ – yet this vision is softer now, for there is harmony in the chaos. A clarity and understanding has descended. The earlier painting spoke of machinery and automation, where now we feel warmth, the slow drip of history and perhaps a slight, arid breeze. Bomberg has taken a position away from daily life, upstairs, one degree removed from the street level bustle. Now he’s alone and observing.
These new works were met with disbelief by many of his contemporaries, who felt he had abandoned Modernism. ‘What happened to the wild trumpeter?’ one visitor to his Palestine show reportedly asked. The artist’s travels took him next to Toledo, where his crisp Palestine vision began to melt. The hard-edged Vorticist kaleidoscope of ‘In the Hold’ dripped now like tallow, the buildings merging with the hills. These paintings are larger in scale, with thick impasto – and feel like a conscious echo of El Greco’s strange soupy Toledo cityscapes of the early 1700s.
By the mid 1930s, the restless Bomberg discovered at last a spiritual home: the ancient town of Ronda in Spain. This precarious mountain settlement straddles a giant gorge, its two sections joined by the impressive Puente Nuovo bridge. The artist was captivated by the violent extremity of this landscape, carved millions of years ago by giant seismic events beyond our imagining. People and their daily concerns are insignificant alongside landscape of this scale.
Bomberg travelled obsessively on a donkey, in raging mid-day sun, to reach vantage points on the gorge and bridge. The results are expressionist views of nature which seem to point their face back towards abstraction.
The Ronda sojourn was shortlived, however. The Spanish Civil War forced Bomberg to flee back to London, where his pictures of the City skyline reflected his dark mood. His gloomy paintings and charcoals of wartime London reflect the metaphorical cloud which hung over the nation, as Britain faced the nightly bombardment of the Blitz. A cloud hung over Bomberg too – poverty stricken and out of step with prevailing artistic trends, ignored by the establishment. His paintings and proposals for the War Artists Advisory Committee were rejected. Straight after the war he found it nearly impossible even to get teaching work.
Eventually he wound up with a part-time post at Borough Polytechnic – an unremarkable job which became, in time, a remarkable story. Bomberg was a focussed, inspiring educator who quickly won the loyalty of his students. His protégés, among them Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, formed the Borough Group and made their names as part of the next generation of inspirational figurative painters.
For his final years, Bomberg returned to his beloved Ronda – though in his lifetime there was to be no sea-change in fortunes or reputation. Still virtually desititute, he was horrified and depressed to learn that a Tate Gallery show about Vorticism had reduced his role to a mere footnote, representing him on the ‘Other Vorticists’ wall with just one drawing. For his final self-portrait of 1956, his features collapse in on themselves. He is reduced to a dark, unreadable, unknowable mask.
I recently visited ‘A Sense of Place’- an exhibition of Bomberg’s landscapes currently on display at Towner Eastbourne. It isn’t a full retrospective. There are no portraits, and only one small work to represent the Vorticist period. Nevertheless I felt moved to see so many of the paintings which have meant so much to me personally in a private world of the imagination. The catalogue Lady Halina gave me has never been far from my side these past twenty five years, but I haven’t actually seen a gallery show of Bomberg’s work til now.
I muse on the fact it’s rare to love something for this long. Such things are pretty hard to sustain, let’s be honest. So many of the artistic passions of my youth look a little silly now. It can be tough to remember the idealism of the daft teenage mind which greeted those images for the first time. Back then my response was just instinctive, uncritical love.
Yet walking round the show, I consider the fact that Bomberg’s work has never really faded for me. It encapsulates so much – that early Vorticist work contains the passionate, explosive and sophisticated idealism of youth, and in the later work there is plenty which speaks to me about my life as it is now. That youthful idealism has come into contact with a different kind of reality. There are many aspects of these late pictures I wasn’t properly able to appreciate as a teenager. I needed to experience more of my life to fully understand them. The aspirations of our younger years fade, to be replaced by something no less beautiful – a touch more melancholy perhaps but deeper and more enduring. We begin to see the world around us differently, and see the insignificance of our place in the scheme of things, much like the 60-something Bomberg staring up for the last time at the huge Puente Nuovo bridge. His late landscapes aren’t just about recording the things he saw (most of which are still there, unchanged). They are about recording how he felt about those things, and this is the essence of art – to be allowed to feel directly what those before us have felt, and to share those moments.
Bomberg once said that ‘an artist whose integrity sustains his strength to make no compromise… is never degraded.’ He was right: it’s a career which saw no compromise, bravely staying open to changing places and viewpoints despite the necessity of standing alone and isolated, without commercial or critical reward. The work was its own reward. The end result is a kind of immortality.