BOMBERG – exhibition at Ben Uri, London. (review)

David Bomberg (1890-1957) is an interesting, but not very well known British painter. Born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, he grew up in East London. He studied at the Slade School of Art and later in his life taught art at the Borough Polytechnic, where he proved to be of great influence on his students, including Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. [1] He is now sometimes referred to as one of the Whitechapel Boys, a group of British Jewish writers and artists, many of whom grew up near the Whitechapel area of London. [2]

The painter was quite unappreciated in his own time, and the exhibition entitled simply ‘Bomberg’ at the Ben Uri gallery in London, featuring over 40 of his artworks is set to reassess his career. The exhibition begins on the ground floor and then continues downstairs, the visitors have to descend into a dimly lit windowless space using a rather steep and narrow staircase. Having to work with this challenging space, the curators managed to present a coherent chronological narrative, beginning with artworks from Bomberg’s time at the Slade and works reflecting on his Jewish heritage (such as the Ghetto Theatre, see below), following the artist’s development through the war years, ending with haunting self-portraits or his final years.

1987-46 ghetto theatre david bomberg
David Bomberg Ghetto Theatre (1920, oil on canvas, © Ben Uri Collection, courtesy of David Bomberg estate, image source)

Bomberg’s early art was influenced by Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism. [1] Among the best known are his large geometrical compositions (Ju-Jitsu and In the Hold, both owned by Tate). On display at Ben Uri there is a sketch for Ju-Jitsu, and similar in style drawing Racehorses (1913, part of Ben Uri collection). After his experience as a war artist in the WWI, which left him disillusioned, as his commissions were not accepted, Bomberg changed his style dramatically. He abandoned his early fascination with the machine age, an interest he initially shared with Italian Futurists. After the WWI, Bomberg turned towards more naturalistic, and at the same time, more expressive painting techniques. [3] In 1920s he travelled to Jerusalem, where he was commissioned by a Zionist organisation to paint scenes from Jewish settlements (the painter did not however support the Zionist movement [4]). During his time in Jerusalem and on his travels in the Middle East he produced many vivid sun-soaked landscapes. His continued interest in landscape flourished during his 1929 trip to Spain and in the following years. As a war artist during the WWII, he saw all his paintings rejected again. [3] After the war he taught at the Borough Polytechnic. He spent his last years in Spain where he produced more expressive and colourful landscapes. [5]

Pairing of artworks with similar subjects but executed in wildly differing styles allows to appreciate Bomberg’s varied approaches to painting.

IMG_5651 (2)
General view of exhibition ‘Bomberg’, on the left David Bomberg The Gorge, Ronda, Spain (1935), on the right Cathedral, San Toledo (1929) (photo: Ground Impressions)

Bomberg’s late self-portraits, the Talmudist (1953) and The Last Self-portrait, on first glance seem to have been influenced by Christian art. The Talmudist has been compared to Christ wearing crown of thorns [6]. Similarly, in The Last Self-portrait the artist resembles images of Christ as ‘Ecce Homo’ with his hands crossed in front of him (see Ecce Homo by Anthony van Dyck here).

IMG_5646 (2)
View from the exhibition ‘Bomberg’, on the left David Bomberg Talmudist (1953), on the right The Last Self-portrait (1957) (photo: Ground Impressions)

It was great to see so many Bombergs under one roof. The exhibition traces the painter’s artistic development and provides a fantastic opportunity to see some of his less known works.

 

The exhibition ‘Bomberg’ at Ben Uri Gallery, London ran from 21 June and is closing on 16 September 2018.

 

References:

[1] Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists

[2] http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/downloads/WhitechapelBoys.pdf

[3] Exhibition leaflet

[4] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bomberg-jerusalem-looking-to-mount-scopus-t01683

[5] Gallery label

[6] Gallery label

 

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