David Bomberg might not seem a natural subject for an exhibition by the National Gallery, in deed not a single piece by him in the exhibition is owned by the Gallery. But, for all his claims of not liking Renaissance Art, he was a frequent visitor to the Gallery and the exhibitions seeks to show how it impacted on him. The National Gallery have always been proud of how the collection has inspired artists and likes to celebrate this with these small exhibits, and it forms part of the growing modern and contemporary art series that they are running and intend to continue developing.
As an artist, Bomberg was a radical and didn’t care about offending with his work. But the truth is he was a rebel with a serious mind and wanted to study the few old masters that he truly did love, hence his trips to the Gallery. Those he admired were admired not for being old masters to emulate, but to be emulated for being rabbles in their own day, those that didn’t challenge the perceived artistic wisdoms of their day were worthless. He was studying and painting at a time that suited this belief well, you had the Italian Futurists and Kandinsky coming to London with their radical approaches to art and life and their abstract style was a huge influence.
While the radical thinking and artistic styles of the day influenced him, so did the more traditional topics of family, daily life and people, when it came to topics. He used to drag his younger sister to The National Gallery and would show her Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a view to creating a self portrait inspired by it, the resulting initial sketch hanging next to it shows Bomberg in a top not dissimilar to that in the original, a top that his parents made for him for the purpose of this portrait.
Bomberg destroyed many of his early sketches and drafts, and most of the works on display are on loan from The Tate who worked hard to acquire them after his death as his works rarely ended up in galleries till then. This being said three of the main works are accompanied by Bomberg’s preliminary designs. You can see how they dramatically change, get stripped back, or have new artistic ideas and approaches added. The first such piece is surprising, Vision of Ezekiel depicts a scene from the Bible, not a subject source that you’d expect of a radical, but it’s a piece about his mother who’d recently passed away. While the second, Ju-Jitsu, is based on the marshal art and the East End gym the his boxer brother trained in. This piece adds this grid pattern to the final piece breaking up the image into various sized triangles of white, burgundy and other colours to form this almost invisible incomprehensible image.
The real stand out work is In the Hold. This large piece extends the grid and triangle structure of Ju-Jitsu to represent a boat at dock unloading its cargo of refugees, a close subject for Bomberg as his parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe. The dark brown sits starkly against the vibrant white, blues, oranges and reds that convey the vibrancy, hope and life of those disembarking, and those living and working at the docks. It’s almost hypnotic.
The show of course features his most important and famous work The Mud Bath. It loses the grid and becomes even more abbstract. It was the star piece at his first solo show and hung it outside the gallery rather than inside at his own direction, the impact on passers by, even horses, was immediate. It’s now seen as a war piece, recalling to us the mud and broken bodies of the trenches and no man’s land, but that wasn’t it’s start. It’s actually a depiction of the mud baths in Whitechapel that locals went to purify. It’s a piece that is now at once about relaxing vitality and destruction and death. Bomberg did signed up for the War but towards the end, like many, had a brake down and shot himself in the foot, and while this inevitably got him into trouble, he was saved by a Commission from Canada for a piece of war art. ‘Study for ’Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi’, is the final piece of his in the exhibition. It’s about stress and strength and of course the heroism of the tunnellers and the dangerous work they did. But rather than being somber and dark, it’s a colourful work perhaps representing a bright future that’s to come thanks to the inconceivable horrors these men experienced.
The last piece, mirrors the first, in that it’s not by Bomberg, but the other old master in the exhibition, El Greco, an artist that truly inspired him later in his career. To say that this small exhibition explores Bomberg and the Old Masters is to strain the truth, after the opening self portrait there is no real link between the pieces and the works of the National Gallery. This being said they are a wonderful insight into the workings of an important British artist, and in a probable recognition of the lacking old master connections there is a list of other works in the Gallery that Bomberg was inspired by so that you can go off and explore the Gallery and those works in a new way, through a Bombergian eye.
Young Bomberg and the Old Masters
The National Gallery
Until 1st March 2020
Feature Image – David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914, Oil on canvas, 152.4 × 224.2 cm, Tate, London (T00656), Purchased 1964, © Tate