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Independence of Vision: ‘Bomberg’ at Pallant House Gallery

20 October 2017 | Nicola Freedman

Revered as one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, David Bomberg’s work has, for too long, been neglected. However, in Pallant House Gallery’s major retrospective, Bomberg’s life and career brilliantly unfolds in one of the strongest collections of his painting and drawings.


Henny Handler, Portrait photograph of David Bomberg painting, c.1912- 1914, Tate © Tate, London 2017

Described by fellow ‘Whitechapel Boy’ Joseph Leftwich as “particularly blasty”, David Bomberg broke away from tradition to present a diverse, and radical, body of work.
 
Born in Birmingham to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents in 1890, Bomberg spent his formative years in Whitechapel. Living and working in the rough-and-tumble East End ghetto, Bomberg was a key member of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, a group of Jewish artists living in the East London area, many of whom attended Slade Art School which, at the time, was considered to be the most progressive art schools in the country. His formative years clearly had a profound impact, and Bomberg’s heritage is very much reflected and articulated throughout his artistic career, perhaps most notably in his early work Ju-Jitsu (1913), a geometrical and fractured painting of his brother’s East End gym.


David Bomberg, Ju-Jitsu, c.1913, Tate © Tate, London 2017

The confidence of his early work is astounding. Self-Portrait (1913-14), positioned in the centre of a rich red wall, is the first of his works displayed upon entering the exhibition, and leaves a striking first impression. Painted when he was considered a ‘disturbing influence’ at Slade, having absorbed European Modernist influences, the self-portrait also foreshadows Bomberg’s ascent to one of the most prolific artists of the avant-garde generation. Moving from room to room it is easy to see just how radical his work was, and why it stood out amongst his contemporaries.
 
Throughout the exhibit, Bomberg’s paintings and drawings (displayed chronologically) shift in theme and style - from complex, geometric compositions to more figurative and expressionist pieces- reflecting his experiences in both the First and Second World War, and his periods spent abroad – most notably in Jerusalem and Spain. Indeed, it is his time spent in these warm climates that mark a distinct alteration in style, as he experiments with colour and light. That Bomberg was always eager to return to sunlight throughout his life is perhaps unsurprising given his English background. As Bomberg himself mused, he was “a poor boy from the East End” who had “never seen sunlight before.”


David Bomberg, Jerusalem City and Mount of Ascension, 1925, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull © The Estate of David Bomberg

Closing the exhibition is the poignant Last Self-Portrait (1956), conceived with an apparent self-awareness of his impending death. Holding his brushes, the tools of his trade – his face is almost completely hidden by a garment, reminiscent of the Tallit. Although never directly alluded to, this work, like many others, carries traces of Bomberg’s exploration of his Jewish heritage. While Last Self-Portrait completes the journey for Blomberg, from his East End beginnings and service in the war to his time spent abroad, it also completes the journey for the viewer. The sense of symmetry with the first self-portrait upon entering the exhibition is a carefully considered, and powerful way of concluding such an impressive retrospective.
 
While today Bomberg is keenly collected by galleries and private collectors, it is interesting to note that this is the first full Bomberg exhibition for more than a decade (since Abbot Hall’s ‘Spirit in the Mass’ in 2006). Why such a lengthy gap? Exhibition curators, Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson, attribute this neglect to a general lack of interest in figurative art over the past 30 years. However, today, as MacDougall observes, “there seems to be a re-assessment of figurative art and a wider appreciation of it”, while Pallant House Gallery director, Simon Martin adds, “audiences are also more and more interested in questions of identity, and Bomberg does that with his identity, and cultural heritage.”

A true master of British art, 'Bomberg' is a unique, and important exhibition celebrating a remarkable career and an exceptional artist.


David Bomberg, Last Self-Portrait, 1956, Pallant House Gallery (The Wilson Gift through the Art Fund, 2004) © The Wilson Family
 
‘Bomberg’ will be on display at the Pallant House Gallery from 21 October – 4 February 2018, before travelling to the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle in February 2018, and to Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in London next summer.
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