CHICHESTER, England — British artist David Bomberg declared that until he traveled to Jerusalem in 1923, he had “never seen the sunlight before.”
The self-described “poor boy from London’s East End” was captivated by the Old City’s distinctive light, landscape and architecture, which he then expressed in a series of topographical panoramas, including his 1925 paintings “Jerusalem City” and “Mount of Ascension.”
This was also the first time Bomberg had worked outside, and he went on to reflect his love of Jerusalem light and limestone with particular subtlety in his versions of “Hezekiah’s Pool.”
In the four years that he spent in the Middle East — in Jericho and Petra as well as Jerusalem — he produced realistic, detailed landscapes. But Bomberg’s palette did not just reflect the outdoors.
In 1925, during Easter week, he had himself smuggled and hidden in the Armenian Church of St. James where he witnessed and painted the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet.
These paintings form part of “Bomberg,” a small, well-curated retrospective of the life and career of David Bomberg — the first in over a decade — at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
The exhibition, which runs until February 4 before traveling to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and moving to Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in London next summer, marks the 60th anniversary of his death and features more than 70 works in just five rooms. Largely chronological, it illustrates the development and remarkably diverse output of this significant modernist painter.
At the entrance to the exhibition, an early self-portrait of the young Bomberg stares out with a striking look of defiance. His direct, unwavering gaze is full of ambition and confidence. Bomberg is now regarded as one of the leading British artists of the 20th century, whose work is collected by both museums and private collectors — yet for most of his lifetime, he was subject to critical neglect and he died in 1957, little known and penniless.
Bomberg was born in Birmingham, in 1890, the fifth of 11 children to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. In 1895, the family moved to Whitechapel in London’s East End where he was part of a group of Anglo-Jewish artists and writers called the “Whitechapel Boys,” who were all children of Eastern European immigrants and included Jacob Kramer, Mark Gertler and the only “Whitechapel Girl,” Clare Winsten.
Bomberg initially attended evening classes with Walter Sickert before studying at the prestigious Slade School of Art, receiving financial assistance from the Jewish Education Aid Society to do so.
During his time there he was thought of as a “disturbing influence” by his tutors and too radical in his approach. Although not a member, he was drawn to Vorticism — an avant-garde movement that was partly influenced by Cubism and which celebrated the energy and progress of the modern world.
He went on to produce work that had stylistic similarities to the group, conveying his Jewish East End culture and heritage. This is perhaps best expressed in his dynamic and abstract painting, “Ju-Jitsu,” inspired by a Japanese form of self-defense practiced in an East End gym by Bomberg’s brother, Mo.
The painting — a grid of 64 squares, each sub-divided into four triangles — is a mesmerizing, multi-colored explosion of figurative movement.
With his career on the ascent and having held a critically acclaimed solo show where “Ju-Jitsu” had been one of the highlights, Bomberg was sent to serve in World War I.
Despair led him to injure himself in the foot and his traumatic service was followed by an unsuccessful experience as a war artist. Bomberg articulated his postwar disillusionment in his bold, almost brutal, well-known piece, “Ghetto Theatre” that is paired here, for the first time, with its study.
But in the final version, instead of the acid yellow used in the study, dull reds and browns dominate and the painting exudes weariness.
Instead of the stage, Bomberg focuses on the poorly dressed audience, whose hunched, tense bodies and tight lipped but expressionless faces are suggestive of society’s deep cultural malaise, say co-curators Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson.
The Whitechapel Boys often went to the Yiddish theater and these works serve as further examples of Bomberg’s strong engagement with his Jewish identity and background.
His Jewishness is also seen in “Family Bereavement,” Bomberg’s response to the sudden death of his mother, and the charcoal picture never left his easel. Within the dark, interior scene, a yahrzeit (annual memorial) candle is set next to the figures — one of which is allegedly Bomberg.
Despite his invitation in the 1920s to record Jewish settlement activity in Palestine by Sir Muirhead Bone, a Scottish artist who approached him on behalf of the Zionist Organization, Bomberg was not a Zionist. The trip was, in fact, driven by the need to escape poverty.
Following the war it had been difficult for Bomberg to make a living and he had worked as a graphic artist for Yiddish journals as well as making posters and advertisements. But, according to MacDougall and Dickson, the professional opportunities offered by the period in the Middle East went largely unfulfilled due to his temperamental nature and his artistic unsuitability for reportage.
Bomberg continued his love of painting outside when he visited southern Spain in the late 1920s and again in the mid 1930s, producing a series of nighttime processions during Holy Week, even choosing to work in complete darkness apart from the light of flickering torches.
But the Spanish Civil War forced Bomberg’s return to London where he endured further professional disappointments. Unable to secure commissions, he turned inward and concentrated on developing his skills as a portraitist, using his close family and friends as sitters.
These were difficult years and Bomberg’s character, described as “blasty” by Joseph Leftwich, one of the Whitechapel Boys, did not help. Much of his later career was dedicated to teaching and he had a strong following, which included artists such as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff — but even then, explain MacDougall and Dickson, he did not follow standard approved methods and was therefore not popular with the establishment.
His hankering for sunlight took him to Cyprus briefly before returning to his adored Ronda, in Spain, with the aim of establishing an art school. This became another failure and his final years were spent producing compelling landscapes and portraits, with some of Bomberg’s last works being especially introspective, particularly the fiery, orange-hewed “Talmudist.” Although there are no obvious Jewish symbols, its subject appears to be in deep concentration, similar to a religious scholar.
The exhibition concludes with Bomberg’s haunting, dramatic last self-portrait, which is a stark contrast to the early, self-assured, self-portrait from the first room.
It has been said that Bomberg wore burial shrounds in the painting — he was very ill during this time — and, says Sarah MacDougall, he seems to have an awareness of his impending death. His face is almost concealed but the black, red, brown and orange streaked picture shows him holding his paintbrushes.
He died in relative obscurity, near starvation, of cirrhosis of the liver, in St. Thomas’s Hospital in London — only to be revered a day later in an obituary in the Times newspaper for his “independence of vision.”
Bomberg’s reputation soared after his death and a year later the British Arts Council organized a retrospective.
MacDougall and Dickson attribute several factors for his decline and neglect by the art establishment.
These included “his pugnacious character and his disinclination to ally himself with any one movement,” they wrote in an email to The Times of Israel.
Bomberg was an artist of remarkable verve, varied style and considerable influence. This timely and compelling exhibition demonstrates once again his now indisputable contribution to the canon of modern British art.