Man Out of Time

12th January 2018

Fearless, radical and decades ahead of his peers, 20th-century British artist David Bomberg never received the acclaim he deserved during his lifetime. But as a new show at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery reveals, he left a powerful visual legacy.

Words by Oliver Bennett 

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Now feted as one of the best British painters of the last century, David Bomberg – despite possessing enormous talent – had a difficult life. Considered too avant-garde at the beginning of his career and too conservative at the end, he had a lifelong habit of failing the fashion test.

But a new exhibition, “Bomberg” at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery, shows that he fully deserves his posthumous recognition. “Bomberg’s reputation has continued to grow,” says Rachel Dickson, curator at the Ben Uri Gallery, which organised the exhibition. “Despite scandalous critical neglect in his own lifetime, he’s now recognised as a leading 20th-century British artist: a unique, independent vision who radically altered our understanding of landscape and figurative painting.” 

Born in Birmingham to Jewish parents from Poland, Bomberg moved to the turn-of-the-century East End of London and became part of the thriving émigré scene. Full of early promise, he began as a prodigy at Walter Sickert’s life-drawing classes at the Westminster School of Art, a crucible for the Camden Town Group, which painted contemporary London realistically, à la Manet.

He then went to the Slade School of Art, alongside fellow rising stars Mark Gertler, William Roberts, CRW Nevinson and Dora Carrington, but was expelled, supposedly for being too ahead of his time. Certainly, his geometric and angular works were in tune with imported ideas like Cubism and Italian Futurism, with the city seen as a vast mechanical ballet: see Ju-Jitsu (c. 1913) and The Mud Bath of 1914. 


Despite a friendship with artistic gadabout Wyndham Lewis, Bomberg refused to join the UK’s own avant-garde art movement, the Vorticists. “Bomberg just wasn’t that clubbable,” says Jamie Anderson of London gallery Waterhouse & Dodd, also exhibiting the artist this autumn. “He could be difficult.”

World War I called, and Bomberg returned to the UK changed and chastened. Rather than the machine-age abstractions of the past, he began to paint landscapes and portraits, going to Palestine in 1924 to pursue his goal of finding the “spirit in the mass” – a search for the essence of form – and then to Spain in 1929-35.

By now reasonably well known (he was commissioned as a war artist during World War II, with mixed results), Bomberg’s most fertile period came in 1945, when he taught at Borough Polytechnic. It wasn’t a prestigious post, but he lured a remarkable group of artists, including Dennis Creffield, Leon Kosso and Frank Auerbach, who described Bomberg as “original, stubborn, radical”. Known as the “Borough Group”, they helped renew Bomberg’s reputation as an incubator of talent. “He was a profoundly influential teacher who inspired a generation of painters, creating a powerful visual legacy,” says Dickson. 

In 1954, Bomberg left once again for Spain with the idea, says Anderson, of setting up “a kind of art school”. It didn’t happen, and he died in 1957. There’s now a poignant blue plaque gracing his home in Ronda, Andalucia.

Underestimated and misunderstood, Bomberg did not have the sunniest of natures, as might be deduced from his brooding images. “When his mood went dark, his oils dried up,” says Anderson. “He felt let down and neglected, even bitter.” Perhaps with good reason: Bomberg had given his life to art, but, as Anderson says, by the 1950s and ’60s his style had “become toxic – by then it was all about Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism”. 

Bomberg became a footnote. But in the 1990s, curators and critics started to “join the dots”, as Anderson puts it. “They recognised that he was a fantastic draughtsman, and a great painter.” At the same time, British 20th-century art was reassessed, with Bomberg considered a pivotal figure.

Market vindication came in 2015 when his Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (1925) sold for £1,224,900 at Christie’s, and last year it emerged that the late David Bowie owned 12 Bombergs. But perhaps the highest Bomberg accolade is the most prosaic: that a student halls of residence at London South Bank University – once humble Borough Polytechnic – is now named David Bomberg House. That’s recognition.

“Bomberg”, curated by Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 4 February 2018.

“David Bomberg: Paintings and drawings from a private collection”, 1-24 November, 

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Winter 2018 issue

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