Young Bomberg and the Old Masters at the National Gallery: the Renaissance influences on an East End radical – inews

Posted: December 9, 2019 at 8:41 pm

CultureArtsThe new exhibition explores how the avant-garde work of David Bomberg was not far removed from centuries of art that preceded it

Sunday, 8th December 2019, 11:24 pm

This is a small show, most works made for a single exhibition held when David Bomberg was 23 years old, and experimenting with dramatic fragmented figures and exploding arrangement of geometric shapes. Bombergs first solo show opened a month before the outbreak of the First World War: nothing sold, and most paintings went into storage until his death in 1957. Nevertheless, he caught the attention of the critics, and of the avant-garde: invited to join the Futurists and Vorticists, Bomberg high-handedly rejected both.

He was one of the Whitechapel Boys: artists from the East End whose studies at the Slade School of Art were funded by the Jewish Education Aid Society. The fifth of 11 children, his father had fled anti-Semitism in Poland, and was employed as a leather worker in Whitechapel where the family lived in a tiny flat without a bathroom or lavatory. Nevertheless, Bombergs ambition to draw was supported by his mother who found the money for lessons.

Three significant exhibitions in this period opened Londons art world up to changes on the other side of the channel: the vast Manet and the Post-Impressionists opened in 1910, with a sequel in 1912. The same year also saw the London debut of the Italian Futurists.

This is the young man we meet in an intense and forceful self-portrait drawing, the head beautifully modelled, the expression enigmatic but forthright. Bomberg had lost his mother the year before, and his gaze here is deep and arresting.

From there, he pitches himself headlong into a series of experiments. Vision of Ezekiel (1912) is a scene of resurrection: bones rising from the dead as living flesh. The bodies are reduced and machinelike, given fleshlike warmth only in the orange, brown and pink applied to them in flat planes.

The painting is part riot, part orgy, but at the centre a baby is held aloft: motherhood within the mele.

Bomberg had been taught to draw a grid as a compositional aid when planning a painting. We can see this grid in the drawings here, but they also start to appear in the paintings themselves. In Ju-Jitsu a subject suggested by visits to The Judaeans gym in the East End frequented by his brother Mo a lattice of diamonds slices through figures, shattering the sense of mass and reducing it instead to pure movement.

The stress and flurry suggested by the shattered grid becomes monumental in In The Hold (1913-14) a shipboard scene in which migrants are barely glimpsed emerging on deck. The painting is dominated by a large figure, arms outstretched and apparently sheltering, while all around him is dim panic and chaos.

The Mud Bath a tight and plunging composition of angular blue and red forms emerging from a blood-red pool was hung on the outside of the gallery during Bombergs 1914 show. Apparently it literally scared passing horses. It certainly seems prescient of the coming war. Bomberg signed up a year later: his time in the trenches was so horrifying that he shot himself in the foot. His service record saved him from the firing squad: he was patched up and sent back out.

Young Bomberg covers a hot-headed five-year period in which he grappled with fresh directions in painting and emerged with new (and to a contemporary audience, alarming) ideas. Irritatingly, those wishing to test Corks thesis that Bomberg still looked to the Fat Man of the Renaissance that he professed to hate at the time must search out paintings for themselves in other rooms of the National Gallery (or buy the catalogue, in which they helpfully appear side by side.)

With Gertler, we travel beyond Young Bomberg to see the swerve back from radical experimentation in the painful post-war period. The machine world that seemed so vital and modern now evoked the horror of combat. Gertler, like Bomberg, moved in a new direction. The latters claustrophobic Ghetto Theatre (1920) is shown downstairs at Ben Uri. Gertler, meanwhile, was drawing views from the sanatorium where he received treatment for tuberculosis. Suicide would take him before the next war. The last we see of him seems like a vestige of an earlier time: The Coster Woman (1923), a market trader dressed in her finery on a day out on Hampstead Heath.

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Young Bomberg and the Old Masters at the National Gallery: the Renaissance influences on an East End radical - inews

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