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Details & Cataloguing

Modern & Post-War British Art

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London

David Bomberg
1890-1957
WOMAN AND MACHINE

Provenance

The Piccadilly Gallery, London, November 1972, where purchased by Erich Sommer, London
His sale, Christie's London, 18th November 2005, lot 81, where acquired by the present owner 

Exhibited

London, Hampstead Art Gallery, Group Exhibition, 1920;
London, Christie's, New English Art Club Centenary Exhibition, 27th August - 17th September 1986, cat. no.117, illustrated;
London, Tate, David Bomberg, 17th February - 8th May 1988, cat. no.72, illustrated;
London, Barbican Art Gallery, Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th Century Art, 10th October 1990 - 6th January 1991, cat. no.80.

Literature

Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987, illustrated p.135, pl.175.

Catalogue Note

Woman and Machine is, in many ways, symbolic of all that makes David Bomberg one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. Here is a painter resolutely not from the typical artist’s background of the time - born in the slums of London’s East End into an immigrant community swollen to bursting point by religious and racial intolerance on the Continent, painting subjects deliberately unseen by both traditionalists and the avant-garde alike. Woman and Machine is set in the dark, satanic sweatshops that provided the capital of Empire with its finery. It shares its spirit with Van Gogh’s unsentimental portrayal of the rural poor, his Swabian potato eaters; with Kathe Kollwitz's harrowing images of the displaced, those falling between the heartless rock of countryside and hard place of the city; and with Jacob Epstein’s superb but little-known drawings of the sweatshops of New York, ghetto life in the Brave New World. And yet Bomberg’s unveiling of the city's underbelly is executed in the crisp angular style of Cubism, by the 1920s the urbane house style of Modernity - or more accurately here, in its English incarnation of Vorticism, which combines Cubism’s disruption of pictorial space with a Futurist imagining of a fast, clean, mechanised Future.

In Bomberg's hands this elision of seemingly antithetical style and subject matter is what renders his images all the more powerful, that gives them a true ‘shock of the new,' to borrow from the title of Robert Hughes memorable account of Modernism. Woman and Machine is a highly stylised painting yet altogether real; it is sophisticated yet blunt; cool yet full of emotion; the dark striated background all about a looming, sinister chiaroscuro yet also sharing a purely abstract factuality.

The Bomberg who returned from the trenches of World War I was a changed man, the Vorticist ideal of a bright mechanised future left buried in the Flanders mud. Because of his background he had always felt an outsider, even when feted by the aristocratic beau monde that surrounded him and his Slade contemporaries. And so in his works from 1919 onwards, outsiders become his subject, as well as ciphers for his feelings. War has changed nothing, all that incredible waste for nothing: the ghetto - socio-economic, rather than ideological - persists.

One initially reads Woman and Machine as an image of work, but the lack of material and the concentration of the figure's hands suggest that she may be, in fact, repairing her machine, after hours with everyone else gone. Bomberg had an intimate - visceral - knowledge from his youth that the piece-worker's time wasted through broken machinery meant lost income, hardship and hunger. Thus the absorption of our figure, which the artist highlights by making the form of her body mirror the smaller form of the machine itself, is both a study in human activity but also human need, the need to have a means by which to survive. 

Woman and Machine is part of a small but very significant group of works that form a bridge between Bomberg's pre-War work and the move into landscape that began during his travels in Palestine in 1922 and continued into 1930s in his first encounter with Spain. This group was collected together in his 1988 retrospective at the Tate: Woman and Machine, Barges (Tate), Ghetto Theatre (Ben Uri Gallery) and Bargee (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection). They are paintings that bid farewell to the East End of his childhood, to the stolen moments of rest from the city. They are steeped in the solitude and distance felt by those returned from the Front and yet they are tributes, too, to the human spirit that endures.

Modern & Post-War British Art

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London