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.
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