Daring, severe, and forceful, At the Window is a masterpiece of Modernism, painted by an artist seeking to find a personal artistic language, which would speak to the tumultuous age in which he lived. By the time At the Window was painted in 1919, David Bomberg, not yet in his 30th year, was an artist whose work had already undergone multiple transformations, and a man who had experienced a myriad of personal loss and hardship. At the Window, a figurative work expressed with a saturated palette, bold angularity, and simplified forms, represents a turning point in his career. Exploring the direction his work should take going forward, it draws on his early avant-garde stylistic developments, while also reflecting the personal and cultural upheaval that followed in the wake of the First World War.
One of eleven children, Bomberg was the son of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms in Poland, settling first in Birmingham and then in Whitechapel, in London’s East End. Historically a location that attracted waves of immigrants from around the world, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the area was a cramped and crowded borough, in which a community of Jewish émigrés sought to improve their lives and those of their families. Bomberg’s father was a leather maker, who did not feel becoming an artist was a suitable career, and it was Bomberg’s mother, Rebecca, who supported his early talent and interest in art, setting him up with a small studio in their home.
Bomberg would often go to the Victoria & Albert Museum to sketch the sculpture casts, and it was there that he had a chance encounter with John Singer Sargent, the reigning master of British portraiture. Recognising a burgeoning talent, Sargent recommended that Bomberg apply to the Slade. Although initially rejected, Bomberg began working as an artist’s model, entering the Slade the following year, learning formal draughtsmanship from the likes of Henry Tonks. During this time he was also attending night classes at the Westminster School of Art with Walter Sickert, where he gained early exposure to continental painting trends, as well as learning to square his drawings for transfer, a technique he would manipulate to great effect in some of his most astounding modernist paintings in the years to come.
Much of Bomberg’s early learning was conducted outside of the classroom. While the artistic environment in Britain had been for some time largely insular, by 1910 London became a powder keg of artistic innovation, with new stylistic developments exploding out of Europe. Bomberg was an avid recipient of these new avant-garde trends. He attended ‘The Art Quake of 1910’, Roger Fry’s Manet and the Post Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries, encountering the work of Cézanne for the first time, which greatly affected his ideas on form and mass. This was closely followed in 1912 by the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, as well as encounters with the Italian Futurists and meetings with Modigliani, Picasso and Derain, amongst others, during a trip to Paris in 1913. These experiences cemented and confirmed his chosen path as a progressive and audacious creator.
So daring were Bomberg’s theories that he was expelled from the Slade in 1913, and within a year had his first solo show at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea. The showcase of the exhibition was his modernist masterpiece The Mud Bath (1914, Tate, London, Fig.1), which hung outside the gallery, surrounded by Union-Jack flags, and startled horses as they rounded the corner. Based on the steam baths on Brick Lane, in The Mud Bath Bomberg reduces the figures to their essential forms. Geometric and kinetic, with its focus on urban life, it betrays his fascination with the machine age, a preoccupation he shared with the Futurists, as well as Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists. The forward of the exhibition acted as his manifesto, with his principal aim being the construction of pure form. While reactions were disparate, Bomberg’s achievements by this stage did not go unnoticed by the critics, with Roger Fry declaring:
‘Of Mr. Bomberg it would be rash to prophesy [sic] as yet, but this must be said, that he has the ambition, the energy and brain power to strike out a line of his own.’ (Roger Fry, ‘Two Views of the London Group: I,’ The Nation, 14th March 1914, pp.998-9, reproduced in David Sylvester, ‘Selected Criticism Complied and Annotated by David Sylvester’, Bomberg: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours and Lithographs, Fisher Fine Art, London, 1973, p.8).
It was during this period of intense creative output that fate intervened. War was declared on the 28th July 1914, and, not able to find work as an artist, Bomberg enlisted in the Royal Engineers a year later. Within a few months he was on the front lines of the Somme, experiencing the horror of trench warfare first hand. The experience proved so trying that he eventually shot himself in the foot, and narrowly escaped the firing squad as a deserter.
Like so many of his contemporaries, the experience was for Bomberg, who lost a brother and friends in the conflict, to have a profound impact on the art that he produced. Images of the machine age, which had previously proclaimed the hope and construction of the new, were now unavoidably linked with the horror of mechanised warfare, and the destruction this brought. Bomberg could not return to the canvases that fractured and splintered in their abstraction as a satisfactory means of expression, and he began to develop a new organic style, with an increasing humanity and lack of schematisation in his figures.
It was during this period of re-evaluation that Bomberg painted At the Window, in which he re-works his earliest known oil painting Woman Looking Through Window (aka Bedroom Picture, Private Collection, Fig.2). Painted circa 1911, Woman Looking Through Window depicts Bomberg’s sister Raie looking through an open window with the roofs and chimneys of Whitechapel visible against a grey sky. The work certainly makes manifest Sickert’s influence, with its focus on a cluttered urban domestic space, the wrought iron bedframe, mirror, unmade sheets and muted colour palette all typical of the elder artist’s Camden Town interiors. While firmly rooted in naturalism, even this very early painting betrays Bomberg’s interest in form. The pictorial plane is shallow; the figure itself is reduced to its simplest elements. Looking at the upper right corner of the work that gives us a glimpse into Bomberg’s studio, the angles of the door frame and the canvas stretcher create a purely abstract vignette.
In At the Window, Bomberg has eradicated the romanticism, hope and yearning for a brighter future, seen in his earliest painting. He has tightened the composition, it is cropped and claustrophobic. Light no longer shines through the window, and there is no sky visible, rather there is a pervasive sense of claustrophobia. No longer is there an escape towards a different future outside of these walls, there is no escaping the cramped domestic space. Raie appears again, and is still draped in mourning garb - reflective of the wider cultural landscape following the War, and the women who had lost a generation of sons, husbands and brothers. This is made personally more poignant by the fact that by the point this work was painted Raie had died of rheumatic fever.
The work reflects the stylistic advances Bomberg had attained in the intervening years, in its firm association with the movements of European Modernism and Vorticist principals. Spare and compressed, there is a reduction of superfluous detail, and the forms are simplified, the angles and planes of the window frame and ledge, bed, and stool are sharp, angular. The colour palette is restricted and harsh, dominated by flat planes of violent orange and red. The work encapsulates the avant-garde developments of form that Bomberg had achieved prior to the war, while placing the figure in the very centre, no longer subsumed by the schematics of the design. It is a statement of loss of hope, and of despair, a rejection of the promise of a futuristic age. No longer were works in which the figure was simply a cog in a wider machine a sufficient reflection of the time, here the figure is legible but caught desperately within the formal lattice. In this balance between formal abstraction and naturalism, this work marks a moment before Bomberg’s paintings would undergo a complete ‘return to order.’
Looking at At the Window, and the reaction Bomberg’s powerful early work received, it is difficult to believe that he would never again enjoy such notoriety in his lifetime. A year after At the Window was painted, Stephen Winsten wrote in Voices: ‘You simply cannot judge Bomberg’s work by the ordinary art notions[…] We welcome experimentalists of the Bomberg type: they have enlarged the world by giving deeper meaning to the thing before our nose: they have widened the scope of artistic expression and thus have liberated new energies.’ (Stephen Winsten, ‘David Bomberg: A Force in Modern Art,’ Voices, 1920, reproduced in Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson, Bomberg, Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London, 2017, p.62). Bomberg emerged on to the scene as a leading figure of the British avant–garde, but he died in poverty, embattled and largely forgotten by the wider art establishment. Many of his most important and shocking pieces were consigned to storerooms, and it was not until an exhibition of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1979, as well as Richard Cork’s monograph on the artist in 1987 and the Tate retrospective in 1988, that his position within the history of British Art of the twentieth century was re-established. He is now rightfully recognised as one of the most innovative artists Britain has ever produced.
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