A fter returning from the protracted trauma of active service in the First World War, David Bomberg underwent a profound change as an artist. His gruelling experiences on the battlefield, where he had witnessed the unleashing of military machine power at its most lethal, meant that the world of his pre-War Vorticist work, with its celebration of the dynamic, mechanised ‘steel city’ no longer had a place at the centre of his work.
He now yearned to escape from London. In his 1919 painting At the Window, it is Bomberg’s sister, Raie, dressed in black, who gazes with a sense of longing at the narrow segment of light outside her room, the feeling of confinement powerfully expressed. Bomberg’s emphasis on simplified forms gives a structural strength to the windows, bed-post and chair. He silhouettes her left foot, raised up as if in readiness to escape. But she would not find it easy to climb out of this upper window. Resting her left elbow on the sill, Raie looks as if she is lost in contemplation – fantasizing, perhaps, about a rural paradise far beyond these urban shutters.
Because At the Window is based on Bomberg’s earlier painting called Bedroom Picture (circa 1911, Private Collection), which he had executed eight years before, we know that Raie inhabits a bedroom high up in the over-crowded East End tenement flat occupied by the Bomberg family in St Mark Street, Whitechapel. David was the fifth of eleven children, and migrant life was hard. His parents, Abraham and Rebecca, had escaped from oppressive pogrom persecution in their native Poland. So the young Bomberg was very lucky to receive financial support from the Jewish Education Aid Society, which enabled him to study at the Slade School of Art from 1911 until 1913. He soon became immensely confident, innovative and successful, attracting a lot of avid attention. This precocious 23 year-old artist was even given a large solo exhibition, at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea, as early as 1914.
But the advent of the First World War altered everything, and Bomberg vividly conveys his troubled feelings in another painting from 1919, The Studio. At first glance, the terse visual emphasis on structure makes us wonder if abstraction might have been on his mind. Then we realise that an easel is the dominant form here. It rises up from the floor in an expectant way, as though waiting for the arrival of a canvas which Bomberg will soon paint. Yet he seems fascinated by this easel, regarding it as a tough, minimal object well worth scrutinising in its own right. The room looks dark, so we realise how dependent he must have been on the quality of light from the window. Like Matisse, Bomberg is very engaged in his studio, with the interplay between inside and outside, and the sun seems to beckon in a tantalising way from the area beyond the glass. In this respect, the subject of his painting has something in common with At the Window, except that nobody can be seen inhabiting the space depicted in The Studio. It is waiting for the artist to enter, canvas at the ready. So a feeling of suspense becomes evident here, adding to the tension conveyed by the painting as a whole. Ominous shadows cast by the window and easel dominate the foreground of The Studio, and in one sense they evoke the oppressive bars of a prison cell. But they also make us aware of light’s potency, so this mysterious painting expresses optimistic feelings as well.
Bomberg wanted, above all, to burst out of his urban surroundings and discover the world beyond. As a soldier in France, he had witnessed the unconstrained life led by people who lived and worked on canal barges. He never forgot it, and in 1920 created a painting called English Woman dominated by a monumental figure who bends over to manipulate the tiller of a barge. The subject was also inspired by figures he now enjoyed observing on the Regent’s Canal in London, whose life evoked the possibilities of a more rural existence. Later in the same year he went with his first wife, Alice, to become a chicken farmer near Alton in Hampshire. It was so utterly removed from everything he had known as a Londoner that Bomberg soon grew discontented.
Even so, English Woman shows how much he admired the strength and inherent dignity of people who had removed themselves from city streets to find an alternative existence on the barges. Bomberg had always been fascinated by the strength of human bodies, and physical exertion dominates this assertive painting. The woman handles the tiller with exemplary skill and care. The straight line of her back shows just how confident she is in her approach to the task in hand. Bomberg adds to this sense of firmness by defining the structure of the barge around her with great certitude. No unnecessary detail is permitted to distract attention from the woman herself, and yet we become conscious of the barge’s essential shape. The absence of clutter must have appealed to Bomberg, who had grown up in such a constricted flat with so many siblings crowding the space around him. In a distant part of English Woman a black tunnel asserts its presence, making us aware of how important her controlled handling of the tiller really was. She had to negotiate a potentially hazardous path through the tunnel’s uncompromising darkness, and Bomberg may well have included it to enhance our respect for the woman’s expertise.
By January 1922, his restless dissatisfaction had become so acute that he visited Lugano to stay and paint with Ben and Winifred Nicholson. But working outdoors in the frozen Swiss snow did not stimulate Bomberg at all. He yearned for the heat and light of a sun-filled locale, so a trip to Palestine in 1923 funded by the Keren Hayesod came as an enormously welcome alternative. Once Bomberg had been taken up to the top of the Jaffa Gate, where a view all over Jerusalem became visible, he felt both enchanted and overwhelmed. ‘You must remember’, he later told a friend, ‘I was a poor boy from the East End and I’d never seen the sunlight before.’ Its astonishing brilliance was ‘something unbelievable for me’.
That is why he was now prepared to turn his attention away from his earlier obsession with the human figure and concentrate instead on painting the world around him in the open air. Lucky enough to be offered half a house to rent ‘away from the city – in the hills’, Alice discovered that it looked down on ‘the Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the fields that sloped and stretched over the Mount of Olives right away to Bethany and beyond.’ Bomberg was so enthralled by this extensive view that he even began working in the powerful light of the moon. Painting outdoors came as a revelation to an artist who had been so accustomed to working in his studio. Hence the remarkable freshness of handling in his 1923 painting Mount Zion with the Church of the Dormition : Moonlight. Focusing here only on the essential elements of the scene, he produced a fluent image which shows how much solace Bomberg derived from this Palestine period. Urban post-war anguish gave way to far more positive emotions, and this intense engagement with landscape would remain alive inside him for the rest of his life.
After a journey to Petra, where he responded lyrically to the rocks’ dramatically coloured surfaces, Bomberg brought his Palestine period to a memorable end by travelling to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St George Hodjava on the Wadi Kelt. The isolation of this remote place, which was only kept going by two monks, appealed to him very powerfully indeed. Bomberg stayed in the region for nine weeks, and Alice recalled his willingness to take ‘the long walk to Jericho for supplies, for there was nothing around us but rocks and hills.’ The Wadi Kelt river valley terminated near Jericho, and he responded with a sense of awe to an ancient aqueduct rising up from the hot, burnished emptiness on every side. It had suffered extensive damage, and so an element of pathos can be found in his painting of The Broken Aqueduct, Wadi Kelt, near Jericho. The arches terminate suddenly in the centre of the painting, thereby allowing the blue sky to assert its luminosity even more. Bomberg fills the entire painting with his sensitive awareness of a historic civilisation long since departed from the scene. At the same time, though, he celebrates the survival of the ancient structure erected there. It looks almost defiant, as if determined to thrive in the surrounding emptiness.
Bomberg himself may even have identified with this feeling. For he was still struggling anxiously to recover from the profound trauma of wartime and probably drew strength from the broken aqueduct’s obstinate insistence on standing up firmly. For the rest of his life, Bomberg was perpetually dogged by hostility, ignorance and the art world’s unwillingness to acknowledge his true stature as an artist. But he refused to accept defeat, and the searching vitality of his work is now widely admired.