Modern British & Irish Art

Bomberg's Eclectic Inspirations from the London Canals to Palestine

By Edward Lown
Several of Bomberg's paintings are up for auction in Sotheby's anticipated Made in Britain sale on 20 March. We take a closer look at the rebel artist's worldwide inspirations.

W hen the WWI pacifist John Mayes met Bomberg in 1922 he exclaimed he hated war because “…it destroyed men” to which Bomberg smiled and replied, “Yes, I know what you mean John, but war can also make men grow” (David Bomberg in Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University press, London ,1987, page 139). Although likely referring to his recovery from a self-inflicted gunshot wound during WW1, the line could also be applied to Bomberg’s artistic style, which changed radically in the years following the war. This March, Sotheby’s is pleased to announce the sale of six works from three distinct periods in Bomberg’s astonishing artistic career after WWI.

Born the fifth of eleven children in 1890 to Polish Jewish immigrants in Birmingham his family moved in 1895 to the East End of London where the young Bomberg was heavily encouraged by his mother to pursue an artistic career. It was a chance encounter at the V&A in 1911 with the artist John Singer Sargent that turned Bomberg’s passion for art into a possibility. Sargent, who was a much respected and established artist, encouraged the young Bomberg to begin studying at the Slade and after a failed attempt was eventually accepted in 1911. Despite early successes such as winning the Tonks Prize in 1911, Bomberg’s days at the Slade where not to last. After becoming highly influenced by newly emerging movements such as the Futurists and Post-Impressionists Bomberg’s work became too radical for the Slade and in 1913 he was expelled.

“Where I use naturalistic form, I have stripped it of all irrelevant matter"
David Bomberg, 1914

Being expelled from the Slade did not slow down the then twenty-three-year-old Bomberg as his radical style of breaking forms down into schematic-like elements established him firmly in the pre-war London avant-garde. 1914 was a turning point for Bomberg’s career as it was the year of his first solo show and the start of WWI. In 1915 Bomberg was invited to show his works in the first exhibition of the Vorticism art movement, which rejected Edwardian values in culture and instead sought to establish a new art for an exciting new century. However, with war declared, interest in Bomberg waned as the public shifted its focus to the war effort.

David Bomberg
David Bomberg

After a period of increasing financial and artistic difficulty, in 1915 the frustrated Bomberg decided to enlist in the Royal Engineers to fight on the Western Front. Bomberg’s time in the army would have a profound impact on his artistic career, as the mechanised death he witnessed led him to question and eventually abandon his earlier innovative style and its celebration of modern life. In Study for Ghetto Theatre we see one of Bomberg’s last works executed in his earlier schematic style. Created in 1919 the pen and ink drawing contain traces of his earlier angular forms with sharp shapes and lines defining the figures. In works such as Study for Ghetto Theatre we see Bomberg’s post war return to the depiction of urban life but with much greater emphasis on the human figure in a style less dehumanising reflecting a move towards a more natural style.

Both Study for English Women and Bargee Family date from 1920 and in both paintings, there is a continuation of Bomberg’s new found fascination in depicting the human form in semi-abstract ways. Both works date from a time when Bomberg was becoming extremely tired of London and sought a more dignified and simple way of life. Although partly inspired by Bomberg’s observations of canals in Flanders during WWI, both works take their inspiration from a bike ride he and his wife Alice took in 1920 to Hampstead Heath where they observed the poor bargee families going about their daily lives on the fringe of the city. Both paintings come from a series of works known as the Bargees and show Bomberg’s new found interest in naturalistic colours and en plein air working as they depict figures in a stern and noble fashion. Shortly after this time both Bomberg and his wife moved away from London to become chicken farmers and escape city life. However, the venture proved unsuccessful and instead Bomberg found artistic and financial escape in Palestine, painting pictures of Jewish settlers for the Palestine Foundation Fund.

David Bomberg, Study for English Woman. Estimate £5,000–8,000; David Bomberg, Bargee Family. Estimate £8,000–12,000
David Bomberg, Study for English Woman . Estimate £5,000–8,000; David Bomberg, Bargee Family . Estimate £8,000–12,000

Bomberg arrived in Palestine in 1923 and although not a Zionist, was eager to find new artistic inspiration in the exotic land. “You must remember I was a poor boy from the East End and I’d never seen the sunlight before, its dazzling intensity was something quite unbelievable for me” explained Bomberg (David Bomberg in Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University press, London ,1987, page 146). Both Horses from 1922 and Scene in Palestine from 1925 come from this new artistic period and show Bomberg’s complete move away from his earlier styles and subjects. Despite being employed to depict heroic pictures of Jews prospering, Bomberg’s works rarely, if ever, focus on figures and instead take on a more topographical view as they attempt to capture the startling heat, light and landscapes of the region with the same vigour that inspired his earlier works.

David Bomberg, Horses £4,000–6,000; Scene in Palestine £25,000–35,000
David Bomberg, Horses £4,000–6,000; Scene in Palestine £25,000–35,000

When Bomberg returned to Britain in the late 1920s the reception to his Palestine works was mixed. “What happened to the wild trumpeter” asked one viewer expecting Bomberg’s earlier pre-war style (Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Tate Gallery Publications, London, 1988, page 92). Yet despite his works reaction, Bomberg would continue to refine and experiment in his new style as he made various trips around the UK and Europe to paint landscapes in the late 20s and early 30s. It was on a trip to Asturias in northern Spain in 1935 that Valley of Le Herminda, Picos de Europe, Asturias was drawn. Coming from a time when Bomberg had developed his style significantly since his early works in Palestine, Valley of Le Herminda, Picos de Europe, Asturias shows Bomberg’s intense studying of his landscapes in a way that captures the dark forms of the mountains as they push forwards and fill the picture. Bomberg’s time in Asturias proved incredibly successful with many paintings and drawings created in his now mature style. Yet sadly this time of artistic brilliance was cut short by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil which caused Bomberg and his family to flee back to London. Back in London Bomberg never again reached the fame he had in his pre-war years, yet all six works show a profound sense of an artist searching for a new artistic voice with which to express his changing views of the world.

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