As with almost every British artist of the period, the impact of the First World War was to have a dramatic and profound effect over the work that Bomberg produced after 1918. Having witnessed the atrocities at first-hand, Bomberg, alongside contemporaries from the Slade including Stanley Spencer, C.R.W. Nevinson and William Roberts, fought to find a new language of pictorial representation in the aftermath of war. The paintings that he produced in the closing years of the 1910s and opening years of the 1920s are amongst his most accomplished and, simultaneously, challenging works. They display an artist on the brink of maturity, and offer a new, fresh voice for the post-war age.
Whilst At the Window (1919, lot 3) sees Bomberg’s return to and re-evaluation of an earlier subject, English Woman marks a totally new departure for the artist, bringing him out of the studio and pre-empting his later en plein air paintings of Palestine and Ronda. The painting forms part of the seminal group that became known as the Barges series, looking at life on London’s winding waterways. Whilst in part inspired by Bomberg's experiences in Flanders, the series, executed between 1919 and 1921, had their main origin far closer to home in a bicycle ride in London in 1919. As his first wife, Alice, later recalled:
‘David suggested that we take our bicycles out for a run, so we set off, but away from Hampstead Heath, as he thought it would be too crowded. We took another road and after pedalling for some time, perhaps an hour, I found myself riding up a fairly steep ascent and realised we were on a bridge and there was water below… David literally fell off his bike, and while I dismounted quickly I grabbed his bike and took the two bicycles on to the kerb to get them away from other riders. Meanwhile I saw that he was hunting in his pockets and I knew he was getting pencil and paper and then I saw what he had seen as we mounted the bridge – four or five barges in a line – tied up for the night, with willow trees throwing shadows from the other bank. I suppose we stood there for nearly one hour while he made his sketch and then we rode home, and he spent some time brooding over the drawing he had made on the back of an old envelope.’ (Alice Mayes, ‘The Young Bomberg’, 1914-1925 (unpublished memoir, 1972), Tate Archives, p.31, quoted in Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987, pp.133-4)
The painting in question - one of the most famous from the series, Barges (1919, Tate, London, Fig.2) - is a testament to the bold, new voice that Bomberg found in the post-war period. The palette both of Barges and English Woman, as well as many others from the series, is starkly different from his interior scenes, such as The Studio (1919, lot 5) and At the Window. These exterior scenes and subjects are brighter, with a greater awareness and sense of the natural light and shadow. There are large, flat planes of colour - seen here in the rich mustard yellow of the foreground; brushed white of the central belt, and the verdant greens of the upper right - and perspectives that showcase the artist’s technical ability and understanding.
The subject of barges was to fascinate the artist for this short period, not just in terms of the landscape, which became more literal and less abstract, but also in terms of the figurative presence. Throughout his life Bomberg had been drawn to the human form and these subjects of 1919-21 are some of the most challenging within his oeuvre. Brought up in the ghettos of the East End, where poverty was the norm, Bomberg felt a natural affinity with the under-privileged, outsider figures that lived on the barges on the outskirts of London. Some of the poorest inhabitants of the city, Bomberg depicts in his series of sketches, watercolours and paintings the hardship that they suffered, often living hand-to-mouth. Whilst no stranger to depicting the working classes, at both work and play – see for example Woman and Machine (1920, Private Collection, sold in these rooms 17th November 2015, lot 15) and Ghetto Theatre (1920, Ben Uri Art Gallery and Museum, London), here Bomberg captures a woman – to him perhaps the archetypal English woman – grasping at the tiller, bent double, clearly displaying great strength. There is a resilience that is hard not to admire. Taking on an almost noble appearance, the viewer does not pity her, but rather grows to respect her. Her form is bulky and strong, with large, elongated forearms and big, masculine hands that are reminiscent of the depiction of his Slade contemporary Stanley Spencer’s hands in The Apple Gatherers (1912-3, Tate, London). Bomberg returned to the subject of the single female a year later in Bargee (Mother and Child) (1921, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and the difference between the two compositions displays the speed at which the artist’s style was changing during this period, and the growing unrest that Bomberg felt. Still looking towards the female subject, in this later work the woman is depicted with a child, destitute in a darker, claustrophobic setting. This struggle with pictorial representation led to Bomberg’s removal from London to the small village of Beech, near Alton in Hampshire, a largely failed venture and his subsequent departure to Palestine.
English Woman, and the series of drawings, watercolours and sketches produced in these three years, display Bomberg’s continued fascination with repeated forms and motifs. Drawing on everything that he had learnt at the Slade, they mark the most important period of transition for the artist in the aftermath of the First World War, coming at a time when many young men and women were struggling to find an honest and original pictorial voice. For some, such as Spencer, this was marked with a renewed religious intent, for others, such as William Roberts (see lot 2) it was escapism through the emerging Bonhemian scene that they looked to for inspiration, but for Bomberg it was a return to a new sense of ‘Englishness’ that was to inspire his work. And English Woman is without doubt one of the most important paintings from this transitional period; a painting reflecting Bomberg’s great skill as a draughtsman and colourist, but also his deep understanding and belief in the central importance of a social aspect to his art.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.