Family Bereavement comes from a small group of works on the subject of mourning and personal loss which Bomberg produced the year after his mother's death in October 1912 at the young age of 48. Rebecca Bomberg had been the great support to his art-making in the family, buying canvases, materials and even helping him to start his studio in St Mark's Street, Whitechapel, next door to the family home.
The loss hit Bomberg incredibly hard. A second drawing also entitled Family Bereavement, 1913 (Fig.1, Tate Collection) presents a cramped space in quite intricate detail where five desperate family members comfort one another and pray. It is a scene which emphasises Bomberg's Jewish heritage. The light on the side-table relates to the 'yahrzeit' (memorial candle) which symbolises the soul of the dead. The characters' stage-like presentation appears to relate to the Yiddish dramas performed at the Pavilion Theatre in the East End. Interestingly, Bomberg allegedly kept a version of this work on his easel and identified himself as the figure on the far right. The intricate detail locates this work firmly in the style of the Slade School where Bomberg won the Henry Tonks prize in 1913.
In stark contrast, the present work shows off the highly distinctive style developed by Bomberg between 1912 and 1914 which ranks him as one of the most avant-garde British artists of the 20th Century. The composition is identical, but the scene has been pared down and abstracted; the figures, gestures and details communicated in a vocabulary of tubular forms. By removing the literal representation, Bomberg seemingly rids the work of a specific event to make the drawing an agent of experimentation in form and composition. And yet the paring down, the austerity and strength of form place a great emphasis on the emotional power of the subject. Richard Cork has described the present work thus, 'The sparest of the drawings is, paradoxically, the most eloquent expression of Bomberg's emotion. It is a distillation of the event, and his refusal to elaborate on the taut framework of charcoal lines gives the image a fierce conviction... They are overwhelmed by the melancholy of an occasion which seems to have frozen them into helpless immobility.' (Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987, p.38).
It is not known which work was executed first, but in some senses it is immaterial. No one work is a study for the next. Rather we see Bomberg investigating every avenue of a theme rich in possibility.
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