It is widely agreed that David Bomberg (1890–1957) is one of the most significant twentieth-century British artists, though he received little recognition during his lifetime and died in virtual obscurity. Sometimes described as a 'blazing radical', Bomberg earned a reputation for audaciously going against the grain in typical avant-garde fashion, and his inclination towards creative independence was passed on to his pupils.
From his origins as a student at the Slade, to an artist on the peripheries of avant-garde groups such as Vorticism, Bomberg came to prominence as an abstract painter in the years before the First World War, a rupturing moment from which his career never quite recovered.
By the 1940s his reputation as an artist had declined and he turned his attention towards directly influencing a younger generation of artists at the Borough Polytechnic. Some of his most notable pupils included Leon Kossoff, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead and Frank Auerbach.
In many respects, Bomberg had a difficult life and was disappointed when his unbridled artistic ambitions didn't transform into tangible success, although he never went out of his way to be a favourite of the mainstream – as Leon Betsworth notes: 'Bomberg cared little for reputation or diplomas, and even less for the opinions of the establishment.'
Today art historians and curators have begun to reassess the valuable contributions of Bomberg, centring him again in the history of British modernism, with the valuable research of Richard Cork (leading to Tate's first solo exhibition of his work in 1988), and exhibitions such as 'Bomberg' at Pallant House Gallery, which was curated by Ben Uri Gallery in 2017.
Born in Birmingham in 1890 as one of eleven children to Polish Jewish immigrants, Bomberg's family moved to Whitechapel in London's East End in 1895. By the turn of the century, this area of the East End was known as the Jewish quarter of London and was effectively an impoverished ghetto. Although Bomberg's family struggled (they lived in only two rooms), his mother Rebecca always encouraged her son to pursue his artistic dreams.
Bomberg remained in Whitechapel until 1913, while he trained at the Slade School of Fine Art. He received a loan from the Jewish Education Aid Society and funded his training by life modelling. Bomberg's contemporaries at the Slade included Stanley Spencer, Isaac Rosenberg, Dora Carrington, Christopher Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash among others, earning the name of the 'golden generation'.
Due to their similar backgrounds, Rosenberg and Bomberg become friends prior to their enrolment at the Slade, and Bomberg won the Henry Tonks Prize for his portrait drawing of Rosenberg. Tragically, the artist and war poet would die in the trenches during the First World War, an event which must have profoundly impacted Bomberg.
Although Bomberg excelled at the Slade and stood out as one of the most remarkable students of his year, he refused to adopt the traditional methods of painting encouraged by the school, which had maintained a Victorian sensibility. Soon his style demonstrating the influence of the burgeoning European avant-garde movements – Italian Futurism and Cubism – set him apart from the other students but also irritated his tutors.
His work Vision of Ezekiel painted in 1912 was in homage to the radically new aesthetic developing in Europe at that time, and brought Bomberg to the attention of Wyndham Lewis – the writer and charismatic co-founder of the Vorticists.
The frenetic energy captured in the paintings of Lewis and Bomberg indicated that British modernists wanted to break away from past traditions of painting. In the words of one of Bomberg's friends, the artist was 'very blasty... he wanted to dynamite the whole of English painting.' In fact, the Vorticist's literary magazine Blast had advocated such revolutionary intentions, stating: 'Blast France, Blast England, Blast Humour, Blast the years 1837 to 1900.'
Around this time, Bomberg had also pursued his interests in the aesthetics of modern dance, possibly inspired by his first wife, Alice Mayes, who was a ballet dancer with the Kosslov ballet. Bomberg was enamoured with Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, which had toured Britain for the first time in 1911. In 1919, Bomberg would create the book Russian Ballet which featured his drawings of the ballet production in 1914.
In 1913, Bomberg travelled to Paris with the sculptor Jacob Epstein where he met Picasso, André Derain, Max Jacob and Amedeo Modigliani. Upon returning to London, his refusal to adhere to the instructions of his Slade teachers had cemented his reputation as a 'disruptive influence'. He was expelled from the school, a decision implemented by one of his tutors Henry Tonks (who terrified most of the students) as well as other professors. Before leaving he completed Ju-Jitsu (c.1913).
After his expulsion, Bomberg exhibited work with the Vorticists, though he was never formally a member of the short-lived group who lost their momentum and effectively disbanded during the First World War. In 1914, he became a founding member of The London Group, through which he exhibited five paintings in the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition and organised the Jewish section of the show.
In 1914, he had a solo exhibition at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea, which had founded in 1905 with the purpose of supporting artists 'who positioned themselves as outsiders.' At the exhibition attended by Roger Fry, the Vorticists and other members of British bohemia, Bomberg exhibited The Mud Bath (1914), a subject matter inspired by the steam baths of the local Jewish population in London's Brick Lane. The references to Judaism in his work earned Bomberg the disparaging name of the 'Jewish Vorticist' by some critics.
Like many others of his generation, the First World War irreversibly changed Bomberg's life and also his aesthetic sensibility. In 1916 he transferred to the King's Royal Rifle Corps (not long after marrying Alice Mayes) and was sent to the Western Front. Like his friend Rosenberg, he wrote poems while enduring harrowing ordeals in the trenches. After deliberately shooting himself in the foot, a shell-shocked Bomberg was demobilised from service and sent back to Britain. While Bomberg survived, his friends Rosenberg, T. E. Hulme and his own brother died in the trenches.
Bomberg's witnessing of mass human destruction turned him away from a celebration of technology. Coinciding with his suffering, he embraced naturalism and organic forms, dismissing the utopian aims of the Futurists who had once lauded the arrival of the machine age.
This shift in perspective led to Bomberg's conceptualisation of 'the spirit in the mass', which according to Richard Cork, explains the 'vitality' in his mature work. For Bomberg, this phrase meaning there is no purpose in observing the external, natural world unless the constantly evolving living spirit of nature is acknowledged.
In the 1920s, Bomberg travelled to Palestine and continued to paint themes affiliated with Yiddish culture such as Ghetto Theatre (1920), which reflected his new-found distaste for abstraction despite its geometric composition.
This work was the first acquired by Ben Uri, alongside several other works by the artist. Bomberg remained in Jerusalem until 1927, and the following year exhibited 'Paintings of Palestine and Petra' at London's Leicester Galleries.
Not long after his separation from Alice, in 1929 he met his second wife, the artist Lilian Holt, who had visited him while travelling in Spain.
Between the 1920s and 1930s, the subject matters of Bomberg's work were largely centred on landscapes and brooding self-portraits. His preoccupation with self-portraiture possibly indicates that the artist was reconciling his own identity, at a time when he was increasingly marginalised from the British art world and possibly at war with himself. The self-portraits are psychologically charged, and perhaps as a Jewish artist at a time of rising fascism in Europe, the artist's exploration of 'self' played a broader, political and psychoanalytic role.
Bomberg's self-portraits range from detailed sketches to distorted paintings, in which his facial features are barely discernible. The artist appears to be scrutinising himself – there is often a quizzical expression on his face as if he is trying to solve a riddle.
In the 1930s, he and Lilian had joined the Communist party (though they resigned after a trip to Russia). They also lived in Spain, but fled and returned to England with the catastrophic arrival of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).
During the Second World War, Bomberg suffered from depression and captured the gloom and destruction he must have witnessed while living in London during the Blitz. Although he applied many times to work for the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), he waited years before receiving a commission to record the realities of the conflict. In 1942, he was invited to paint the RAF's underground bomb story near Tutbury, Staffordshire – one of the largest munition stores in Britain.
His wife Lilian, prophetically wrote: 'I was a bit fearful when I learned David not only got lost among the bombs, but I knew how curiously he climbed, slithered and slid among and over the piles to get the angle and form of interest.' On 27th November 1944, the store blew up – 3,500 tons of high explosives were detonated by accident, killing 68 people. It still remains the largest explosion ever recorded in Britain.
Initially unable to find teaching positions in London art schools during the war, Bomberg eventually found a job as a lecturer at Borough Polytechnic in 1946.
According to Leon Betsworth, his classes 'soon gained notoriety because of his unorthodox approach and the cult-like fervour with which some followed him.' Bomberg committed himself to a unique pedagogical philosophy and his approach to teaching transformed the lives of many of his students. He encouraged them to focus on the energy and vitality of their subject matter and utilise their own agency as liberated artists – his mantra to his students being 'Throw yourself in!'
Considered a rather irascible teacher by many of his pupils, Bomberg's influential presence at the school nevertheless led to the fruition of two artistic groups: The Borough Group founded by Cliff Holden, which disbanded in the 1950s, and the 'Borough Bottega', a group which followed the artist and Lilian to Spain.
Bomberg died in 1957, at a time when he was inadequately acknowledged by the art establishment but remembered and revered by many of his loyal students, including Frank Auerbach, who described him as 'probably the most original, stubborn, radical intelligence that was to be found in art schools.'
Although his Last Self-Portrait was painted without a mirror, it captures the artist's dark inner world in the months leading up to his death.
Lydia Figes, Content Editor at Art UK
William Lipke, David Bomberg: A Critical Study of his Life and Work, 1967
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, 1987
Jacky Klein, David Bomberg, Bomb Store, 2002
Leon Betwsworth, 'David Bomberg (1890–1957) and the Borough: A different class', The British Art Journal, Autumn 2016, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 52–57, 2016