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Book Notes: David Bomberg, Richard Cork

Barry Fealdman

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes David B?mberg, Richard Cork (Yale University Press, London 1987) 344 pp. ?55 hardback, ?24.95 paperback. Superbly designed, well documented and written with sympathy and under? standing in an easy literary style, Richard Cork's monumental book on B?mberg illumines the life and work of one of the most distinguished British artists of the twentieth century. David Bomberg was born in Birmingham in 1890, the fifth of eleven children of parents who had come to England to escape the Russian pogroms of the 1880s. The family moved to Whitechapel in 1895 and David attended a nearby elementary school until the age of fourteen. On leaving school, he resolved to become an artist and, after a succession of mundane jobs, he was helped by the Jewish Educational Aid Society to enter the Slade School of Fine Art in 1911. Bomberg's fellow-students included Isaac Rosenberg, Mark Gertler and Jacob Kramer. All of them were part of a remarkable generation of East End Jews?including Joseph Leftwich, John Rodker and Samuel Winsten? involved with literature and the arts. B?mberg, already a precociously gifted draughtsman, benefited greatly from the strict tuition at the Slade, but was also profoundly influenced by the turmoil on the British art scene caused by Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 and 1912. B?mberg eagerly adapted his style to take account of new movements such as Cubism and Futurism, while his subject-matter remained largely inspired by his Jewish background. His art gained a new momentum after he met Picasso, Braque and other Cubists during a journey to Paris in 1913 to select paintings for the Jewish section of a huge exhibition of modern art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, but his own offerings were unfavourably received. The Jewish Chronicle critic dismissed them as 'a waste of good pigment, canvas and wall space'. There was also much hostile comment in the press on Bomberg's first one-man show in 1914, directed especially at his masterly painting 'Mud Bath'?a lively, geometric composition inspired by Schevzik's Russian Vapour Baths in the East End of London. But, as Cork quite rightly points out, the anger of the press at least indicates that his work was eliciting a response. It was almost total indifference to his work that was to haunt Bomberg in later years. The outbreak of the First World War created great difficulties for artists. B?mberg enlisted in the army in 1915 and, in the following year, shortly after his first marriage, was sent to France. His harrowing experiences in the trenches brought about a change in his art. He abandoned his prewar abstractionism in favour of a more realistic and humanistic approach. In the aftermath of the war, B?mberg faced many problems, particularly in regard to the course his art was taking, and the urgent need to earn a living. He even tried chicken farming for a time, and busied himself in Jewish circles, 280</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes where he hoped to find patrons. The Ben Uri Art Society bought several paintings, but few other sales materialized. His precarious situation was resolved in 1923, when the Zionist Organiza? tion in London commissioned B?mberg to record the reconstruction work undertaken by the chalutzim in Palestine. This phase of his career is fully described by Cork, who provides new material that throws light on Bomberg's relations with the Zionist establishments in London and Jerusalem and with the British Mandatory officials. Though a committed Jew, Bomberg was not a Zionist and he produced few works on the reconstruction subject. He was, however, excited by the beauty of Jerusalem and its environs, and painted the vistas in a precise, crystal-clear, topographical style, quite different from anything he had previously done. The paintings were eagerly purchased by the Military Governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, and his officials. The exhibition of Bomberg's Palestine paintings at the Leicester Galleries in 1928 was well reviewed in the press, but, to his chagrin, it was not a financial success. B?mberg became extremely depressed and even lost the incentive to paint. His spirits were revived by a remarkable woman, Lilian Mendelson, who eventually became his second wife. She encouraged him to abandon the realism of his Palestine pictures and to express his unfettered emotional reaction to nature. B?mberg travelled to Toledo in Spain in 1929 and brought back a group of vibrant, richly textured paintings that marked a turning point in his art. 'The handling of pigment became more outspoken, and B?mberg conveyed his impulsive involvement with the subject through openly urgent brushwork which no longer had time to deal with painstaking minutiae', comments Cork. B?mberg made further journeys to Spain, especially to the spectacular landscape of Ronda, which inspired some of his greatest works. His new paintings excited little interest, however, among museum directors, critics, dealers and collectors. He remained not only financially insecure, but overwhelmingly depressed. Bomberg was deeply humiliated at officialdom's rejection of his request for employment as a war artist during the Second World War. The sole commission he received was to make a painting of an underground bomb store, which he expanded into a series of striking paintings and drawings. After the war, he taught for a time at the Borough Polytechnic, conveying his ideas about the nature of painting to such distinguished students as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Perennial financial problems prompted him in 1954 to make his home in Ronda, where the cost of living was much lower than in London. There he produced some of his most memorable landscapes and figure paintings. Illness finally overtook him, clearly aggravated by his neglect by the British art establishment, and led to his death in 1957. Regarding the reasons for this neglect, Cork observes that 'English taste of the period... could not stomach the wild and ardent feeling in Bomberg's 281</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes work... His belligerent and fiercely independent personality also contributed to the difficulties he confronted. Even his most faithful allies admitted that B?mberg was in some respects his worst enemy. Incapable of ingratiating himself with those best placed to further his career, he often alienated dealers by stating his opinion with an aggressive bluntness which they found insulting.' Those of us who had the privilege of knowing B?mberg would surely agree with that. Cork spent some eighteen years researching Bomberg's work, during which period he had the unstinting help of Lilian B?mberg and her daughter by her first marriage, Dinora. Lilian's memories of her life with B?mberg were crucial to the writing of the book, Cork acknowledges. When widespread recognition of Bomberg's great achievements did at last arrive?due chiefly to the tireless, self-sacrificing efforts of Lilian to promote his work?it came too late, alas, for B?mberg himself. The book is profusely illustrated, reproducing for the first time many of Bomberg's important paintings. It is a magnificent tribute to a great artist who, in the face of continual setbacks, resolutely pursued his individual vision. Barry Fealdman</page></plain_text>