This paper will focus on the diasporic British painter David Bomberg (1890-1957) whose work I was introduced to art school in the mid-1970s by the British/Jewish expressionist painter Arnold Van Praag. I argue that Bomberg’s Polish and Jewish background, in other words his cultural difference excluded him from belonging to the British art establishment dominated by those from the upper social class. The quote contained in the title ‘possibly a great artist’ is how the influential art critic Herbert Read described Bomberg in 1919 and it highlights his reluctance and that of other writers, critics and curators to recognise Bomberg’s achievement.
This paper will focus on the diasporic British painter David Bomberg (1890-1957) whose work I was introduced to art school in the mid-1970s by the British/Jewish expressionist painter Arnold Van Praag. I only later learnt the full extent of his shameful treatment and exclusion from the story of British modernism since I had hitherto regarded him, quite erroneously as an ‘establishment artist’.
I argue that Bomberg’s Polish and Jewish background, in other words his cultural difference excluded him from belonging to the British art establishment dominated by those from the upper social class. The quote contained in the title ‘possibly a great artist’ is how the influential art critic Herbert Read described Bomberg in 1919 and it highlights his reluctance and that of other writers, critics and curators to recognise the achievement of Bomberg.
The paper will present a narrative of Bomberg’s experience that highlights his exclusion and other relevant information about his life. I will then outline the critical and theoretical reception of his work by critics such as Berger (1979), Sylvester (1967) and Cork (1987) to support my claims.
Bomberg was born in London in 1890 to parents of Polish Jewish heritage who had fled the anti-Semitism rife in Eastern Europe at the time. His parents had settled in London’s East End two years prior to his birth and he grew up in poverty that produced a sense of inferiority in him. It was to affect Bomberg as well as his friends, painter Mark Gertler and poet Isaac Rosenberg, to the extent that ‘their personality in young adulthood was permanently scarred by the deeply inbred conviction of failure’.
Prior to the first World War Britain’s cultural climate could be described as narrow and ethnocentric and this was challenged later by the advent of European modernism whose advocates at home were The Camden Town Group, led by Walter Sickert and the Bloomsbury Group of artists, designers and writers. There were two groundbreaking exhibitions of European modernist painting in London 1910 and 1912, organised by Bloomsbury Group members, critic Roger Fry and writer Clive Bell. The latter exhibition was held at the Grafton Galleries and included work by Cezanne, Matisse, Derain, as well as works by British artists Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Bell’s accompanying essay laid the foundations of a new formalism; the exhibition was to unite the British avant-garde in its move towards the School of Paris. In particular, Bell’s ideas about ‘Significant Form’ based on the capacity of form to produce emotion were foregrounded.
Bomberg won a scholarship to the Slade, an art school viewed as more progressive than others, but not immune from accusations of conservatism. Fellow students included C.R.W. Nevinson, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, Jacob Kramer and Edward Wadsworth. It has been documented that many Jewish students were confronted by snobbery, anti-Semitism, isolation and physical assault due to their cultural difference from the other students (Cork 1987 p.30).
The avant-garde movement of 1912 also included the Futurists and Italian artists Francis Picabia and Gino Severini who had already exhibited their radical work in London. That same year Bomberg produced a work entitled ‘Vision of Ezekiel’; it is a work that combines new modernist pictorial language with Old Testament narrative. This work demonstrated the tendency of diaspora aesthetics to combine seemingly incongruous form and content, a mixture of host and pariah art, to construct new pictorial forms. A similar combination of techniques and references occurs in his 1913 works ‘Jewish Theatre’ and ‘Ju-Jitsu’.
Bomberg met T. E. Hulme, the poet and speculative philosopher, at the Rebel Art Centre that was established by painter Wynham Lewis in 1914. Hulme’s lecture to the Quest Society in 1914 was based on Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy that promoted the geometric as the modern style. This new formalism was characterised as a spiritual force that privileged neo-classical order and the tactile over the sensory, and as such was in opposition to the perceived romantic inclination of modernism.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, Bomberg was astute enough to align himself with Lewis and Hulme even though Bomberg’s subject was rooted in Jewish East End imagery and contained biblical references to his faith.
Bomberg’s Jewish heritage did not stop Lewis visiting him in his East End studio in 1912. Whilst Bomberg was flattered by Lewis’s attention since Lewis already possessed a radical reputation, he mistrusted Lewis from this very first meeting as he was an artist of a different culture and class (Cork 1987 p.43). This early mistrust proved warranted; Lewis completely ignored Bomberg during the period 1920-50 when he most needed support.
Whilst Bomberg aligned himself with Lewis’s aestheticism, he might not necessarily have appreciated Lewis’s authoritarianism, elitism and reactionary leanings. Lewis viewed the individual creative artist as a civilising influence on those lowly aspects of British culture he deemed as unruly and degenerate, otherwise known as ‘the crowd’. He wrote, ‘The tripartite profile of ‘the Quaker, the homosexual and the Chelsea artist points to a group “diseased” by pacifism, decadence and dilettantism’ (Normand 1992 p.94). His anti-democratic stance, combined with allegiances to known anti-Semite poets, Ezra Pound, Roy Campbell and T. S. Eliot left Lewis open to accusations that he too possessed fascist sentiments.
Bomberg’s sense of belonging to this group of radicals was tenuous: whilst he was a member of the avant-garde prior to the war as he was associated with Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, he was, tellingly, never a member of them. A major work of this period is Bomberg’s ‘In the Hold’ (1913-14). Bomberg had also witnessed modernism first-hand as travelled to Paris with sculptor Jacob Epstein where he met Picasso, Derain and Modigliani, and organised the Jewish section of ‘Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1914.
Bomberg’s first solo show took place in 1914 at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea. The Pall Mall Gazette described the fifty works as ‘Mr. Bomberg’s Futurist Bombshells’. In the catalogue, Bomberg states, ‘I appeal to a Sense of Form’. Bomberg sought to stretch the boundaries of Bell’s concept of ‘Significant Form’ not simply in terms of pure form but to achieve ‘an intenser expression’ (Cork 1987 p.78). In doing so, Bomberg positioned himself with Lewis in opposition to the Bloomsbury Group, but simultaneously sought to extend the reach of his work beyond the parameters of Vorticist form. The term ‘intenser expression’ referred to the synthesis of Bomberg’s radical pictorial method with his humanist, pariah aesthetic, arguably diasporic approach.
The Italian poet, polemicist and Futurist F.T. Marinetti was impressed by Bomberg’s work and he attempted to recruit Bomberg as a Futurist but was unsuccessful since Bomberg’s humanist perspective was at odds with the aims of Futurism, its political affiliations and its celebration of the machine age (Cork 1987 p.90).
In 1915 Bomberg exhibited at the Dore Galleries with the Vorticist Group led by Lewis and founded in 1913.This group also included Dismorr, Etchells, Gaudier-Brzeska, Roberts, Saunders, Wadsworth and Lewis. Cork describes Vorticism as being:
poised half-way between the kinetic dynamics of Futurism and the static monumentality of Cubism and rejecting French preference for domestic studio motifs as firmly as it replaced the Italians’ rapturous worship of mechanical imagery with a more detached classical approach (Lucie-Smith 1988 p.14).
Bomberg had become the Vorticist group’s most original artist, even though he was never officially a member. Hulme describes him in The New Age: ‘his work is certainly much more individual and less derivative than the work of the members of [the Vorticist] group’ (Cork 1987 p.91).
However Hulme considered that the work’s figurative origins were of no importance, ‘the only element of the real scene which interests the artist is the abstract element’ (Cork 1987p.93) Thus Hulme praised ‘The Mud Bath’ (1914) that was based on the abstraction of Schevik’s Vapor Baths in the East End. Significantly the depiction of the baths that were commonly used in Jewish East End life was not acknowledged.
When war broke out, Bomberg enlisted and experienced trench warfare first hand. Sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska was killed at the front, as was Hulme in 1915, and Rosenberg the poet in 1917 – the year Bomberg could leave the front since his term was officially completed.
Short of funds, Bomberg applied to the Canadian War Memorial Fund as Lewis, Nevinson and Wadsworth had all received commissions to paint murals depicting the war. Still suffering from trauma Bomberg’s first attempt at depicting the war marked a departure from the abstraction of the ‘Mud Bath’. ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company (First Version)’ produced during 1918-1919 was rejected by the Canadian War Memorial Fund as being ‘ a festive patchwork ‘ of ‘writhing forms’ (Cork 1987 p.119), despite the criteria requesting ‘ a diversity of pictorial responses’. The rejection was a crushing blow for Bomberg; his wife was left to negotiate a second attempt to secure the artist fee since it would only be paid if the artwork was accepted. Bomberg was forced to compromise his ideas concerning abstraction in the second version, which was duly accepted in 1919. The anxiety this project wrought, together with post-traumatic stress syndrome, was a powerful blow to Bomberg’s mental health. According to his wife Alice ‘the committee’s rejection of his first version came as an awful shock to David, a shattering personal blow, and he didn’t really recover his earlier strength ever again’ (Cork 1987 p.119).
The end of the war and the commission marked a turning point for Bomberg. His independent approach positioned him outside any group and this exacerbated his isolation. Just as British art was embracing the move towards total abstraction, the human presence which was always included, even in the most abstract of Bomberg’s work, became more pronounced. Thus it appeared that the development of Bomberg’s art was out of step with the trajectory of British art.
In the works on paper that Bomberg produced in 1919, the human presence is prominent, though often angular and, fits almost too tightly into the design to the extent the people appear trapped. This sense of confinement might possibly represent his state of mind. Herbert Read praised Bomberg’s series of pen and ink drawings that were displayed at the Adelphi Theatre that year and said,
the ideas are always good. Perhaps the fact that Mr Bomberg has ideas is his most remarkable peculiarity. And the way he will explore all the possibilities of an idea in a series of drawings seems to indicate that his mind is of that objective, scientific sort that alone is capable of wonders. Mr Bomberg is possibly a great artist (Cork 1987 p.130).
The praise ‘the fact that Mr Bomberg has ideas is his most remarkable peculiarity’ now appears as patronising and Read is most reluctant to see Bomberg as a great artist, rather ‘Mr Bomberg is possibly a great artist’
Read’s identification of the ideas in Bomberg’s work recognises that British modernism couldn’t altogether shed ideas in the pursuit of pure form and his remarks on Bomberg’s stubborn empirical approach also are arguably negative. So much so, that the whole tone appears to diminish Bomberg’s achievement. By praising Bomberg in this manner it is as if Read can’t bring himself to be outwardly positive; instead his praise is laced with indifference, even hostility.
The ‘scientific’ methods that Read alludes to would emerge as a rigorous approach in topographical approach to his Palestine work. This opportunity to paint en plein air was funded by Zionist groups aided by Muirhead Bone. Bone was also a committee member on the war memorial commission and he attempted to sell a painting for him. He advised Bomberg to seek his own individual voice,
I’m still sure that that you should face the trouble and difficulty of realism and not take refuge in short cuts! … I should go back to a franker naturalism if I were you…You should attack an important thing and stick to it (Cork 1987 p.140).
Bomberg’s propensity to ‘attack an important thing and stick to it’, as Bone suggests is a feature of his practice throughout his career. Bomberg may well have viewed Bone’s comments as good advice since his Palestine paintings were employed a tenacious scrutiny of place. Though not a committed Zionist, Bomberg had few reservations about aligning himself with the movement as money was in short supply (Cork 1987 p.166). The Palestine paintings accurately depicted landmarks and were well received by dignitaries, but he was criticised concerning his commitment to the Zionist cause; ‘Bomberg, though entirely Jewish, was strongly anti-Zionist’ (Cork 1987 p.166) and ‘Bomberg has no Jewish sentiments whatsoever’ (Cork 1987 p.167). Bomberg’s predicament is thus characteristic of a diaspora artist: in Britain he was a despised outsider, yet in Palestine he was also seen as an interloper, Jewish but not Zionist.
Bomberg had his doubts about the Palestine paintings; he vowed never again to put himself in a position whereby he had to please patrons. At this point he stopped painting, since the negative criticism from fellow avant-garde artists impacted upon him to the extent that he felt his work lacked direction.
The paintings produced from a trip to the ancient city of Petra in 1924 demonstrate a tactility, free handling and exuberant use of colour that is characteristic of his later work. Bomberg’s subsequent trips to Cuenca and Ronda in Spain built on the experimental and increasingly outrageous handling of paint seen in the Toledo paintings. The onset of civil war in 1936 found Bomberg back in Britain again looking for commissions, and writing letters to old friends or anyone that could help progress his career.
Bomberg’s financial situation, always difficult, was again perilous and he eventually petitioned Kenneth Clark at the National Gallery to request funding. He also offered some works to the Tate Trustees on two occasions, but both appeals were unsuccessful (Cork 1987 pp.232-234).
During another difficult period (1935-41), Bomberg was again abandoned by Lewis and associates such as Herbert Read and Sir John Rothenstein; these were, it should be noted, men of considerable influence in the art world. In addition to the barrier of cultural difference, Lewis’s circle of friends also included known anti-Semites such as poets T.S.Eliot, Roy Campbell and fascist Oswald Mosley. ‘At the very least Lewis was a fellow traveller in fascist politics until the very late years of the 1930’s’ (Normand 1992 p.167). As such, this goes some way to explain why Lewis ‘cold-shouldered’ Bomberg.
At the outbreak of war in 1939 Bomberg again failed to obtain a substantial war artist commission, despite having once more petitioned Clark, in his new capacity as chair of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) during the years 1940 and 1941. Bomberg wrote to the committee again in 1942 aware that lesser known or established artists had gained commissions. The committee responded by commissioning him to paint a bomb store; this relatively minor project involved just 14 days on site, but it was to revitalise his practice. The WAAC rejected the painting Bomberg submitted, but chose three drawings instead. If this rejection wasn’t enough, Bomberg then had to fight to get these drawings exhibited along with other commissioned work at the National Gallery. This act is indicative of the art world’s reluctance to recognise him; it served as a further reminder that Bomberg didn’t belong.
Bomberg’s final years were racked by depression and humiliation at the hands of the art establishment and were punctuated by periods of inactivity. In 1951 he was excluded from theFestival of Britain exhibition and more significantly, omitted entirely from Herbert Read’s influential 1951 monograph Contemporary British Art. As I have argued, Bomberg’s contribution to early British modernism was significant and warranted his inclusion based on his early geometric work alone. The omission was a further humiliation for Bomberg, since Read had included minor figures such as Bateson Matson, F.E. McWilliam, and Karin Jonzen amongst others – many of whom were members of the London Group, as was Bomberg.
That the minor figures Read included in his monograph are now viewed as insignificant in art historical terms and Bomberg is widely viewed as a significant artist is telling. In Contemporary British Art Read does however mention the contribution of Jewish American sculptor Jacob Epstein, and his isolation:
There has never been a retrospective exhibition of Epstein’s work on a grand scale, and there has been a tendency among critics (of which I feel guilty myself) to set his achievement apart, as something which might be dealt with as a separate issue, but which is essentially irrelevant to the main development of art in our time (Read 1951 p.20).
These words could have been written about Bomberg. By seeing the achievement of Epstein as ‘a separate issue’ and irrelevant to the trajectory of modernism Read’s comments highlight his narrow and ultimately limited vision. Significantly, Read accuses both himself and fellow critics of failing to include certain artists on the basis of their being conceived of as ‘a separate issue’. As such, this admission makes Bomberg’s omission from Contemporary British Art all the more pressing.
As indicated earlier, Bomberg had been critically appraised by a number of esteemed critics, including Read, since his early geometric work. It is arguable therefore that the omission fromContemporary British Art was not an error of judgement, rather it was an intentional gesture based on Bomberg’s ‘cultural difference’ – the artist was not of Read’s culture or class and was excluded on this basis.
Towards the end of his career Bomberg painted ‘Tajo and Rocks, Ronda’ (1956). This example of his late work combined a paradoxical need to represent landscape naturalistically but also to use paint metaphorically (and sensuously) resulting in an awkwardness of representation. On his last painting trip to Spain, Bomberg’s health deteriorated. His final paintings ‘Vigilante’ and ‘Hear O Israel’ depict Bomberg in shrouds, undoubtedly making explicit reference to Bomberg’s Jewishness: they are dramatic, severe and abrupt images of a neglected painter, perhaps ‘echoing the Jew’s ancient plea to be saved by God’ (Cork 1987 p.307) in an act of redemption.
Art critic Peter Fuller argues that the works describe ’his own self-effacement’ (Fuller 1993 p.121). This ‘self-effacement’ mimics his artistic and cultural self-effacement and perhaps foreshadows his death as an unrecognised artist. These two particular works were exhibited at the Walker Galleries as part of the last Borough Bottega show. Writer and critic John Berger, a champion of migrant artists was alone in his praise from the New Statesman in March 1955:
He is an important and a very mature painter who should have a retrospective exhibition at the Tate. The emotion, manner and content of his pictures are completely integrated (1979 p.309).
Bomberg’s final humiliation was the ‘Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticism’ exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1956 curated by Sir John Rothenstein: it portrayed Bomberg as a minor player in Lewis’s Vorticist Group, even though he was never a member, as I have indicated. Furthermore he was represented by a single figurative drawing, ‘The Jewish Theatre’ (1913), rather than by one of his abstract major works such as ‘In the Hold’ (1913-14). Although Lewis cannot be blamed for this misrepresentation in this instance, Rothenstein was later apologetic. However, this apology proved hollow since the latter’s own survey, the three volume Modern British Painters, also failed to include Bomberg: an omission only rectified in a subsequent reprint thirty years later.
The anxiety and stress caused by this exhibition contributed towards Bomberg’s poor health and hastened his death in 1957. He spent little time in the studio in his final year; instead he drafted letters to The Times defending his contribution to British modernism, but the letters were never sent and he died a bitter and hurt man. ‘They have killed me‘ (Cork 1987 p.319), Bomberg remarked of the medical charges on the boat that brought him back to England from Spain – these remarks could well have referred to the British art establishment. His obituary in The Timesreferred simply to his ‘independence of vision’ (Cork 1987 p.319).
In 1958 the Arts Council of Great Britain mounted a survey show with the purpose of redressing Bomberg’s contribution to the British art world. But they too failed to include key early works such as ‘The Mud Bath’ (1913-14) and the ‘Bomb Store studies’ from 1942. It was not until 1967 that Bomberg’s reputation as a key figure in British modernism was finally established in the exhibition ‘David Bomberg 1890-1957, Paintings and Drawings at the Tate Gallery’.
Bomberg’s Critical Reception
John Berger wrote for the New Statesman between 1954 and 1959; he was one of few critics of the 1950s to recognise the significance of Bomberg’s contribution to British painting. He argued that the artist’s handling and materiality of paint resulted in an ambivalence towards the nexus between form and content, thereby challenging the categories of abstraction and naturalism in painting. Berger referred to Bomberg’s idiosyncratic ‘curtain of paint’:
The curtain is absolutely indistinguishable from the real forms themselves. It is no longer a hanging. It is a garment. The grasses, the rock surfaces, the gravel become the dress of the place, and beneath them the body of the place appears to be capable of stirring and moving like a figure (Berger 1979 p.95-96).
Given Berger’s predisposition to advocate for those who were marginalised he championed the cause of migrant artists including Bomberg. By contrast, Herbert Read ignored Bomberg precisely because of his cultural difference, rather than his figurative bent. Lucie-Smith suggests that Read may also have been influenced by Bomberg’s absence from the country for long periods (Lucie-Smith 1988 p.39).
Although there may be some currency in this view, Bomberg’s early innovative art should have been enough for him to cement a reputation as a radical modernist. However, for the art establishment, Bomberg was not British enough. It could be argued that while Lucie-Smith recognises Bomberg’s achievement, albeit reluctantly – he barely conceals his contempt for Bomberg’s predicament. Writing thirty years after Bomberg’s death on his Palestine paintings he remarks,
To those in thrall to the School of Paris, such as Fry and Bell, Bomberg’s work seemed dour and abrasive – as dour and abrasive as his occasional petitions to those who might be in a position to help him (Lucie-Smith 1988 p.39-40).
In some ways, traces of the discrimination Bomberg faced in his lifetime are present in this critique; he was excluded from their art world because he did not belong. In other words, Lucie-Smith arguably reiterates the ‘cold-shouldered’ approach shown to Bomberg by the art establishment at large.
Berger’s Marxist leanings contrasted markedly with the formalist and Romanticist approach favoured by critics such as David Sylvester, John Spurling, Andrew Forge and Francis Spalding. David Sylvester, a notable art critic, argued that Bomberg fits the heroic artist category, as he took an intuitive approach to painting. The Kantian notion of the self-critical creative artist underpins the Romantic construction of the artist as hero. Bomberg’s narrative fits quite neatly into the romantic conception of the artist: he lived outside society, worked in poverty, was not acclaimed in his lifetime and suffered for his art. From this perspective, Sylvester privileges the heroic, the autonomy of art as the artist’s struggle, but simultaneously neglects to elucidate the isolation and displacement Bomberg encountered, thereby depoliticising the migrant’s position and absolving the art establishment of any guilt.
In addition, Sylvester’s formalist analysis focuses on the technical innovations of Bomberg’s late style, as it relates to the very process of seeing and in invoking the relationship between man and nature (landscape) and leans towards a Romantic analysis:
The structure is not presented pat; it unravels as the spectator looks at the painting, and he re-lives the process of discovering it. For the painting is not a painting of structure, but a painting of the discovering of a structure. The discovering process seems to have relied on empathy more than on vision. It is as if the painter, in contemplating the landscape out there, had felt he was feeling his way over it with hands and feet and knees – here climbing laboriously up a steep rock face, there zooming into a valley with the slope in control of his limbs. It is as if the contact were so close and so sustained that the painter had gone beyond being in the landscape and become the landscape. Looking at his picture I scarcely know if I am facing the scene or facing outwards from it (Sylvester 1967 p.10).
By 1964 Sylvester recognised that Bomberg was a major painter, on the basis of both ‘his early work and his late work’ (Cork 1987 p.320). From the perspective of formalism alone, Sylvester is correct. Hulme (1914), Read (1919) and Berger (1954) agree that Bomberg’s early geometric work was stylistically more innovative than his contemporaries.
Nevertheless Sylvester is wholly dismissive of Bomberg’s middle period. This is in some ways an omission, as the topographical paintings of Jerusalem are intense and vigorous, and the Petra work is clearly a precursor to Bomberg’s late painterly practice. However, Fuller sees Bomberg’s Palestine paintings as ‘Ruskinian’:
There at least, he would be able to find traces of the divine in the rocks and sands – that he might, in Palestine of all places, stumble upon the key which would enable him to paint pictures which, though rooted in the impressions of the senses, would reach beyond them to give material expression to a transcendent reality (Fuller 1993 p.119).
Sylvester describes the ambivalence in Bomberg’s painting as being hinged on the relationship between content and form, thereby exposing deficiencies in purely formalist critiques of painting: to consider art as self-referential and autonomous is problematic since the pursuit of ‘pure form’ is itself a response to naturalism in painting. Sylvester’s argument does not link this ambiguity to Bomberg’s displacement, and so ultimately depoliticises his isolation. Richard Cork, also a notable art historian, approached Bomberg’s work through the traditions of Formalism and Romanticism. Cork reads Bomberg’s paintings of Moorish settlement in Andalusia as a metaphor for the painter’s personal struggle.
Sometimes he saw Ronda as a paradigm of strength, an invulnerable structure carved out of the austere rocky bluff which supports it. On other occasions he stressed its volcanic aspect, revealing how the dizzy plunge of the rift…Both extremes are locked in a prodigious balance, as if resolving – for the moment at least – a similar conflict within Bomberg’s own attitude to life (Cork 1987 p.209).
Cork’s Guardian review of ‘David Bomberg –The Later Years’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery is entitled ‘On the edge of the chasm’. Once again Bomberg is depicted as the heroic artist suffering at the edge of the abyss for his art. Such analyses restrict commentary to the artist as an individual:
But in the most complex of his pictures, Ronda’s resolute fastness is wielded to the threat of impermanence so vigorously that we can no longer be sure where stability ends and vertigo begins. Both extremes are locked in a titanic balance, as if resolving – for the moment, at least – a similar conflict within Bomberg’s own personality’ (Cork 1979).
Therefore by suggesting that the development of Bomberg’s painting was based on personality, Cork is inadvertently close to what I am arguing – that is, Bomberg’s diasporic personality contained this balance and tension that Cork describes. Cork’s review resembles Sylvester’s in terms of writing about form, and the ambiguity of mark making in Bomberg’s late work. However Cork‘s review is steeped in Romantic notions of the artist. Thus whilst Cork (1987) documents Bomberg’s early life, anti-Semitism, snobbery and exclusion faced at the Slade, his acclaimed geometric works and the catalogue of setbacks and humiliations he endured as an outsider in Britain until his death, he fails to acknowledge the roles played by Lewis, Read, Clark or Rothenstein in Bomberg’s neglect. Thus Cork was seen as an ‘apologist and chronicler’ for the Vorticists (Lucie-Smith 1988 p.14), because of this failure to explore the political allegiances of Lewis and his associates, or the presence of anti-Semitism in establishment circles.
Bomberg produced work of an aesthetic sensibility at odds with the trajectory of British modernism and his diasporic perspective offers an ambivalence that is missing from host artistsof the time. Few have noted the effects that his Polish/Jewish background may have had on his art, and particularly on the reception of that art. Even though Bomberg was the most radical of pre-war avant-garde artists in Britain, his practice was never just about new pictorial form; it emerged from a humanism embedded within his Jewish history and which was at odds with the brash, machine age aesthetic of the Vorticists or Futurists.
Bomberg’s work challenged the boundaries of figurative and abstract, form and content, derivative of the type of European figurative modernism that countered the move towards abstraction. In other words, Bomberg’s diaspora aesthetic resulted from the tension between paint as representation and paint as ambiguous and ambivalent. Such expressionist figuration was out of synch in terms of mainstream practice in the late 1950s.
Bomberg was well received by the establishment on several occasions: Roger Fry wrote of the rhythm of ‘Kermesse’ (1912), as ‘Dionysiac’ (Cork 1979 p.43). In a catalogue introduction to an exhibition of Bomberg’s work, critic John Spurling noted that in 1919 Herbert Read had written that he was ‘possibly a great artist’, in 1928 The Times commented upon his affinity with Cezanne, and in 1946 Bryan Robertson considered that he had by this time ‘achieved greatness’ (Spurling 1979). Nevertheless, Herbert Read’s praise appears non-committal, as ‘possibly’ implies some reluctance by the critic to recognise Bomberg’s achievement ahead of British artists such as Wyndham Lewis. It is an indicator of a residual anti-Semitism that arguably influenced some of the British establishment, including Lewis (Normand 1992), and others of his class and social milieu who flirted with such extreme views.
In The Listener in 1949, Lewis claimed that Bomberg, ‘ought to be one of the half-dozen most prominent artists in England’ (Spurling 1979 ex.cat). Lewis’s phrase ‘ought to be’ is as ambivalent as Read’s ‘possibly’, thereby suggesting a somewhat circumspect approach to Bomberg’s work. By 1949 Lewis and Read were important players in the art world. It could be argued that Lewis’s ‘ought to be’ was a tacit admission of his own role in Bomberg’s isolation since there had been no contact between the two former associates since 1920. Read’s description of Bomberg as ‘possibly a great artist’ is similarly limiting, but is also perhaps an overdue, albeit reluctant, acknowledgment of Bomberg’s achievement. Throughout his career he was reminded of his status as an outsider in an art world that selected its members and assisted with their successes based on culture and class.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the ephemeral nature of these accolades, Bomberg was never acknowledged by the art world per se; he struggled against poverty and lack of recognition for most of his life. For example, when Bomberg died in 1957, the Tate Gallery in London only owned two of his minor works that had been purchased in 1923. Furthermore, Herbert Read’sContemporary British Art and John Rothenstein’s Modern English Painters failed to include any references to Bomberg’s contribution to British painting.
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Normand, T. (1992). Wyndham Lewis the artist: holding the mirror up to politics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
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