thu 20/06/2024

David Bomberg, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester review - a reputation restored | reviews, news & interviews

David Bomberg, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester review - a reputation restored

David Bomberg, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester review - a reputation restored

Light shed on neglected British artist by a timely touring exhibition

David Bomberg: Evening in the City of London, 1944© Museum of London

During his time at the Slade David Bomberg — the subject of a major new retrospective at Pallant House Gallery — was described as a "disturbing influence". The fifth son of Polish-Jewish parents who fled the pogroms, he grew up at the turn of the 20th century in the East End of London where neighbours lived on top of one another and space was scarce.

One of a cohort of local kids to be funded through art school by the Jewish Education Aid Society at a time when European modernism was making an impact among London artists, Bomberg became part of a group known as the Whitechapel Boys who were in and out of each other’s homes, which also doubled as their studios.

There was always something of the rebel about him. Living in Jerusalem between the wars he had himself smuggled into the Armenian church to witness and paint the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet during Easter week, and towards the close of World War Two, during which he served as a firewatcher, he scaled St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside to paint a striking portrait of London, bedraggled, smoke-dour and unbowed.David Bomberg: Ju-Jitsu © TateYet throughout, rigour was always at the heart of his work — sometimes even the reason for his rebellion. Compositional discipline instilled early in evening classes under Walter Sickert (among others) remained with him throughout his life. In a pair of sketched studies of Jerusalem hung in the hallway the tell-tale grid sliced with diagonals governs compositional flow, and in the first room a gridded sketch of his brother Mo’s gym sits next to the piece for which it was a study: Ju-Jitsu, 1913 (pictured above © Tate). In this striking painting, the grid is retained and becomes the impetus for the transformation of figures into varicoloured angles, for wherever a continuous shape is struck through by a line, Bomberg changes paint shade.

The exhibition is carefully curated to provide a chronological overview of Bomberg’s output. His style varied enormously over his lifetime and cohesion is achieved through a series of self-portraits pulling us back to the artist himself, his style and present sense of himself (pictured below, Last Self-Portrait, 1956 © The Wilson Family). From confident young agitant to ageing master, we follow the effect of his painterly revelations — the extraordinary Barges, 1919, the result of painting outdoors, and the experience of sunlight of the Middle East and Spain breathing colour into his palette in the third room.

David Bomberg: Last Self-PortraitWe also see the grip of his disillusionments and failures — of which there were many. Pairings of paintings run through the exhibition and in At the Window, 1919, we see clearly how a reworking of the naturalistic Woman Looking Through a Window, 1911, closes down perspective and encloses the sitter — an apt metaphor for his experience of the war. Sappers at Work, 1918-19, In the Hold, 1913-14, and The Mud Bath, 1914, are notable absences from a particularly fruitful period, but preparatory studies for each are on display charting the artistic process behind these bold, well-known works.

Bomberg died at St Thomas’s in London after being moved from his beloved Ronda where he had attempted to set up a painting school. His figurative style and teaching influenced a new generation of artists, among them Frank Auerbach whose paintings hang in adjacent rooms, but he died in relative obscurity. Nevertheless, his Times obituary hailed his independence of vision and within a year the Arts Council had organised a retrospective. Having since fallen out of favour, this boy from Whitechapel is restored to his rightful place in the history of British art by a timely exhibition.


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