Emerging from the East End of London in the explosive decade before World War I, David Bomberg stood out among many other brilliant young students at the Slade School of Art. Among his peers was Isaac Rosenberg, the painter-turned-poet who died in the trenches just at the time when his verses showed extraordinary promise. Bomberg narrowly escaped death himself. As it was, the war changed him utterly. He entered combat a dedicated abstractionist, influenced by Wyndham Lewis and T.E. Hulme, not to mention Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Leger. The horrors of the war, particularly the havoc wrought by modern killing machines, devastated Bomberg’s faith in the love of technology underlying modern abstract art.
To recover his self-confidence, Bomberg, after the war, went to Palestine under the auspices of the Zionist movement. He went to record the life of the Jewish pioneers but discovered instead the power of the sun. Like Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh before him, Bomberg had gone South to experience a visionary landscape. The pursuit of its beauty led him later to Spain and back to England. His accomplishments as a landscape painter place him in the Turner tradition.
Though critics now hail him as one of the greatest twentieth century landscape artists, the tragedy of David Bomberg’s life is the neglect and near contempt he suffered in his later years, often at the hands of critics and dealers who knew of his reputation with Lewis, Hulme, and Ezra Pound in the 1920’s. With the present volume, Richard Cork, aided by Bomberg’s devoted widow, Lillian, has done much to correct this injustice.
David Bomberg belongs to that haunting circle of artists who spend their lives in relative obscurity but rise after death to greatness and belated fame. One thinks of Amedeo Modigliani and Vincent Van Gogh. Like these two masters of modern art, Bomberg was a man of passionate dedication and tortured temperament. Hardened by anti-Semitism and Edwardian snobbery, Bomberg became fiercely self-reliant and often offended those who might have helped him. Such behavior represented the self-destructive side of the same quality that finally proved the secret of his power—a courageous integrity.
Bomberg’s early experiments in Cubo-Futurist composition attracted the attention of Wyndham Lewis, the enigmatic and controversial founder of the famous Vorticist journal Blast: The Review of the Great English Vortex, which identified with Filippo Marinetti’s radical doctrine of Futurism and its glorification of machines and technology. In 1914, Lewis thought Bomberg, who was only age twenty-four at the time, one of the most vigorous new forces in English art. Richard Cork speculates that Bomberg could have been introduced to Ezra Pound in 1913 by either Lewis or sculptor Jacob Epstein. A bold experimental painting by Bomberg entitled Ju-Jitsu depicts what looks like a disintegrating chessboard, but in fact, it records with kaleidoscopic intensity a geometrical transformation of squares into triangles. The painting could well have inspired Pound’s poem “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess”: “This board is alive with light/ These pieces are living in form,/ Their moves break and reform the pattern.”
Lewis offered to include Bomberg’s work in Blast in July, 1914, but Bomberg hesitated. He feared domination by Lewis. In this resistance of patronage, he recalls William Blake, an artist whose obscure origins and defiant independence provided an important model. Like Blake, Bomberg had to remain true to his own “system” to avoid enslavement by another man’s ideas.
Bomberg’s reluctance to side with Vorticism and its celebration of machines and abstract design had much to do with his love of man and nature, a love that resisted the growing abstractionism of modern art. Although he felt constrained by representational conventions, Bomberg never lost his sense of the representational foundation or referent. When T. E. Hulme, another important supporter of Bomberg’s pre-World War I experiments, described a drawing of his as being uninterested in “figurative significance” (the phrase is Richard Cork’s), he was going too far. It is true that Bomberg was persuaded by Hulme’s insistence that a dedication to geometric line was essential in order to overcome the tendency toward impressionistic vagueness characteristic of the time. Nevertheless, although the legs in the painting Hulme admired look like cylinders, Bomberg was primarily interested in dramatizing human movement in abstract forms; he was not, as Hulme suggested, interested in completely deserting literal representation.
Why was Bomberg too committed to representation to forge ahead with abstraction and take his place with the Cubists and their followers, who were about to change the face of modern art? The answer is complex, but a look at Bomberg’s beginnings in the East End of London provides some clues. Cork writes that Bomberg belonged to a talented group of writers and painters who called themselves the Whitechapel Boys. Between 1900 and 1914, there was a cultural explosion in the East End. In the midst of poverty and a shabby urban congestion only a shade away from slum life, the first English-born generations of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland were beginning to make their mark in professional schools and literary and artistic...