The spirit in the mass
Ok, let’s come clean – despite my fanaticism for Victorian art, my favourite work from the Laing Gallery is a 1946 oil painting of Bideford Bay in Devon by early/mid-20th century British artist David Bomberg. Horizontal streaks of a bluish emerald green, redolent of malachite, represent the land, with the water a dragged layering of blue, grey and white against which a narrow window of sunset glows buttery yellow. Above, though, Bomberg’s brushstrokes suddenly change direction, clustering and billowing upwards into storm clouds of bruised mauve and steely blue. No, I haven’t done it justice, but this painting, not overly ambitious in scale or subject, employs colour in a way that both translates and transcends the exterior world, exemplifying its creator’s desire to find “the spirit in the mass.” And now we can see it in context, because from 17 February to 28 May, the Laing (in partnership with the Pallant and Ben Uri galleries) hosts an exhibition exploring all phases and styles of the artist’s career. The life of David Bomberg (1890 – 1957) comes tantalisingly close to offering an archetypical tale of the Jewish working-class boy who, by dint of natural ability and deep conviction, makes good in the world of Modern Art. Unfortunately, despite a spectacular start, most critical acclaim and high prices arrived only after the artist’s death. Perhaps his several changes of style made it difficult for commercial galleries to categorise him (unlike his contemporary Paul Nash, for example, he couldn’t be conveniently labelled “Surrealist”) while a dogged and sometimes abrasive individualism kept him outside most contemporary exhibiting groups, but it remains remarkable that his dynamic art was so consistently undervalued and ignored.
And yes, the lad did have conventional skills – while training at the Slade he won awards for drawing – but he was pulled towards the formal simplifications of Cezanne and the fractured complexities of Cubism; hovered on the edge of Vorticism; and negotiated the fraught relationship between representation and abstraction. As a result, he produced paintings like no-one else’s. The Vision of Ezekiel is a grand statement of Modernist identity, turning the Old Testament resurrection of dry bones into a maddened mechanical dance of skin-toned stick figures jerking into a life over which they have no control – perhaps a comment on the death of his mother in 1912. Other works combine, in varying proportions, frenetic Futurist energy with themes of Jewish urban experience – Jewish Theatre, The Mud Bath, Ju-Jitsu. He met Picasso on a trip to Paris, helped organise avant-garde exhibitions and in 1914 held a one-man show in Chelsea, where the ostentatiously bright and experimental The Mud Bath was hung outside the gallery and reputedly frightened passing horses.
The patriotic demands of war, however, don’t encourage artistic experimentation. While Bomberg’s experiences of trench warfare were predictably traumatic, his one major commission was a professional disaster. Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company was commissioned as a piece of heroic realism, so it’s hardly surprising that his geometric Futurist take on the subject was rejected and had to be re-painted in the approved manner. Despite a flurry of activity immediately after the war, there’s a growing feeling that Bomberg had been sidelined. Not finding money or employment, he accepted a commission from the Zionist Organisation to visit Palestine and paint local landscapes and settlements. Trying to balance the topographical detail demanded, against a growing desire for simplification, he began developing a new feeling for the qualities of oil paint, for an expressive breadth of brushstroke and a tangible weight of texture. The brilliant sunshine too was a revelation, and his return to the dingy tones of an unwelcoming London only triggered a desire for different scenes under different skies. Spain and Cyprus, Russia, Cornwall and Dorset would all eventually offer alternative tonalities and atmospheres, but his paintings sold poorly, largely ignored by public collections and private buyers. His only official work in World War II was a modest, secretive commission to depict the underground bomb store at Burton-on-Trent. The results were largely rejected, as was his plan for a great memorial panel. Ironically, he may never have known that in 1944 the store exploded disastrously – a scene he surely should have painted.
Even during the war there were consolations – new flower paintings, explosive in their own way, and rich, grainy charcoal drawings where London becomes a stage-set of defiant desolation. After the war he proved a profoundly inspirational teacher at Borough Polytechnic, escaping whenever possible to those landscapes that inspired his later palette of layered subtlety, muted and vibrant by turns. Since Bomberg’s death in 1957 his reputation has risen steadily as books and exhibitions such as this one make his work more available. His idea of “spirit in the mass”, whereby the alchemy of art allows the material qualities of paint to evoke a mysterious, satisfying sympathy, certainly remains as resonant as ever.
Bomberg: an exhibition marking the 60th anniversary of David Bomberg's death.Laing Art Gallery, 17 February – 28 May. laingartgallery.org.uk