Young Bomberg and the Old Masters @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery regularly uses room to house interesting and quirky, FREE exhibitions. To get there, go up the grand main stairs, then left up a spur of the stairs and then, on the mezzanine, as you come to the shop, turn left into a relatively small exhibition room.

This one claims to be setting the early work of the radical Modernist, English painter David Bomberg (1890–1957) against some of the Old Master paintings in the National’s collection which we know inspired him. We know this because he recorded his enthusiasm for Old Masters at the National in letters and diaries and the exhibition quotes his sister and girlfriends who he would drag, at the drop of a hat, along to the National to show them his latest passion.

Young Bomberg and the Old Masters

Except that, surprisingly, and despite the explicit title, this isn’t what the exhibition actually does.

There are only two Old Master paintings in the exhibition: Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man in oil is hung next to Bomberg’s chalk self-portrait and they do indeed share a certain intensity, Bomberg’s confrontational direct gaze modelled on the Florentine’s.

Portrait of a Young Man by Sandro Botticelli (1480-5) © The National Gallery, London and Self Portrait by David Bomberg (1913-14) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London / © The estate of David Bomberg

And a crucifixion from the studio of El Greco which is interesting, but mostly for the strange moulded nature of the background, which reminded me of the Surrealists.

As for the rest of the Old Masters, the final wall label has a list of precisely five other Renaissance paintings which apparently influenced Bomberg – but they’ve all been left in situ in their original rooms and you have to go on a treasure hunt through the National Gallery to find them:

  • Michelangelos The Entombment (room 8)
  • Veronese’s Unfaithfulness (room 11)
  • Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (room 58)
  • Antonio Poliaullo’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (room 59)
  • Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (room 61)

Bomberg’s sketches and paintings

No, the real thing about this exhibition is much more interesting: they’ve brought together half a dozen of Bomberg’s greatest early paintings and Bomberg’s preparatory sketches for them. Setting them next to each other is fascinating.

Who was David Bomberg?

Bomberg’s early paintings were among the most excitingly dynamic and abstract created in the first flush of modernism just before the Great War. Visitors to his first solo show in 1914 thought he had completely rejected the entire existing tradition of painting in order to create dazzling abstract works like the justly famous Mud Bath, painted when he was just 23.

The Mud Bath by David Bomberg (1914) © Tate

Alongside Mud Bath are hung three masterpieces from his early, Modernist period and next to each one, a preparatory sketch:

  • Vision of Ezekiel (1912, Tate) inspired by the sudden death of his beloved mother Rebecca and the theme of the resurrection in the Old Testament
  • Ju-Jitsu (c.1913, Tate) a geometrical and fractured painting based on his brother’s East End gym
  • In the Hold (c.1913–14, Tate) where dockers appear to be unloading migrant adults and children from a ship

Take In The Hold. Here’s the preparatory sketch:

Study for In the Hold by David Bomberg (about 1914) © Tate

From this sketch you can clearly see that the objects ‘in the hold’ of the ship are human beings. You can see the ladder coming up out of the hold on the right, and two particularly obvious hands being waved up out of the hold in the centre middle. You can just about make out that the figure on the right is holding a horizontal child up over his head. The whole thing depicts the none-too-gentle removing of immigrants from the hold of an immigrant ship, maybe the kind of old steamer that brought Bomberg’s parents, Jewish immigrants, to London in the 1890s.

Already the curved human figures have been transformed into semi-abstract geometric patterns. Not only that but the clashes of angles and geometries powerfully convey a) the nervous energy and b) the sheer cramped claustrophobia of the ship’s belowdecks.

Now look at the painting he made from this sketch.

In the Hold by David Bomberg (1913-14) © Tate

A masterpiece, in my opinion.

The most fundamental aspect of it is the grid of 64 squares which make it seem like a kaleidoscope. Next that he has painted the rectangles and other angular shapes between the figures with as much power and brightness as the figures themselves. The result is that everything is presented on the same plane, with no depth or perspective, a wonderfully bright and brilliantly arranged puzzle.

It’s fascinating to keep referring back to the sketch, then coming back to the painting and seeing just how expertly he has elided, obscured and displaced what were already geometrised human figures, until they are barely legible.

I couldn’t ‘read’ the painting by itself at all, I had no real sense of it being a depiction of a scene. But looking at the preparatory sketch is like having the key to undo its secret. And then I found that switching from one to the other was like alternative points of view of a landscape, or like stereo – like seeing two aspects of the same view. There was a kind of visually dynamic pleasure to be had simply from turning from one version to the other and back again.

And you can do the same – compare the detailed sketch and then the final painting – of Ju-Jitsu and Vision of Ezekiel, two other powerful (if rather smaller) hyper-modernist works.

Conclusions

1. It’s a small room, but it contains four or five masterpieces which remind you how great 1914 Bomberg was. Mud Bath and In The Hold are enormous paintings which dominate the room. Amazing that so much energy and beauty can be contained in such a small space.

2. In small letters, the introduction wall label says this is a collaboration with Tate. When you look closely you realise that all bar two of the nine works by Bomberg are actually from the Tate collection. So it’s more than a collaboration, it’s an inventive way of airing and sharing some of their key Bomberg holdings, bringing them together with some of the sketches which are held at completely different collections. Well done to the curators!

3. Lastly, it is hard not to lament the way Bomberg abandoned his avant-garde style after the Great War, adopting a more figurative style and ‘rediscovering nature’ – sigh – just like many other artists did, contributing to the undistinguished blah of a lot of English art in the 20s and 30s. Hard not to see it as a sad falling-off.

Evening, The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda by David Bomberg (1935)


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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