27th November 2019 – 1st March 2020
David Bomberg, 'The Mud Bath', 1914 © Tate, London. Image courtesy of the National Gallery's website.
Opening and closing this small display of David Bomberg’s oeuvre with works of the Old Masters firmly cements this exhibition within the usual realm of The National Gallery. The exhibition seeks to connect art lovers of all kinds, by linking an avant-garde futurist to the Old Masters, opening doors and connections between varying styles, and potentially getting an artist footfall that they might not receive from fans of the rest of The National Gallery’s collection.
It does seem fitting however, that Bomberg would be compared to the likes of El Greco and Botticelli, both artists rejected styles of the day, the latter existing outside of the movement of Quattrocento painting and Renaissance art. Bomberg himself firmly fitted into the artistic outsider profile. Despite financial difficulties in his early life, these did not preclude him from attending art school, and he received help in part from the established painter John Singer Sargent, who spotted Bomberg drawing at the V&A in 1907. However, despite having backing from an established and renowned artist, and possessing an unmistakable talent, Bomberg was eventually expelled from the Slade School of Art in 1913, due to his move away from the conventional attitude to art at the time. He set a precedent for his ongoing rebellion within art, and his futuristic paintings in ‘Young Bomberg and the Old Masters’ show this subversive and boldly non-conformist attitude. His trance-like pieces lose you in a maze of colour and surface, and the lack of depth within the angular paintings, particularly in ‘The Mud Bath’ (1914), is evocative of his intentions as an artist, to ensure he has ‘stripped it all of irrelevant matter’.
Arguably much of the mechanical imagery present in his works, even when depicting the human form, such as in ‘Visions of Ezekiel’ (1912), stems from his experiences in the First World War, as Bomberg was a private in the British army following persistent financial strain. Whilst the focus of this exhibition is upon the links between Bomberg and the influence of the Old Masters in his work, an underlying theme throughout is his depiction of the First World War. The poetry of his friend, Isaac Rosenberg, resonates with some of the pieces displayed - whilst Rosenberg played with Romantic, pastoral forms to evoke an atavistic, highly critical view of war, Bomberg’s paintings evidently build on the style of the Old Masters, subverting the skilled form to put forth a new message. This desire of Bomberg to build upon the works of well-respected artists who have come before him is elucidated in this exhibition, particularly in the inclusion of an early version of ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi’ (1918-19). There is an immediate comparison to El Greco’s ‘Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane’(1597-1607), the final piece in the exhibition, a clearly similar construction with disparate sections depicting a myriad of interconnected scenes. Whilst the colour palettes differ considerably, the viewer can see a similar cohesion within both pieces, El Greco opting for muted, earthy tones, and Bomberg injecting vibrancy into his composition, a brighter depiction of a similarly disparate and fragmented scene with soldiers present in both.
What is odd about ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi’, however, is that despite it being compared to a traditional masterpiece, and being only a first draft that was ultimately rejected, it very much feels like a final composition. Large and imposing, the lighter tones juxtaposing beautifully with the ominously navy walls of the exhibition space, Bomberg’s initial piece plays far more with the vitality and emotion within war. Like El Greco, choosing compositional depiction over one of accuracy and representation was evidently too transgressive, too much of a ‘Futurist abortion’ for the Canadian government who comissioned it. Not only does this exhibition seek to elucidate their usual audience traipsing through the gallery with a different art scene and movement, the inclusion of such a mesmerising first draft makes this an even more far-reaching experience. You can’t help but wonder what this piece was later reincarnated as, and explore further into this new realm - you carry art out with you from this exhibition, wanting more.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor