Ignored no more

David Bomberg was one of the great British artists of the 20th century but was always an outsider and suffered neglect for much of his career

David Herman

“The Jewish artists are starving,” wrote David Bomberg in 1938. “None of us can work, most of us receive one form of charity or another.” Bomberg was one of the great British artists of the 20th century but he was born and died in poverty and suffered neglect for much of his career.

Bomberg, a new exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, marks the 60th anniversary of Bomberg’s death. The show runs until February, and then tours to the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, and the Ben Uri Gallery, London, during 2018. Curated by Rachel Dickson and Sarah MacDougall, two leading champions of Jewish and refugee art, this major exhibition offers a chance to reassess Bomberg’s career.

Born in Birmingham in 1890, Bomberg was the seventh of 11 children of a Polish-Jewish immigrant leatherworker, Abraham and his wife Rebecca. In 1895 the family moved to the East End. Bomberg later studied with Walter Sickert and then became part of that “golden generation” at the Slade on the eve of the First World War, which included “The Whitechapel Boys”, a remarkable group of young Jewish artists, among them Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg and Jacob Kramer. All were Yiddish-speaking sons of immigrants from the Russian Pale.

“The Whitechapel Boys” were an extraordinary group. “In all cases,” wrote the critic John Russell Taylor, “the use of Jewish material coincides with the artists’ most experimental phase.” They had one foot in the old country and another in the new world of Edwardian London, tradition with a twist of Modernism.

Art historians tend to speak of Bomberg’s career in terms of artistic movements and form: his early relationship with Cubism and Vorticism, then a more figurative style in the 1920s, as he moved towards landscape and portraits, with a growing emphasis on colour and pigment rather than geometric form.

However, there is another way of looking at Bomberg’s career. He was always an outsider. He studied at the Slade but he was also a product of the Jewish East End. From the 1920s he spent much of his life living abroad: four years in Palestine, long periods in Spain, six months in the Soviet Union, time in Cyprus. He was attracted by the Mediterranean sun and landscape, but these places were also cheap for a poor artist.  

In between these trips Bomberg returned to Britain, where he faced neglect and poverty. When he applied to work as a war artist he was turned down twice. His last one-man show in London was in 1943. He taught at the Borough Polytechnic after the war, where his pupils included Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, but only because the more prestigious art schools rejected him. He has been described as “the most brutally excluded artist in Britain”.

David Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre, 1920, Ben Uri Collection © Ben Uri Gallery and Museum
Recognition came posthumously. The Arts Council held a Memorial Exhibition in 1958, there was a retrospective at the Tate in 1967, a major exhibition at the Whitechapel curated by Nicholas Serota in 1979 and at the Tate in 1988, curated by Richard Cork, and now this astonishing exhibition at Pallant House in collaboration with the Ben Uri.

Of course, art historians are right to talk of form and artistic movements. And some of the best critics, from John Berger and David Sylvester in the 1950s to Richard Cork today, greatly admired Bomberg. But we shouldn’t forget the neglect and poverty. This exhibition, full of major works covering more than 40 years, should make us ask why such a great artist didn’t receive the recognition he deserved in his lifetime.

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