The Outsider Genius: David Bomberg’s Self-Portraits

Richard Cork

One of eleven children born to a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants, the young David Bomberg hoped that his artistic talent and Slade training would be a ticket out of poverty. In spite of his extraordinary abilities, his engagement with many of the artistic movements of the early 20thcentury, and the legacy he left to British art, this proved tragically not to be the case.

The art historian Richard Cork has dedicated years of his career to demonstrating why Bomberg deserves to be considered alongside Britain’s greatest Modernist painters. In recent years, the artist’s reputation is finally receiving due acclaim. In this talk, Cork examines the astonishing power of Bomberg’s portraits to transport us into his inner world. In a sense, they constitute a biography of the artist which no critic in Bomberg’s lifetime was willing to write.

1 comment on “The Outsider Genius: David Bomberg’s Self-Portraits

  1. I love Richard Cork. Why isn’t he on tv? It is always Andrew Graham Dixon. Cork has such a sensitive delivery and never over the top. This is a moving piece on Bomberg.

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It’s fascinating to look at the self-portraits that Bomberg did throughout his life. He does them at crucial moments where he’s feeling very intensely about what is going to happen to him, what his future might be.

David Bomberg’s life was a tragic one. He was barely acknowledged by the art establishment while he lived, and when he died in 1957 he was penniless and forgotten.

These are brutally honest masterpieces of introspection that lay bare the emotional state of a man struggling to keep a grip of feelings that threaten to overcome him.

In a handful of so-often overlooked paintings, we are witnessing the astonishing talent of a ‘British Great’, who has only recently been given the recognition that he deserves.

Here he is as a young man. Looking very, very determined indeed, staring at his reflection in a little mirror. You get this sense of complete focus. This is a teenager who’d had a very difficult upbringing.

He was one of 11 children in a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants. They lived first in Birmingham, and then in London’s East End. Life was tough.

And you can see, in this little drawing that he does, how determined he is, how concentrated he is on the whole notion of not only being an artist but being as good an artist as he possibly can be.

For a young ambitious man, could success as an artist really be his ticket out of poverty?

Once he got to the Slade School of Art in 1911 he was catapulted into one of the most exciting innovatory periods in modern art. All over Europe, there were these extraordinary avantgarde movements, these ‘-isms’, that were just jumping up.

And Bomberg was just fascinated by the whole notion of becoming a revolutionary himself.

He’s using stripped-down, mechanical looking forms to construct an abstract vision of a radically changing world. But one of the defining catastrophes of the twentieth century was to change all that.

War breaks out in 1914, and Bomberg, like so many other young men of his generation, suddenly finds himself launched into this nightmare. His contemporaries are dying all around him.

In 1917, Bomberg shoots himself in the foot, and soon afterwards he leaves the army altogether.

His painting would never be the same again.

In the early 1920s, he was commissioned by the Zionists to go to Jerusalem. This city, drenched in sun, was a dramatic change of scene for a man used to the darkness of London’s east end.

For Bomberg, abstract painting now belonged to the moment of mechanized war and pain. He changes style, carefully observing every detail of his new surroundings and recording them with naturalistic precision.

It’s an extraordinary artistic gear-shift. And his engagement with the landscape evolved even further during a subsequent stay in the Spanish city of Toledo.

He’s still looking closely, but realism and exactitude are dissolving into something more free and expressive.

Looking at the self-portrait he painted back in London in 1931, you can see how much Bomberg has changed. The keen eye for observed detail is there, but so too that newly found painterly expressiveness.

It’s surrounded by an absolute feast of colour. And the movement of the brush itself somehow has a kind of energy of its own.

You can detect a mixture of emotions in this painting. On the one hand, he looks quite tired and stressed. On the other hand, he’s full of determination, he’s full of that energy.

He’s saying, well, where do I go from here? How do I make a life out of art?

He’s fortunate enough to go back to Spain in the 1930s. There he was in Ronda, where Bomberg was at his best. Nature becomes a living convulsive force that sweeps up all within it. They are among the most vivid landscapes he ever produced.

Once more Bomberg’s life was upended by conflict. The Spanish Civil War suddenly erupted and nobody was safe. He and his family had to flee from Spain as fast as they could.

When Bomberg painted this self-portrait in 1937 he’s in a state of despair. He’d had to come back to London, where was being cruelly rejected by the art establishment. He’d even offered some of his paintings to the Tate Gallery and they turned them down.

When you look at this painting, you realize here is a man who is haunted. He’s reduced his body and his clothes to just a series of very, very free-flowing abstract marks. There’s something almost ghostly.

1937 was a time of intense introspection for Bomberg. He decided to concentrate on looking at himself, thinking about where he was, his quandary, his despair, and he painted a whole series of self-portraits, one after another.

Bomberg still found it extraordinarily difficult to sellhis work. So, he accepted a post as a teacher in London at the Borough Polytechnic.

His students found him immensely liberating. Many went on to become significant British artists, including Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.

But Bomberg himself continued to find it difficult to make ends meet.

The last self-portraits are deeply revealing and tell us a huge amount about how Bomberg was feeling towards the end of his life.

There’s a painting called Talmudist, which refers in its title to the Jewish law.

Bomberg is still very aware of the fact that he is Jewish, that Jewishness is important to him, but it’s much more than that – it’s very personal indeed, it’s very dark, it’s almost as if he feels that he is being enveloped by darkness.

The paint is handled in a very free way indeed. You’re not quite sure where the figure begins and the area around it ends.

They seem to be merging with each other. And there’s the notion that something’s not going to last, something’s not going to survive.

And in fact, you feel the more you look at it, that Bomberg suspected that he might actually be extinguished before he finished painting it.

A very disturbing picture.

Bomberg was lucky enough to return to Ronda, the place that he loved above anywhere else. But he ran out of money. His hopes of establishing a school of painting there foundered and he became ill, seriously ill. When he paints this self-portrait, he is actually dying.

It’s an extraordinary achievement that the manages to do anything. Let alone a painting as profound as this.

The more you look at it, the more you realize that actually this figure, although it might seem solid when you first glance at it, seems to be sort of losing its substance altogether – to the point where it’s melting into the background.

This a painting actually about losing your life and he realizes it. It’s very, very sad indeed. But at the same time, he’s showing his paint brushes, which he’s clutching. It’s Bomberg still saying to himself, I’m carrying on. I’m asserting myself.

He wants to continue as an artist for as long as possible. A man near the end of his life actually telling us the truth.

Very soon after he died in London in 1957, people did actually realize that he had been tragically neglected. Within a year there was an exhibition mounted in London which was a revelation to many people who went there.

The legacy of David Bomberg is formidable. I think the more you look at Bomberg’s self-portraits the more he actually draws you in to what it was really like to be him. And he deserves to be fully understood, enjoyed and appreciated.

With thanks to…

Ben Uri Gallery & Museum

The Estate of David Bomberg

Pallant House Gallery

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Bridgeman Images

British Museum

Getty Images

Imperial War Museum

National Galleries of Scotland

National Portrait Gallery, London

Pond5

 

Music

Audio Network

Original Composition

 

Full list of images shown:

Self-Portrait with Pipe

David Bomberg, c.1932

© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 6653

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

David Bomberg

Photographer unknown, n.d.
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Last Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1956

© Pallant House Gallery

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Talmudist

David Bomberg, 1953

© Pallant House Gallery
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Self Portrait (David)

David Bomberg, 1937

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1931

Private Collection
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1909

Private Collection
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Children in Brick Lane, Whitechapel, East London, 1907

Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1909

Private Collection
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

La Section d’Or exhibition

Galerie Vavin-Raspail, Paris

Unknown Photographer, 1925

Public Domain

 

Salon d’Autome, Salle XI

Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, Paris

Unknown Photographer, 1912

Public Domain

 

Dynamism of a Cyclist

Umberto Boccioni, 1913

Public Domain

 

Wrestlers

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1910-1915

The British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Racehorses

David Bomberg, 1913

© Ben Uri Gallery and Museum
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

The Mud Bath (1914) by David Bomberg at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice Italy

Marco Secchi / Alamy Stock Photo

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

(HENI Talks animation)

 

WW1 US Soldiers in Combat

VUSschneider / Pond5

 

World War 1, Soldier Trenches

VUSschneider / Pond5

 

Battle of Passchendaele

Imperial War Museum

© IWM 158 (Reel 2)

 

Jerusalem City and Mount of Ascension

David Bomberg, 1925

Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

From Toledo to the Sky

jorgemolina / Pond5

 

Cathedral, Toledo

David Bomberg, 1929
Private Collection

Supplied by Ben Uri Gallery & Museum
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1931

Private Collection

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Aerial view of Puente Nuevo Bridge, Ronda in Spain

Multi-bits / Getty Images

 

The Gorge, Ronda, Spain

David Bomberg, 1935

Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art, mima

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Civil War in Spain

Sherman Grinberg Library / Getty Images

 

Self Portrait (David)

David Bomberg, 1937

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

David Bomberg

David Bomberg, c.1937

© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 5345b

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1937

National Galleries of Scotland

Purchased (Knapping Fund) 1967

© The Estate of David Bomberg

 

Artists’ Discussion (Dr Joseph Bard, David Bomberg)

Felix Mann, 1943

Felix Man / Picture Post / Getty Images

 

Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic

Photographer unknown, 1947-1948
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic

Photographer unknown, n.d.
Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Frank Auerbach in his Studio in Camden, London

Eamonn McCabe, c.2000

Eamonn McCabe / Getty Images

 

Leon Kossoff

Mark Gerson, 1972

Bridgeman Images

 

Talmudist

David Bomberg, 1953

© Pallant House Gallery

Courtesy of the estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Tajo and Rocks, Ronda (The Last Landscape)

David Bomberg, 1956

© Pallant House Gallery

Bridgeman Images

Courtesy of the Estate of David Bomberg ©

 

Last Self-Portrait

David Bomberg, 1956

© Pallant House Gallery

Courtesy of the Estate of David Bomberg ©

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