David Bomberg 1890-1957


Marlborough Fine Art, London
Private Collection, UK


1964, London, Marlborough Fine Art, David Bomberg 1890-1957, cat. no. 12
David Bomberg was born into an impoverished Jewish-Polish immigrant family in Birmingham in 1890. He started his career in 1905 as an apprentice lithographer, and later followed courses at Westminster School of Art (1908-1910) where he studied under Walter Richard Sickert. From 1911 to 1913 he attended the Slade School of Fine Art, at the same time as Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson and Stanley Spencer, partially funding himself through art school by working as a life model. Already hugely influenced by experimental art in Europe, particularly Cubism and Futurism, Bomberg travelled to Paris in 1913 and in this year he was expelled from the Slade. Bomberg was loosely affiliated with many avant-garde groups in London including Roger Fry's Omega Workshops and the Camden Town Group but his angular, bombastic, violent paintings in the two years leading up the war reveal his proximity to Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist Group with whom Bomberg exhibited in 1915, although Bomberg turned down an invitation to officially join the group. Several masterpieces from these early years are held by the Tate Gallery, London including In The Hold (1913-14) and The Mud Bath (1914).
Bomberg served in the trenches during World War I, and lost both his brother and his close friend and fellow Slade student Isaac Rosenberg to the conflict. In an attempt to recover from these losses and reinvigorate his career he traveled to Palestine with his wife, Alice Mayes, and stayed for four years from 1923 to 1927. The move was prompted by a commission from Leon Stein, Director of the Zionist Organisation in London, to produce paintings of the newly-formed Zionist pioneer camps. When Bomberg arrived in Jerusalem he was immediately stunned by its light and vibrancy in contrast to London, remembering later: ‘I was a poor boy from the East End and I’d never seen the sunlight before’. He recognised it was not the city he had seen depicted in Italian Quattrocento art, but rather what he described as ‘a Russian toy city – set against hills – patterned with walls encircling the Christian holy places – the horizontal lines accentuated by the perpendicular forms of the minarets’. Far removed from the modern metropolis of the machine age Bomberg had revelled in before the war, in Palestine he found something ancient and spiritual, a city bound into its surroundings and bathed in bright light.

Irrigation, Zionist Development, Palestine was completed in the first few months of Bomberg’s time in the country. It shows one of the Zionist settlements he was commissioned to depict. These unguarded, communistic settlements claimed contested territories near Jerusalem, breaking new ground through manual labour alone. Bomberg was supposed to display the developments populated by heroic labourers working for the Zionist cause, but he was instinctively resistant to blunt propaganda. Choosing a subtler path, he creates an eerily quiet scene emptied of figures, deserted and drenched in the searing sun. No human figures disrupt the smooth lateral layers of sun-bleached colour: dusky purples, blues, and creams quell any sense of activity. The artist applies paint thinly,
working tightly and precisely to delineate the structures with broader strokes to suggest the surrounding landscape. The resulting band of architectural features in the middle of the composition are dwarfed by the wave-like desert above and below them. By choosing not to represent the human activity before him, Bomberg sets our focus on the eternal and natural forces that increasingly began to preoccupy him in Palestine. He recognises with admiration the scale of the challenge faced by a group of people who, like him, were attempting to take first hold of a landscape.

This work proves an evocative document of Bomberg’s first impression of Palestine. The location would trigger an enduring fascination with landscape, structure and expressive mark-making – a noted shift from a practice previously dominated by the human body and mechanical fragmentation. Writing in 1964, David Sylvester argued for the intensity of Bomberg’s relationship with his surroundings: ‘It is as if the painter, in contemplating the landscape out there, had felt he was feeling his way over it with hands and feet and knees – here climbing laboriously up a steep rock face, there zooming into a valley with the slope in control of his limbs’. Irrigation, Zionist Development, Palestine witnesses the beginnings of Bomberg’s visceral study of this landscape, as described by Sylvester. As a gateway to a period of creative challenge during which he would develop a new style and produce
some of his most sought after works, it is a vital painting to any understanding of the artist’s subsequent development.