Curator’s Introduction: Young Bomberg and the Old Masters | National Gallery

Curator’s Introduction: Young Bomberg and the Old Masters | National Gallery

Good afternoon,
and welcome to the National Gallery to our lunchtime talk today and welcome to those of you
watching online as well. My name is Christina Bradstreet. I’m the Courses and Events Programmer
here at the Gallery, and I’m really delighted to introduce
our guest curator, Richard Cork, who has really curated
a corker of an exhibition for us in our Room 1 show, ‘Young Bomberg and the Old Masters’. Richard is an award-winning art critic, historian, broadcaster
and exhibition curator. He wrote a major monograph
on Bomberg in 1987 and he also curated the Tate’s first solo exhibition
of Bomberg in 1996. So, you can imagine
we’re thrilled and very grateful that Richard has curated this exhibition, exploring how Bomberg’s
rebellious youthful works drew inspiration
from the Old Master paintings here at the National Gallery
that he admired so much. It’s been fascinating to see
how these Old Master paintings helped Bomberg to leap forward, creating his own audacious language
of early modernist art, and this is the subject
that Richard is going to talk about today. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. OK, well, if you’re ready for this, I’m going to take you back to July 1914, just before the First World War. And the young Bomberg, who was only 23 at that time, and had left the Slade School of Art
one year before, he got a major solo exhibition at a gallery called the Chenil Gallery,
which was a very big one. Over 55 works on display in his show, which is pretty unusual
for a dealer’s gallery, even today, and a huge amount of attention
was paid to it, in particular to the most recent painting, which was… …exhibited not inside the gallery, but, are you ready for this? Outside the gallery, hanging, kind of,
in the King’s Road on the street. So, not only passers-by
would kind of go, “Oh, what’s that?”, but, apparently, according to
Bloomberg’s recollections in later life, horses… …carrying vehicles down the King’s Road
would go… …when they saw ‘The Mud Bath’, kind of like, what was it doing
swinging in the wind, I cannot imagine. And, apparently,
there were Union Jack flags all the way around
the frame of the picture, which I suppose makes us realise
that the colours within ‘The Mud Bath’ do have a kind of Union Jack feel
to them, don’t they? So, there’s something quite
sort of patriotic going on here. But, at the same time,
it’s such a radically near-abstract picture that an awful lot of people,
you can well imagine, can’t you, just got very, very angry indeed and stormed around his entire show, and said, “What on earth
is this young man doing making all this rubbish?” I mean, I can remember even when I was
growing up after the Second World War, a lot of British people
would get very angry going to the Tate and seeing modern art. But goodness knows
what it was like in 1914. It was a very, very explosive period,
indeed, but, of course, a lot of young people saw this show and gazed at ‘The Mud Bath’ and realised that here was somebody
who was quite extraordinary, very, very radical,
trying to do something new. And ‘The Mud Bath’ takes its title from Schewzik’s Vapour Baths, which was a very well-known destination in Brick Lane in the East End. A lot of people used to go there and relax and get very hot
and have a wonderful time. Hence, I suppose, Bomberg’s decision to make the bathing area in this picture a kind of hot red colour. So, I suppose we have to think of these semi-mechanistic figures
that he’s painted here as bathers who are
enjoying themselves, relaxing. And in a way, that chimes, doesn’t it,
with the style of the picture because he’s stripping it of all kind of irrelevant detail. He’s simplifying the forms
in a very daring way. And I suppose that chimes
in a way, doesn’t it, with the whole notion
of losing your own weight, casting off stuff from your own body when you go to a vapour baths. At the same time, though, that’s not the only meaning
of this picture. It’s a complex painting and that’s why it rewards
examination at length because… …it’s almost no accident, is it, that it was painted just before
the beginning of the First World War. I mean, I do believe that art
can be prophetic sometimes. And, in a curious way, quite a moving way, really, we can look at this painting
with hindsight, knowing what the First World War would do, and realise that it does have
an aggressive element to it, that these figures might even be fighting rather than bathing
and caressing each other. And the very title, ‘The Mud Bath’, I mean, if you had to think of three words that would sum up
what the First World War was like for a lot of people in the trenches, that title, ‘The Mud Bath’, wouldn’t be entirely inapplicable,
would it? So, it’s quite uncanny, in a way, that Bomberg manages to do all this in the space of one extraordinary picture. Having said that, even Bomberg, even this rebel, even this young East Ender, who had grown up very largely in the Whitechapel area of London, he was actually born
in Birmingham in 1890, but when he was a young boy he was brought to Whitechapel
by his parents, who had emigrated from Poland as a result of anti-Jewish persecution
in that country. And he was one of 11 children, can you imagine? Growing up in a very small flat quite near the Whitechapel Art Gallery
in London. And I don’t quite know
how he managed to do what he did, but he had huge help
from his mother, Rebecca, who realised when Bomberg was very young,
when he was still at school, realised that this guy
was incredibly talented and managed to get from the flat next door a little space. And she told all her children,
“OK. This is David’s space, OK? This is like his studio and you must let him work there because it’s very, very important to him
to be able to work and he obviously can’t do it
anywhere else in our tiny flat.” So, from that point of view, Bomberg was very, very lucky indeed
to have such a supportive mother. And he was fascinated
by going to the museums of London and looking at Old Masters. He got a reputation at school, ordinary school as opposed to art school, when he was a boy, he got a big reputation
because he copied a Holbein. And, at the same time,
he was looking at paintings like this. I was told by one of his siblings that this was
one of his favourite paintings in the National Gallery, that he would come and see it
again and again, and talk about it. It is, of course, a Botticelli. ‘Portrait of a Young Man’. We don’t actually know, frustratingly, who the identity of the sitter is, but it may even be
a self-portrait, actually. We may even be looking
at Sandro Botticelli himself, which is a rather fascinating thought. I think one of the reasons
why Bomberg liked it was because of its frankness, the fact that this young man
is looking at, very, very directly,
very, very intensely, almost at us. You feel that even when
you see the painting itself, which is not all that big, is it,
it’s a modest sized picture, and it could easily be overshadowed
by a huge Old Masters hanging nearby. But if you look at it,
as it were, directly, you can sense that. And at the period
when Botticelli painted it, the whole notion of doing
a full-face portrait like this was quite new and quite revolutionary,
in a way, strangely enough. And, of course,
Bomberg responded to artists like that, who in their day were
as rebellious, as radical, as Bomberg himself wanted to be in the early 20th century. But with the Botticelli here, he went one stage further. He actually wanted to do a self-portrait based very much on the Botticelli. It’s a kind of homage, in a way, to this painting that he loved so much
in the National Gallery, and we’re very lucky
that it’s ended up, this drawing, so much of his early work is lost, but this particular strong drawing is now in the National Portrait Gallery. So, it’s kind of quite accessible to us. And if you compare the one with the other, you can see the kinship between them even though, of course,
there are huge differences as well. And one of the kinships is to do with what Bomberg is wearing in this drawing because he asked his father, who was a leather craftsman, he said, “Dad, I want you to… Could you design me a shirt
that I could wear while I draw myself
in the Botticelli pose? And I want the shirt to echo, as it were, the Botticelli garment.” So, there’s that element
to this picture, as well. It’s a real homage. And I’m so pleased that we’ve been able
to bring these two pictures together at the beginning
of the exhibition upstairs. Another story which was told
by his first wife, who was, in her own way, a radical. She was a revolutionary young dancer called Alice Mayes. This was at a time when dancing
itself was being revolutionised. The Russian ballet, in particular, was coming over, not only to London, but elsewhere in Europe, and amazing everybody with the way in which
it just completely refigured the whole notion of how you move and what kind of music, of course,
you use as well. And Alice remembered later on in life, after she’d left Bomberg, she remembered this key moment, when, soon after they met in 1914, he said, “OK, let’s hop on a bus and I’ll take you down
to the National Gallery, but I’m only going to show you
one painting.” And so off they went. And he was very, very firm with her,
according to Alice. Once they entered the National Gallery,
he kind of said, “No, no, you mustn’t look at
anything else, nothing else at all. I just want you to come with me
to this one painting, OK?” And they arrived at this Michelangelo, ‘The Entombment of Christ’. And… he just sort of said, “This is the one, this is the painting
that means so much to me.” And Alice didn’t go
into any detail about that. Fair enough. It was only a recollection. But the fact that she did remember that
is hugely significant and makes a lot of sense because something
about the diagonal thrust of the main figures in this picture would quite clearly
have appealed to somebody who was planning to paint ‘The Mud Bath’. And I think the fact
that it’s a very unfinished painting, it juxtaposes, doesn’t it, passages
which are pretty much complete, and Michelangelo seems to be
very satisfied with them, with areas where he’s scarcely begun, particularly on the lower right side. And the reason for that is that while he was working
on ‘The Entombment of Christ’, he got a very kind of bossy order from a very powerful patron, who said, “You must come immediately
and start work on a much, much
more elaborate commission.” And he abandoned it. That’s the reason why it’s unfinished. It wasn’t something that he himself
felt dissatisfied with. I think it’s a shame, in a way, that he wasn’t able to finish it, but, in another sense, there is something totally fascinating about seeing a painting, as it were, that Michelangelo is still working on. It gives it a kind of freshness, in a way. It’s almost as if we’ve come
into Michelangelo’s studio, isn’t it, and found him doing his current work. It makes us realise
how he painted as well, the technical side of it, and there’s one
particularly fascinating detail on the upper right. I’ll do it with the laser here. On the upper right,
you see this thing here, which quite a lot of people
don’t really notice, understandably enough,
when they’re looking at the painting, but that is the tomb on the hillside waiting to have Christ’s body
deposited within it. And if you look at the shape of the tomb, with the figures around it, that in itself has a curious parallel,
doesn’t it, with the shape of ‘The Mud Bath’ itself. So, it’s quite fascinating. There are all sorts of ways in which Michelangelo affected Bomberg, even when he was painting
something as rebellious and new and 20th-century and modernist as ‘The Mud Bath’. It wasn’t just Italian art that Bomberg got inspiration from when he looked around
the National Gallery. Here’s a very boisterous painting
by Poussin. It’s got a rather difficult title, ‘A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term’. The term is, in fact, a word
for the statue on the right-hand side. But there’s something about
the exuberance of the figures here, the vitality of them, particularly these ones down here
in the bottom right corner, who are really kind of letting it go, and even the sort of funny,
little mythological children here. Everybody is caught up in a kind of dithyrambic rhythm which spreads across the picture. It’s a very infectious painting, one of Poussin’s liveliest pictures. And I have no proof
that Bomberg looked at this, but funnily enough, about a year ago, just before Leon Kossoff died, he had an exhibition at
the Piano Nobile Gallery here in London. And Kossoff was one
of Bomberg’s pupils later in life. And I could not believe my eyes because there was a section
of this beautiful exhibition devoted to copies that Kossoff made
in the National Gallery, and one of them was
of this Poussin painting. So, that sort of confirmed my belief that Bomberg would have been excited
by the Poussin when he was a young man. And if you look at this drawing, this study for his first major
radical painting in 1912, ‘Vision of Ezekiel’, this is the most elaborate study for it, you can see, can’t you,
some of the figures here have that kind of
Poussin-esque feeling about them, letting themselves go, stretching their arms up,
even when they’re kneeling, leaping, leaping through space. And I think that’s the kind of spirit that Bomberg would have enjoyed when he looked at the Poussin painting. ‘Vision of Ezekiel’ was
an extraordinary endeavour for Bomberg, and he did it while he was at the Slade. His teachers wouldn’t have approved of the style that he adopted here at all. They wouldn’t have understood it. In fact, he had a lot of trouble
with his teachers, most notably with Professor Tonks, who was a very admirable artist
in his own right. But Tonks didn’t really get
what was going on with young modernist art all over Europe. And we just have to think
back to that period just before the First World War, 1910 to 1914, an incredibly explosive period for art, all over Europe in particular. All these young artists
were banding together into groups and movements. Many of them calling themselves “ism”,
it’s “ism” this and “ism” that, and wanting to kind of blow up, really,
aesthetically everything that they’d been taught
in school about tradition and about
what you should and should not do. They were rebelling
against the 19th century at its most stuffy and rule master-ish. And here’s Bomberg doing just that with the ‘Vision of Ezekiel’, based on this extraordinary biblical story where Ezekiel discovers
a valley full of dry bones and is then told by God to watch and listen and witness the fact
that all these dry bones suddenly come back to life. So, it’s a kind of major, major miracle. And it has a very poignant meaning,
I think, for Bomberg. I mean, here I’m only speculating. It’s not based on any information
I’ve received, but it is true to say that Bomberg chose to work on this major painting in the same year
that his mother Rebecca died very suddenly at the age of 48, and he was very, very profoundly affected by the loss of his supportive mother, as you might well imagine. A very, very loving woman and a very understanding and sympathetic and open-eyed woman, too. So, I think in some ways, perhaps, ‘Vision of Ezekiel’,
the notion of figures, dead figures bringing back to life, gave him some kind of comfort at a time when he was coping
with the loss of his mum. And at the same time, I think it is Italian art, I mean, I did show you
that Poussin just now, but I think time and again
it is the Italians that really must have excited
Bomberg’s enthusiasm and interest. Here, of course,
is the ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, looking actually much brighter nowadays than it would have been
when Bomberg saw it and, indeed, when I saw it
when I was a teenager and came to the National Gallery
for the first time. Paintings like this
were very often covered with a much duller vanish, and, indeed, just kind of dirt
of one kind or another because they hadn’t been
cleaned completely. Partly because there was
a sort of reluctance for a long time to actually go about
that kind of cleaning. And I remember vividly the moment when this painting was cleaned and put back on view. I went very early on. It was like the first or the second day of the rehanging of ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’. And I went in, and it was an extraordinary atmosphere because people were just sort of gasping
at this very, very well-known painting as to how much
it had been transformed by cleaning, to my eyes, in a very, very exciting way. I absolutely loved it. But in the middle of this crowd of people, there was this academic lady. I don’t know which university
she was from. But she was so angry
that she turned round, it’s quite an extraordinary event, she turned around and she said, “If any of you have come here today expecting to see
Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, you are all completely wrong!” And then she marched out of the building
in a kind of absolute furious huff. And some people were like that, actually. Some people resisted the whole
sort of transformation by cleaning. But to me, the cleaning of ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’
was a revelation. It made me realise how daring, even more daring than I’d thought, Titian had been with colour. And also, of course, it intensified
the energy of these figures as they do their various things
with their limbs across the surface of the picture. So, I’m pretty sure that Bomberg
would have responded to this in a very keen way, even though it wasn’t as bright when he saw it as a young man
as it is now. Here’s the final painting
of ‘Vision of Ezekiel’, and I’ve just used the word bright. It is very surprising even today,
isn’t it, to actually look at what Bomberg did with his drawing and realise how much
he’d transformed these figures, some of whom are grasping each other
in a state of disbelief. They’re like saying, “Oh, my God.
You’re alive and I’m alive too.” And, “Can I touch you?”
“Yes, you are alive.” “You’re warm, you’re not cold,” All that kind of feeling, which is planned very carefully
in this picture. And you can see the importance of the grid
that Bomberg draws across it to help with his planning process. But, of course, colour plays
a fantastic part, doesn’t it, in the final picture, almost to the point where he pushes it to an abstract extent. You know, having the drawing
for ‘Vision of Ezekiel’ makes us realise
all kinds of figurative things which we may not quite realise
if we just saw the painting itself. In particular, this wonderful moment here,
where this figure is raising her, possibly, arms up to hold a child,
there’s a little child here. Can you see? Just there. Who’s raising his or her arms too. There’s a tremendous amount
of arm movement and leg movement. It’s all about limbs really,
isn’t it, this painting, but these colours are quite extraordinary. These very, very light bright colours
in particular, framed as they are by much darker colours
around the edge to give the whole painting
a kind of structure. But you can well imagine,
can’t you, how… …Slade teachers would have looked
at this and not really understood what on earth
the young Bromberg was on about. Yes, I’ve just talked about figures
who are clasping each other with huge emotion
about being brought back to life. Botticelli, which, of course,
we’ve already seen was one of Bomberg’s favourite painters. ‘Mystic Nativity’ is one
of his absolute masterpieces. We’re so lucky to have it here in London. It’s the most wonderful picture,
it’s full of detail, full of different kinds of scenes, some of them airborne, some of them, of course,
underneath the shed there. And, in particular,
from the Bomberg point of view, I think it’s these figures here who are hugging each other,
clasping each other, with the same kind of intensity that Bomberg shows in this picture here. It may seem very far removed stylistically from the ‘Mystic Nativity’, but I think… It fascinates me, and I think a lot of other people
that I’ve talked to who’ve seen the show had the same sort of feeling
that it’s good to think about how even the most rebellious artists, even the artists who… …just kind of turn away
from the whole notion of tradition and Old Masters and all the rest of it, even they can learn from and be excited
by somebody like Botticelli, who in his own day
broke all the rules as well. And here, of course, is the study for one of the most extraordinary
paintings in the exhibition upstairs, ‘In The Hold’. And this is a crucial drawing, actually, because it shows us so much,
in a figurative way, about what Bomberg was trying to do. We get it, don’t we,
we get the fact that it’s dominated by, above all, this figure
who’s stretching his arms out here and here, almost right across the picture. And he’s helping, he’s helping people like this. That’s a head
and these are upstretched hands, helping them up from the hold of the ship via this quite sturdy,
a mercifully sturdy, ladder. that’s helping them to clamber upwards. And this figure here, his arms, if you see these arms here,
there are two arms, he’s actually holding a much younger figure, a smaller figure, and helping this figure to either escape from another hold or be put into a higher section
of the ship itself. It’s not entirely clear because Bomberg
is playing with perspective by looking down quite a lot. There’s quite a lot of an aerial view,
isn’t there, going on here. But what is so vividly conveyed is the energy and the almost
sort of claustrophobic intensity of taking figures out of a ship. And I think it must be very affected
by the fact that Bomberg lived
quite near London Docklands in an area, the East End, which was full of migrants who had quite recently, in fact, come over from various countries, very often in the hold of a ship
in the most woebegone way, and just sort of hoisted up and dumped very often
on the side of the dock with very little idea
of where they were to go, where they were even, and what on earth they were going to do
in terms of their future life, coupled with this feeling that they had at least escaped
from a native country which might well have ended
their lives one way or another. And Bomberg, of course, had parents who had had
a similar kind of experience themselves, so it must have meant
a huge amount to him. He also had friends in the East End, like fellow artist Mark Gertler, who was at the Slade with him, and his family had had
a similar kind of experience too. So, it was very much in their minds. There was a whole cluster of them
called the Whitechapel Boys who got together and helped each other, several of whom went to the Slade,
thank goodness, so they were able to fulfil themselves. And in terms of what is going on
in ‘In The Hold’ with these gestures, these hands, these arms reaching out, OK, it’s tough, OK, it’s rough, but at the same time
there is love there as well, there is support, there is humanity. And Bomberg may well have responded
to this painting, which, of course,
at the moment is receiving a huge amount of special attention within the National Gallery
exhibition regime. And you have here, don’t you, these wonderfully expressive hands
reaching out, particularly that one,
which is more or less, isn’t it, in the centre of the painting, and outstretched arm, gestures. Yes, she’s very much
looking after the baby, seated on the ground and supporting him. It’s full of details like that, which I think Bomberg
may well have responded to. And here is the final explosive painting. What a transformation from the drawing. And it really is amazing, isn’t it? Because this looks quite sober and austere compared with the painting,
which, once again, rather like the ‘Vision of Ezekiel’
which we saw earlier on, Bomberg kind of transforms
with these amazing colours. I mean, he’s a real colourist, isn’t he? And not only that, he’s using the grid
which he applied to the drawing. He’s using that as a major factor in turning the whole painting
into a series of… …if you count it up, there are 64 little abstract paintings, almost, within this picture. I mean, the overall effect,
of course, is not abstract, particularly when you look at the drawing and realise that it’s called
‘In The Hold’, it’s still very much about
what it’s about. But at the same time
Bomberg wants to free himself from figuration as much as possible. But I think he also wants to intensify what these figures are going through. And there’s something very clamorous,
there’s something very splintered, there’s something almost damaged
about the figures in this picture. And they want to be whole again. They want to have
their wholeness restored to them by transferring to another land, to the Dockland, in the hope that the future may well become
much more supportive to them than the past has been, and indeed the present, yeah. So, I think you can see it
almost on two levels, can’t you, as a very, very expressive painting about a very alarming human experience. But, at the same time,
it’s also a proclamation of freedom for art in the new century, and this caused a huge stir
when it was first put on view. It was first exhibited just before
Bomberg had his solo show, and an awful lot of people looked at it and were impressed by it, including Roger Fry,
who at that time was, I suppose, the most powerful critic in Britain, and, indeed, had organised not just one but two major exhibitions, there’s one in 1910 and one in 1912, both at the Grafton Galleries in London, which had introduced everybody not only to Cézanne
and van Gogh and Gauguin in 1910, but also in 1912 he also brought over very recent paintings, actually, by both Matisse and Picasso from Paris, and these were a complete revelation to people of Bomberg’s generation. So, you can say, in a way,
that Bomberg was very lucky in the sense that he was growing up at this incredibly exciting time. But, of course, at the same time,
he was unlucky because just so soon after his solo show in 1914… …July, everything changed, just everything, …with the same sense of drama that Caravaggio puts across so well here. And I think Bomberg may well have looked
at the gestures in this painting, particularly the use of the thrusting arm
and the hand. Even the shadows, and this figure here,
although he’s very dark, although you don’t become aware
of him at first, almost, because your attention is focused on this, there’s something about
the simplification of this figure, the thrusting arms and the fact that
he’s shooting forward in space, whereas this figure
is lurching back a little bit, this sense of astonishment, this sense of men being astounded
as they gaze at what is happening
in front of their eyes, they cannot believe it. And I think the same sort of feeling is something that Bomberg wanted to convey in ‘In The Hold’. OK, they’ve been through hell. They’ve been on a ship
for probably far too long in ghastly conditions. And, OK, it’s very, very alarming
and uncomfortable being hoisted out of this ship, but, at the same time, yes, it is a new beginning for them. There’s something
almost miraculous about it. Here’s another extraordinary
National Gallery picture which contains these arm movements. This time it’s a woman. It’s called ‘Unfaithfulness’, very dramatic indeed, ‘Unfaithfulness’. And, again, it’s this notion of spreading one figure’s arms across the picture
in a dynamic way. Not only her, of course,
you’ve got these dynamic limbs of the man here, thrusting away, even the drapery is quite kind of… It almost seems to be moving
in front of our eyes, and look at the expressive way that
Veronese treats the trees and the leaves. The whole thing
is very, very dramatic, indeed. Bomberg, as you might imagine,
went through a hellish experience. He was very patriotic
and he tried to enlist in the First World War almost immediately, and he ended up going through
absolute nightmare in the trenches. So, he started out
as a very brave soldier, who his commanders respected enormously. But towards the end of the war, he’d seen so much
and he’d also lost so many close friends, including one of his brothers, that, like a lot of people, I still don’t think this
is talked about enough, actually, the psychological effect that the war had
on the young soldiers who survived. OK, they survived, but the mental effect must have been absolutely unimaginable,
mustn’t it? I cannot begin to think what it would be like for me to witness what they witnessed. And Bomberg became so out of it while he was a soldier
towards the end of the war that he actually shot himself
in the foot one day, which got him into trouble. But his seniors actually
didn’t punish him too much because they realised that he had been
a very brave young man before that. And then, thank goodness, he was rescued by a commission from the Canadians. They actually said, “Would you like
to join the group of artists who we’re asking to do enormous paintings for a substantial amount of money? And they’re all to do
with the First World War. And you will paint this picture
on an enormous canvas and then submit it for inspection to a critic in London called PG Connardy, who will be waiting to see it
in the Royal Academy.” And so Bomberg just couldn’t wait,
he came back to London, recovered himself, I think, very largely by having this marvellous
opportunity to picture a real story of ‘Sappers at Work’, tunnelling through deep underground, Canadian sappers, tunnelling towards a base in France at a place called St Eloi where the Germans were camped, the idea being that
you get there underground, unknown to the Germans,
and then inflict devastation upon them, which they succeeded in doing. But I think the more Bomberg
looked into this story, he had to research it, of course,
and he was told a lot, and he did quite a lot
of preparatory drawings of soldiers in uniforms as well, took it all hugely seriously, the more he realised that it was
an incredibly dangerous thing for these young soldiers
to be doing as well. Not only the active tunnelling
and the what might happen there, kind of like being buried alive, but also the fact that they could easily
have been discovered by the enemy, and, of course,
once they’d been discovered by the enemy, the tunnellers would be
very vulnerable indeed. So, there’s that, and there’s
also this sense of everything, I don’t know,
in a kind of quite claustrophobic way, being a strain and a stress. And all this is very vividly conveyed
in the painting. But it’s also a celebration, I think,
of their energy, of their purposefulness, and the fact that they’re all doing
what they have to do, even though it is
very arduous and stressful. Once again, he has one of these figures
stretching his arm out across the surface of the picture,
at the bottom here. There’s one figure here who is clasping something, but he looks pretty kind of worn out,
doesn’t he? He looks as if he’s probably
had enough for that day. The figure up here looks quite tired, too. This figure is burdened
by what he’s carrying on his head. And the most surprising figure of all,
in a way, is this one here, which is seen from behind, so you’re very aware
not only of his bare legs but also of his bottom that seems to be shooting out
of the picture towards us. And… there’s… …quite uncannily, there’s one painting
in the National Gallery collection, where a similar figure can be found. I mean, that is really quite close,
isn’t it, to what Bomberg is doing with the sapper. And I remember realising that
with a sense of shock, almost. It was a few years ago now. I was just staring at this Pollaiuolo,
a painting by two brothers, ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian’, and suddenly noticing this and thinking, that reminds me of something, what is it? Well, yeah. I mean, OK, Bomberg transforms it, but I think there is some kind of debt,
in a way, to what the Pollaiuolo brothers were doing all those centuries before. And it is the most impressive picture. But when it was finally submitted to the critic in the Royal Academy, he paced around it,
it was put on the floor in front of him, and he paced around it, apparently, and his face descended
into an angry expression and then it became contemptuous. And he dismissed the entire painting and described it as an abortion and refused to give Bomberg
a penny for it. And so Alice, Bomberg’s first wife, she kind of joined in the argument, and said
“Oh, David will do another version.” But the fact that this painting,
which is so impressive, had been rejected
in such a hostile and summary way by this very, very influential,
powerful critic had a devastating effect on him. And later that day, Alice came home and found David
sitting in front of the fire, just weeping, weeping and weeping. He was a very, very emotional, young man, and he was just weeping and weeping
and he didn’t know what, you know, he couldn’t believe
what had happened to him. So, it was a devastating thing for him. But it is fascinating to consider… …quite what effect this had, because here was Bomberg… …still working in some ways, if you look at the structure
of the picture, particularly these areas here, they’re still quite akin, aren’t they, to ‘The Mud Bath’
in terms of this semi-abstract sense, but he is introducing a more figurative element in the soldiers’ uniforms and their faces. So, he’s changing hugely. And I think what happened to him with the whole creation
of ‘Sappers at Work’ actually did have a profound effect and helps us to understand why he underwent such a profound change
in his later life, refusing anymore really to think about not only military subjects but urban subjects in general. Desperate, more and more, to get out there
into the rest of the world, in particular to Spain to discover the heat and the light. And, yeah, it had
a transforming effect on him. So, we’re dealing with a very particular
period which is coming to an end pretty much with the creation
of ‘Sappers at Work’. And from now on, he wanted
to get closer to nature, actually, even though he saw nature, again very prophetically, as fundamentally vulnerable. He is obsessed
by the vulnerability of nature, just as we are increasingly today. Well, thank you very much
for listening to me.

Dereck Turner

4 thoughts on “Curator’s Introduction: Young Bomberg and the Old Masters | National Gallery

  1. Wesley 939 says:

    Is trist ,wen figheters espadachín ,are thousend times better ,and they are nowless literaly

  2. π 火 酉 Π-san says:

    Sadlly dispointed. Hindsight bias that all involves considerible if not far too much supposition. Whole talk has a patronising and archaic attude :(.. Better to read books by other more ertudite scolars and ART authors on Bomberg.. ……….

  3. David Koblesky says:

    A good talk. I had never been aware of Bomberg, this was quite illuminatong

  4. Jonathan Hemming says:

    Nice talk 🙂

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