David Bomberg, “Ju-Jitsu” (c. 1913), oil on board, 24.37 x 24.37 inches (© Tate, all images courtesy the National Gallery, London)

LONDON — Entered through a set of heavy double doors, Room One in London’s National Gallery is a small and self-sufficient space,  leading to nowhere but itself. This self-sufficiency makes it ideal for the intense scrutineering of very few works. In this case, eleven works by David Bomberg are on display, all of which are drawings or paintings. Can a small display in a space as constrained as this one really do justice to the career of a poor Jewish boy from the East end of London, who blazed like Modernist comet through the city’s stuffy art world during the second decade of the twentieth-century?

The difficulty with Young Bomberg and the Old Masters is that its theme is too ambitious for the space allotted. It is forever yearning to suck into one room much of what is beyond its walls and contentedly hanging elsewhere in this very building — impossible, of course. Which leads me to ask this question: why did the curators present in such a finite form what could have been so much bigger, more ambitious, and more intellectually adventurous? 

David Bomberg, “Vision of Ezekiel” (1912), oil on canvas, 45 × 54.02 inches

Its thesis, quite simply put, is this: though Bomberg may have been a pioneer of abstraction, an heir of Futurism and Cubism, and a truly memorable debunker of the past — he once quipped “I hate the Fat Men of the Renaissance” — the truth is a little more nuanced. In fact, he loved Botticelli, Bellini, Michelangelo, El Greco and others, and he spent hours learning from them here at the National Gallery. This show puts a few choice works of the New (by Bomberg) beside two choice works of the Old in order to demonstrate exactly what and how he learnt from them. What a good idea! But it is an idea which fails because it presents too little evidence to demonstrate its truth — and it is true!

At this point we descend into absurdity mixed with more than a modicum of frustration. There are nine Bombergs here, one painting by Sandro Botticelli — “Portrait of a Young Man” (c.1480-5), and another by El Greco. And then there are the tantalizing reproductions of those many other works elsewhere in the National Gallery by some of the artists named above, which we are only shown at thumbnail size. How ridiculous!

Beside the Botticelli, there hangs a self-portrait by Bomberg. We are encouraged to think about the fact that both portraits are forward-facing, eyes directly engaged with the onlooker, and that Bomberg admired so much the shirt that Botticelli’s handsome sitter was wearing, that he ordered one very similar for himself — and here he is wearing it! These then are the two bits of so called evidence of the influence of the past upon the present, and both are either frivolous or lightweight. 

Left: Sandro Botticelli, “Portrait of a Young Man”(c. 1480-5), tempera and oil on wood, 14.76 x 11.14 inches (© The National Gallery, London); right: David Bomberg, “Self Portrait” (1913-14), chalk on paper, 22.01 x 15 inches (photo by  the National Portrait Gallery, London / © The estate of David Bomberg)

The real evidence of how Bomberg used the past to shape his approach to the representation of modernity is contained in the thumbnails of other works displayed beside El Greco’s “Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane” (c.1590), and the equally small-in-size, fact-filled gobbets of text which sit beside them.

The works by Bomberg in this room are some of his best, and two of them — “The Vision of Ezekiel” (1912) and “Ju-Jitsu” (c.1913) — hang beside preparatory drawings, and demonstrate at a stroke how he could shift from a drawing featuring a fairly schematized representation of humans in the mass, with simplified bodily forms rhythmically interlocking, to more brilliantly kaleidoscopic and abstracted variants of the same, rendered in color. It is as if he took two steps back, and partially re-imagined it all. What fascinates with Bomberg, always, is how coherent and moving this tortured interlocking of human forms manages to be, even when abstracted in this way, and especially so in “The Mud Bath” (1914). Where did he learn all this from? Walk across the room to squint at how Christ’s body is wrestled into uprightness in the thumbnail  of Michelangelo’s “Entombment” (c.1500-1), the full-size original of which hangs a few galleries away from here.

Young Bomberg and the Old Masters continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through  March 1. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery in partnership with Tate, and curated by Richard Cork.





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