David Bomberg

5 Dec 1890
19 Aug 1957
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David Garshen Bomberg (5 December 1890 – 19 August 1957) was an English painter, and one of the Whitechapel Boys.

Bomberg was one of the most audacious of the exceptional generation of artists who studied at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks, and which included Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer, C.R.W. Nevinson and Dora Carrington.
Bomberg painted a series of complex geometric compositions combining the influences of cubism and futurism in the years immediately preceding World War I; typically using a limited number of striking colours, turning humans into simple, angular shapes, and sometimes overlaying the whole painting a strong grid-work colouring scheme.

He was expelled from the Slade School of Art in 1913, with agreement between the senior teachers Tonks, Frederick Brown and Philip Wilson Steer, because of the audacity of his breach from the conventional approach of that time.

Whether because his faith in the machine age had been shattered by his experiences as a private soldier in the trenches or because of the pervasive retrogressive attitude towards modernism in Britain Bomberg moved to a more figurative style in the 1920s and his work became increasingly dominated by portraits and landscapes drawn from nature. Gradually developing a more expressionist technique he travelled widely through the Middle East and Europe.

From 1945 to 1953, he worked as a teacher at Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) in London, where his pupils included Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Philip Holmes, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, Gustav Metzger, Dennis Creffield, Cecil Bailey and Miles Richmond. David Bomberg House, one of the student halls of residences at London South Bank University, is named in his honor.

Bomberg was born in the Lee Bank area of Birmingham on December 5, 1890. He was the seventh of eleven children of a Polish-Jewish immigrant leatherworker, Abraham, and his wife Rebecca. He was Orthodox but she less so and supported David’s painting ambitions.In 1895, his family moved to Whitechapel in the East End of London where he was to spend the rest of his childhood.

After studying art at City and Guilds, Bomberg returned to Birmingham to train as a lithographer but quit to study under Walter Sickert at Westminster School of Art from 1908 to 1910. Sickert’s emphasis on the study of form and the representation of the “gross material facts” of urban life were an important early influence on Bomberg, alongside Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, where he first saw the work of Paul Cézanne.

Bomberg’s artistic studies had involved considerable financial hardship but in 1911, with the help of John Singer Sargent and the Jewish Education Aid Society, he was able to attain a place at the Slade School of Art.

At Slade School of Fine Art Bomberg was one of the remarkable generation of artists described today as the school’s “crisis of brilliance” that studied under Henry Tonks and included Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Mark Gertler and Isaac Rosenberg.

Bomberg and Rosenberg, from similar backgrounds, had met some years earlier and became close friends as a result of their mutual interests.

The emphasis in teaching at the Slade was on technique and draughtsmanship to which Bomberg was well-suited — winning the Tonks Prize for his drawing of fellow student Rosenberg in 1911.

His own style was rapidly moving away from these traditional methods, however, particularly under the influence of the March 1912 London exhibition of Italian Futurists that exposed him to the dynamic abstraction of Francis Picabia and Gino Severini, and Fry’s second Post Impressionist exhibition in October of the same year, which displayed the works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and the Fauvists alongside those of Wyndham Lewis, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

Bomberg’s response to this became clear in paintings such as Vision of Ezekiel (1912), in which he proved “he could absorb the most experimental European ideas, fuse these with Jewish influences and come up with a robust alternative of his own.”

His dynamic, angular representations of the human form, combining the geometrical abstraction of cubism with the energy of the Futurists, established his reputation as a forceful member of the avant-garde and the most audacious of his contemporaries; bringing him to the attention of Wyndham Lewis (who visited him in 1912) and Filippo Marinetti. In 1913, the year in which he was expelled from the Slade because of the radicalism of his approach, he travelled to France with Jacob Epstein, where among others he met Amedeo Modigliani, André Derain and Pablo Picasso.

In Restless, William Boyd’s 2006 novel, there is a reference to a portrait by Bomberg of one of the book’s major (fictional) characters. The painting is said to occupy a place in the National Portrait Gallery in London. In “A Palestine Affair”, a 2003 novel by Jonathan Wilson, the character “Mike Bloomberg” is loosely based on Bomberg’s life, as acknowledged by the author: “Richard Cork’s ‘David Bomberg’ [was] … of inestimable value to me in constructing this fiction”.

Glyn Hughes’s novel, Roth (Simon & Schuster, London, 1992) — its leading a character a London Jewish painter, its cover carrying a reproduction of one of Bomberg’s Cyprus landscapes — is also loosely based on the author’s reflections on Bomberg.

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