Image: David Bomberg, Tajo and Rocks, Ronda (The Last Landscape), 1956-57, Pallant House Gallery (Wilson Loan, 2006) © The Wilson Family (crop)
Review by Adam Turnbull
There was an amazing collection of paintings at the Laing Art Gallery by Jewish artist David Bomberg. On entering the gallery, the first few paintings in the exhibition showed Bomberg’s art during his time fighting in the First World War, one was a drawing of two sappers digging under the ground to blow up enemy trenches, the notes beside the art said how the weapons and underground tunnel seemed to dwarf the two figures, showing how the sappers were merely cogs in the terrible wheel of the First World War. The other notes said how Bomberg was greatly influenced by his experiences in the war, the trauma of it and the frailty of life; this is evident in many of his figures, which seem to be trapped by the canvas or are minute and insignificant in the relentless horror of life. The notes also said that Bomberg tried to add his paintings to a memorial to Canadian solders killed in the First World War but was refused by the memorial commission.
The next part of the exhibition showed his life in the east end of London in the Jewish community. It also said that Bomberg was in a group of Jewish Artists and writers and poets called the Borough boys. One line-drawing showed two figures, one close to a Spartan-like candle, according to the notes the candle shows how life can be easily snuffed out. Also in the painting was a figure in the background kneeling down, which Bomberg said he felt was closer to himself and apparently he kept his picture at his easel. There was another painting of a Yiddish theatre with an old man in the audience, which the picture’s frame almost obscures from sight. The old man was holding a walking stick, and the notes said that the walking stick showed the frailty and the harshness of life.
The negativity in his work was due to Bomberg’s paintings being refused by the art galleries and colleges and this caused depression for the artist. The next part of his exhibition was of his time spent on a trip to Palestine, he was reported to have said: “I’d never seen sunshine before then living in the east end of London”. His paintings definitely depict that well, as this was the first time he used oil paints.
Another painting showed a pool in Jerusalem, mentioned in the bible, that was almost completely shielded from view by the majestic city, the pool itself illuminated the limestone building. The other part of the exhibition showed beautiful paintings of his time in Rodan in Spain were he produced illuminated landscape paintings filled with light, this showed it was a very progressive part of his career. Another painting showed a bomb store in London during the Second World War, which apparently blew up and was such a large explosion it was seen in Europe. According to the notes, Bomberg tried to send many portraits to the Ministry of Information but was denied, possibly because his painting were not cheerful or optimistic about the war, instead, like his portrait of the bomb store, showed the relentless horror of war.
The last part of the exhibition showed paintings from the end of his life in Spain, one is a self portrait with most of his face in shadow and another illuminated green, in which he’s wearing a great long hat on his head which, according to the notes, is meant to be like Christ’s crown of thorns, perhaps symbolising how he’ll sacrifice himself for his art until his death. The use of the colour green also depicts his steadily increasing sickness. Another self-portrait shows him holding his artistic tools with his face completely covered by layers of paint, with only his mouth seen and painted in red, his mouth open and frozen in pain. Images of him holding his tools symbolises Bomberg’s faith in being an artist until the bitter end.
The Bomberg portrait exhibition is great and is well worth seeing for people who are visiting the Laing Art Gallery.