In the latest small free exhibition at the National Gallery, a number of revolutionary early paintings by the British modernist artist David Bomberg (1890–1957) are displayed alongside National Gallery pictures that had a great influence on him.
The exhibition illustrates the parallels between Bomberg’s early works and the work of Old Masters and how the artist embraced the art of the past in order to develop his own particular style of early 20th-century Modernism.
David Bomberg moved to the East End of London in the 1890s before studying under Walter Sickert and attending the Slade School of Art. He developed his draughtsmanship and technique by spending a great deal of time copying the Old Masters in London’s major galleries including the National Gallery before developing his own distinctive style, influenced by the works of the Post-Impressionists and Italian Futurists. He was expelled from the Slade in 1913 because of his radical approach, but later taught celebrated artists like Frank Auerbach.
Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (probably about 1480-5) is placed next to Bomberg’s Self Portrait (1913–14) and illustrate how the young British artist was confident to use his knowledge of the Old Masters to undertake large paintings that bought together themes that represented the past and present. Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (1914), Vision of Ezekiel (1912), Ju-Jitsu (c.1913), and In the Hold (c.1913–14) show the artist looking towards the future with some enthusiasm.
His war painting in the exhibition is the controversial Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi (c.1918-19) which suggests this vision of the modern world was fast becoming a nightmare.
The painting by Studio of El Greco’s The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (1590s) echoes the feeling of despair. For Bomberg, this despair was real with his harrowing experiences in the trenches during the First World War where he lost his brother and several close friends.
After the war, Bomberg went to work in Palestine, Spain, the Soviet Union until returning to the UK during the Second World War. Despite inspiring a generation of new British artists with his work and teaching, Bomberg struggled for recognition and financial security and died in London in 1957.
This fascinating small free exhibition offers the opportunity to consider the radical and exciting early work of David Bomberg. The British artist was on the cusp of national and international recognition until the First World War destroyed his faith in Modernism and the modern world. It is perhaps appropriate that it is within the National Gallery where the artist spent many hours drawing from the Old Masters painting that we are reminded of the dynamic and innovative talent of the early Bomberg.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information and tickets, visit the National Gallery website here
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