David Bomberg

David Bomberg

Miles Richmond, Unpublished, 2007
A talk given to accompany the exhibition 'David Bomberg' at The Boundary Gallery, London.

The present exhibition of David Bomberg, by which his importance can be recognised as never before, provides a good opportunity for an old student who was privileged to become a friend and neighbour during the last years of his life, to give his estimate of that importance. Bomberg taught me and talked to me exhaustively in the ten years from 1947 until his death. In the last letter he wrote me from hospital he calls me a solitary man. It is time to come out of that solitude and speak of Bomberg’s ideas, which seem to me, with fifty years, to have grown in importance.
Any assessment of Bomberg’s importance must be grounded and remain grounded in the fact that he was, first and last, a draughtsman. Drawing was the central concern of his life. It needs also to be borne in mind that the importance of drawing has been neglected for centuries, a fact Bomberg was never tired of repeating.
Drawing was of vital concern to Bomberg because he saw it as one of the most complete instruments within man’s reach for describing the world in which he finds himself. It can define the most physical facts of experience and reach into the realms of fantasy and imagination. It probes the subtle dividing lines between our external and internal worlds. And if the practice of drawing became again, and remained, a living tradition, Bomberg believed it could help heal that serious split in our culture which has grown more and more evident since the seventeenth century, between art growing increasingly subjective, and science more technological but divorced from any embracing awareness of man and his needs.
With his passionate admiration for the early Florentines and his respect for the workshop practice of that time, Bomberg might easily be seen as a Renaissance figure out of step with a technological age; but Bomberg was well aware of the twentieth century, and knew there was something wrong with it. He discovered in his work, and made it his business in his teaching to show, that there was a way out of the specialised, fragmented, and largely barren world in which most of us pass our lives.
But drawing of course is not for everyone; you are a natural-born draughtsman or not, was Bomberg’s view. His ideas required a high order of ability in draughtsmanship and much concentrated work for their formulation, just as most physical theory depends on mathematics. But his conclusions are expressed in lucid language which any sympathetic eye can learn to read. Because we do not readily trust our senses, the truths he affirmed in his work may be served by the comments he made and the conclusions he formulated. I was the lavish recipient of these. Bomberg himself wrote many pungent and penetrating things, especially in the last months of his life; but there were things he did not write because he knew they must be shown through his work and his life. Next to his work and his teaching, his greatest concern was to preserve that work for posterity. But drawing is no longer today an openly accessible language, and Bomberg’s message is inevitably encoded. These notes may help decipher a message Bomberg believed has universal significance.
It is one of the functions of art to express truths which are self-validating. They are not at first self-evident, but have a dynamic which is validated historically. The truth and relevance of Bomberg’s work emerges more and more plainly as time provides it with its historical frame. Bomberg had a sense of destiny.
Martin Amis, in the introduction to his ‘Einstein’s Monsters’, notes with surprise that writers hardly seemed to notice the ‘evolutionary firebreak’ of 1945. If they were living in ivory towers, Bomberg was not. He had so often been refused employment, that he saw a symbolic irony in his commission to draw a bomb store; ‘they only gave it me because of my name’. But the challenge produced some of his most moving and symbolic work. With The Bomb, Bomberg with his sense of destiny, had no choice but to throw himself, with all the passion of his nature, into a search for man’s response to this new fact. Wilhelm Reich was searching in the same direction. There was a long correspondence between Leslie Marr and Reich, and Bomberg watched the experiments carried out according to Reich’s instructions. What was Bomberg’s response, and how could he believe art could make a meaningful response to this challenge from science, on humanity’s behalf? To understand this requires a brief survey of Bomberg’s historical background in art.
The science which brought us the bomb had emerged side by side with art, first in Italy, then throughout Europe. Art represented the external world which science explored. Until the seventeenth century there was a good deal of cross fertilization and little opposition between them.
In the fifteenth century a well-formulated theory of perspective gave art the means to represent the apparently solid visible world.
Perspective, considered a branch of mathematics, gave artists the confidence that they were dealing with reality. Until the time of Turner it remained one of the basic credentials of art. Turner, following Claude, used rays of light to dramatise and unify his pictures. These rays of light often follow and illuminate the lines of perspective. In an ideal Turner the sun will rise or set behind the vanishing point of perspective.
The Impressionists, under the impetus of new physical research, threw themselves into the study of light and were prepared to jettison the art of the past. Monet found Turner antipathetic ‘because of the exuberant romanticism of his imagination’. This new confidence came from a realisation that painting had escaped from what had been an essentially linear world view into a truer experience of reality. They allowed light to expand, and, an Impressionist picture is nothing but the expression in colour of the experience of light. Light was allowed to square itself across their canvasses, and in doing so determine any structure they contain. This new kind of painting inspired Van Gogh and Cezanne. Recognizing that man was more than an eye, they brought the tactile sense, the sense of weight, back into the picture. Their magnificent achievements ended in despair for Van Gogh and a sense of incomplete realisation for Cezanne. Both had brought traditional perspective back into the picture. After them the difficult problem they confronted was largely swept under the carpet, and painting became decorative, literary or derivative.
But the problem does not go away. How can the sense of weight, of mass, the tangible sense of things, be brought into a picture without illusion? Bomberg found a penetrating solution, and recognised its importance to our nuclear age. It was a solution he found in the practice of drawing, and first formulated as a theory of drawing. He found its significance increased when he applied it in painting, and was led on to realise its general importance. Bomberg spoke mainly about drawing. He had the classical awareness that drawing underlies painting as the bones underlie the flesh; but painting had an importance for him that drawing did not.
‘I do not find any real difficulty in drawing, but painting can sometimes take me out of my depth.’
It approaches closer to the heart of the matter.
Bomberg believed he found a major clue in the writings of Bishop Berkeley, who shows, in ‘A New Theory of Vision’, that all visual experience must be within a consciousness, and goes on, in ‘Principles of Human Knowledge’, to argue that tactile experience is essentially similar. Accepting this, Bomberg searched for a practice and theory of drawing which could recreate this mental complexity. But how is the mind aware of the experience of touch? I sit at a table and touch its surface. I am aware of the resistance. I move my finger along the table and am aware of a succession of points of resistance until, at the end of the table, I meet with no further resistance. To experience the extent of the table requires my consciousness to expand to include the successive points, and to jump, to grasp the whole. This expansion of consciousness, if it is to experience extension, requires a resolution of consciousness to stay where it is at the same time as it expands: without this resoluteness there will be no experience of extension, only of movement. Bomberg laid firm foundations for his later theories by his patient practice in Jerusalem. As a Jew, every stone of the walls was important, but the Wall was more than the sum of the stones, and Jerusalem was more than the sum of the walls. He resolved the problem by building a construction according to his experience of extension from his resolute centre. It is this resolute centre which gives these works their permanence, and gave Bomberg an important insight into the nature of integration. Firmly constructed out of his own resolute experience, the paintings, once resolved, represented him, and with them as his base he took a new resolution to Petra, and a new one again, later, to Toledo. It is, as he said, a development from youth to age. He had only contempt for those who drift through a fragmented world: ‘the pickers-up of ill-considered trifles’. Only the resolve to be resolute could give substance drawing, painting or personality. The lucid experience of the nature of integration, lucid after the disintegrating experience of the trenches, gave Bomberg the insight and the character to make what he knew was a significant break-through.
Cezanne died in 1906. In 1907 Einstein first published his famous equation. With his classical sense Bomberg never doubted that in any healthy culture art must express what science discovers, otherwise man may have heat, but no light. But what is the sensuous, the experiential counterpart of E = mc2 Bomberg realised that if matter and light have a common factor in experience, as Berkeley had shown him they had, then their product, in experience, will be raised to the power of three.
If the Impressionists had succeeded in squaring the light, lifting it from its old linear framework in perception, and mass was combined with it perceptually, and not by the old methods of linear perspective, the results for consciousness will be radical as in physics, and perhaps as dramatic. Bomberg resolutely faced the possibilities in Spain, having realised that he had confronted extension in Palestine, but a further extension of his integrity would be needed to include both mass and light. What he found is surprising; Bomberg himself clearly found it awe-inspiring. Many timid and conventional people, presented later with his ideas, saw only evidence of lunacy. Bomberg had accepted in Palestine that when we experience extension, we experience it from a centre in ourselves which has no extension. When he came to experience the weight of rocks and the mass of mountains in Spain, he discovered that the centre of gravity of that mass was at the same centre, which was compressed under the pressure of that mass. When he came to experience the volume of light among those mountains, experience it ‘within the mind’, and not externally, he found that his consciousness was forced to expand under the pressure of the radiance of that light. To experience simultaneously the combined pressure of mass and light engenders a consciousness which is polarised: mass and light are between these poles. This discovery gave Bomberg’s work a new urgency. Matter had not lost its structure, but its structure had developed a new complexity. What had gone forever was the opacity of matter.
Bomberg would say ‘I would give ten years of my life for a good passage of painting’. I came in time to believe him. But it had taken me a long time to realise the urgency of his commitment. He knew that in a good passage of painting he would pass from pole to pole of his nature, touching, in a unique way, the cosmos as he passed, and demonstrating by that passage a fact of our nature that man has waited for, in suspense, since The Bomb.
This consciousness, discovered with such awe through his patient research, is not new. Anyone who has seen dervish dances will recognise that it has been demonstrated in action since ancient times. It was simply covered up with the advent of the scientific age, which reached a dramatic climax this century. Einstein penetrated the holes in the umbrella under which man has sheltered for five hundred years. Bomberg had the resolution to look through the holes and discovered man’s spirit still intact. In the crisis of The Bomb he formulated his conception of Spirit in the Mass. He understood the inevitable psychic damage which would result if The Bomb were viewed from inside the old umbrella, and threw himself into teaching with passionate urgency. People generally would neither look nor listen; what made it hard for them was his extraordinary confidence. Bomberg was an essentially modest man, with the modesty of one who had been all his life a patient craftsman, yet he believed he had made a discovery which should be ranked with those of Marx, Einstein and Freud. The difficulty people find in taking this claim seriously comes from the degradation into which art has fallen, and Bomberg carried on a relentless war with those who, from ignorance or design, reduce art to the level of egotistical assertion, leaving the public to expect little from it but clowning and entertainment.
We are still in a period of transition, surrounded by the disorders inseparable from such times. Bomberg foresaw a new age, and I find it encouraging how much, with each year, his work takes on a greater, more inevitable authority.
‘This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof’.