“Possibly a great artist,” a critic said of David Bomberg. It was an apt way of summing up the British painter’s wobbling reputation. Born in Birmingham in 1890 to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Bomberg was admitted to the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in 1911, only to be expelled in 1913 for being too aesthetically radical. He developed a precise, muscular style of abstraction during the war years, only to scrap it after the Armistice of 1918. He befriended two pillars of modernism, Wyndham Lewis and Filippo Marinetti, only to lose both when they drifted toward Fascism. He died in 1957, flat broke and half forgotten. Today, he seems like a strong candidate for the greatest British painter between Turner and Bacon.
A new exhibition at London’s National Gallery suggests that Bomberg was more of a traditionalist than his teachers realized. True to its title, “Young Bomberg and the Old Masters” pairs his work from the 1910s with canvases by Botticelli, Michelangelo, and El Greco, all of which he saw in the museum and all of which left a mark on his work. To see Michelangelo’s The Entombment (circa 1500) side by side with Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (1914) is to realize how misleading descriptions like “avant-garde” and “Old Master” can be: here, in paintings completed four centuries apart, are the same thick shapes; the same dense, overpowering composition; and the same stubbornly unnatural colors.
But the exhibition, curated by Bomberg specialist Richard Cork, aims for deeper comparisons. By including The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (circa 1590), painted by the studio of El Greco, Cork helps us see the ecstasy and even the outright religiosity of Bomberg’s early work. Divinity, as El Greco’s followers depicted it, cannot be confined to Christ or the angel who visits him; it has seeped into everything else, even the rocks and trees. There’s a similar kind of thin-spread magic in Ju-Jitsu: the bodies have the same life force as the diamonds and diagonals around them. When Bomberg completed the painting, around 1913, the year of his expulsion, many viewers saw a jumble. A century later, his work has withstood its critics and their blundering attacks. Jujitsu, indeed. —Jackson Arn