Friday, 20 April 2018

'Bomberg' at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

The Laing Gallery puts on some interesting exhibitions so I try to visit when I'm in Newcastle. Last years's exhibition was 'Out of Chaos' with paintings about and by migrants in the early 20th Century and this time it's an exhibition of works by David Bomberg. Interestingly, both exhibitions were in association with the Ben Uri Gallery.

David Bomberg is little more than a name to me, really. I've seen some of his works in various galleries and in group exhibitions (such as the 'Crisis of Brilliance' exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago, along with his colleagues from the Slade school), but I don't know anything about him. Most of the works I've seen I'd categorise as dark smudges - they're not, of course, but compared to some of his contemporaries, that's what they seemed like. I hoped that this exhibition would show me a different side to Bomberg and it did.

The first thing you see on entering the exhibition is a lovely drawing he did when he was about 23 years old, a self-portrait. He did various self-portraits in different media but I quite liked this one, youthful and full of hope for the future - look world, look what I can do. The direct gaze and honesty in his features is quite impressive and this drawing is in the national collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibition is chronological so we see his style and choice of subjects develop. We see his painting of barges and barge-people on Regents Canal and his views of the lives of the Jewish communities in the East End of London, such as his 'Ghetto Theatre' from 1920 which is a work I've seen before and think of as one of his 'dark smudge' paintings.

It's when he went to live and work in Jerusalem and in Spain that he seems to have discovered light and his palette changed.  It was a great surprise to suddenly see all of these bright landscapes, full of light and warmth, such as this one, 'Jerusalem City and Mount of Ascension' from 1925. These paintings weren't all figurative by any means but it's good to see the range of works he created over his life. There are a few cityscapes of places like Jerusalem and Toledo in the exhibition but there are also some landscapes as well, and I particularly liked his 'Valley of La Hermida' from 1935 with it's stark beauty.

He seems to have travelled around a lot, settling here and there for some time before something went wrong and he had to return to London, such as painting school folding and having to leave Spain in advance of the Civil War. He doesn't seem to have had a very successful life at all with various business ventures failing, not getting war commissions and then, when he finally did get one, having his works rejected. I wonder what he felt about this? Did he care or was he wrapped up in his art?

I particularly liked a painting called 'The Red Hat' from 1931 which is actually a portrait of his second wife, Lilian Holt. Lilian was also an artist and it seems they painted together and inspired each other (it was she who introduced him to flower painting that took his work in another direction again). I love that red hat.

There were more portraits and landscapes and flowers on show, but the final painting in the exhibition is 'The Last Self-Portrait' from 1956 (Bomberg died in 1957). It's quite a contrast - as you'd expect - from the self-portrait that opened the exhibition but the thing I really liked about it is that he's holding his palette and brushes, his tools of his trade and art. After having read about his various failures over his life it's a proud statement at the end of his life saying 'I am an artist'.

I'm pleased I caught this exhibition and would like to know more about him. Maybe one day he'll get an exhibition in his home town of London.

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