Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Object of the Week: David Bomberg 'Across the Valley, Ronda'

One of my absolute favourite works in the Cecil Higgins collection is David Bomberg’s charcoal study 'Across the Valley, Ronda'. It’s a large, expressive drawing that is miles away from the style that Bomberg is better known for – the geometric, cubistic works such as the ones exhibited at the 'Vorticist' exhibition of 1915 (around which Tate Britain’s current The Vorticists exhibition centres). His painting The Mud Bath, 1914, was one of the defining pictures in the pre and early war years when the young avant garde of the London art scene looked to the Parisian cubists and the Italian Futurists and in July 1914 Bomberg staged a one-man show at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea, London, with a militant foreword in which he championed Pure Form.

DAVID BOMBERG (1890-1957)
Across the Valley, Ronda,1954. Charcoal on paper, 46.6 ´ 61.9 cm. Accession No.: P.560

Bomberg's experiences during the First World War as a private in the Royal Engineers and Kings Royal Rifle Corps contributed to a shift away from the agressive modernism of his early work and a move to more representational paintings of landscapes and portraits. With this he struggled to regain the acclaim that he had recieved for his work before the war and entered a period as an outsider to the art world, unable to sell or exhibit with the galleries that had previously been supportive. He took a post with the Zionist Organisation to travel to Palestine to paint the city of Jerusalem, creating a series of works between 1924-27 that were by far the most literal and topographical of his career. This project also ended the increasing literalisation in Bomberg's work and, with a period in Spain painting the landscapes of Toledo and Ronda, he rediscovered his sense of form - this time with a more searching, painterly approach where, through repeated re-working, the forms of the subject would emerge.

This sense of form developed into a philosophy of art, summed up in his phrase "the spirit in the mass". Bomberg wrote: ‘Drawing flows from beginning to end with one sustained impulse…The approach is through feeling and touch and less by sight…Drawing…reveals the unknown things. Style is ephemeral – Form is eternal". It was this he imbued to his students at the Borough Polytechnic in such an inspiring way. This teaching role, which he held from 1944, brought him in contact with talented young artists willing to absorb his ideas - his two most famous students being Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

El Greco (1541-1614) View of Toledo, 1596-1600.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Pic:Wikimedia Commons
 Ronda in Spain (some 40 miles west of Malaga) spans a deep gorge over the river Guadalgorce. It inspired some of Bomberg’s finest landscapes. The drawing uses energetic strokes of charcoal to fix the dramatically situated town to the mountainside, and to create a vertiginous sensation as the viewer looks across the river valley. Broad smears of charcoal render space and shadow and agressive erasing cuts through to create form.

Drawing, for me, is at its best when recording the movement of the artist: Bomberg is visible to us here moving across the sheet, led by the eye and  his sense of the mass of the landscape in front of him. Here he evokes El Greco’s views of Toledo in both the striking setting and in the bold handling and atmospheric high-contrast tonal palette of the work.

In 1954 he and his wife Lillian had moved to Spain with a view to founding an art school in the Ronda region but this proved unsuccessful. Lillian collapsed under the strain and Bomberg returned to Britain, where he died a year later.

Kristian Purcell,
Curatorial Assistant

Before our lovely new News from the stores blog we used to post our picture/object of the week feature on the main gallery & museum blog but you can still find them all here: Picture of the Week 09/10

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