Bomberg & The Borough Group At Pallant House Gallery

By Katie Millis | 12 February 2007
a abstract painting of a figure

David Bomberg's Last Self Portrait (1956) © Pallant House Gallery

Katie Millis goes to Chichester to learn about David Bomberg and his circle.

To mark the 50th Anniversary of David Bomberg’s death, the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, is showing an exhibition of his art alongside works by the Bomberg inspired Borough Group (1947-50) until April 1 2007.

The Chichester Gallery holds a selection of work created by Bomberg during the middle period of his career and the exhibition displays paintings and charcoals by a man who is now held in high regard by scholars and collectors of British modern art.

While the artist was alive, however, he fell victim to harsh criticism when his contemporaries considered his work to be un-English. His creations were given very little credit and were neglected by modern art critics. This exhibition reflects the changes in perspective of a man who has been referred to as one of the ‘most misunderstood artists of our time’.

Raised in Whitechapel in the East End of London, he initially trained as a lithographer before enrolling at the Slade School of Art. His early work was heavily associated with the Vorticists, an avant-garde group of artists formed by Wyndham Lewis in 1914. Vorticism aimed to plunge to the heart of the present, the movement was considered by many to be the British equivalent of Italian Futurism.

landscape of Jerusalem in cream and pastel colours

The South-East Corner, Jerusalem (1926) © Pallant House Gallery

Vorticist paintings were also influenced by Cubist fragmentations of reality and urban industrial imagery. Between 1910 and 1920 Bomberg produced complex geometric compositions using a limited number of bold and striking colours, in a similar style.

The First World War brought a shift in ideals to the artist’s work, as the machine became a figure of conflict rather than an image of modernist principles and Bomberg's paintings became organic and expressionistic. His portraits and landscape creations were considered un-English; his methods and intentions had little in common with his British contemporaries.

During this period Bomberg cast himself as an outsider. Cezanne-like form and structure appeared in his representations of southern Spain and the Middle East. He referred to Cezanne as a father to him. These rural compositions make up the first part of the Pallant exhibition with initial studies of works displayed alongside the works themselves.

an initial study drawing of Bombergs Jerusalem

Initial studies of the artist's works are displayed alongside the paintings © Pallant House Gallery

The South-East Corner-Jerusalem (1926) is an attractive oil on canvas with sensitive brushstrokes expressing physical sensations. Beautiful pastel colours give the painting a rainbow dustiness, portraying the warmth of the desert sands. In other works Bomberg uses charcoal to capture the dark depths of valleys while his portraits are intense studies of character and introspection.

After a period as an Official War Artist during the Second World War, Bomberg began teaching at Borough Polytechnic in London. Feeling rejected by his critics and the art establishment, he taught radical and experimental art and design classes.

He worked with ex-servicemen and American GIs as well as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Eduardo Paolozzi and Jo Tilson.

The second room of the exhibition is dedicated to the teaching the artist carried out at the Polytechnic. Named quite simply, the Borough Group, this is where the exhibition really comes alive. The works on display clearly show the inspiration Bomberg gave to his art students.

a landscape of Dartmoor in bright rainbow colours

The work of Bomberg-inspired artists appears as part of the exhibition

It is thought that Bomberg devoted such a great deal of energy to his teaching that this intensity was lost in his own art and it would have been interesting to see some of the artist’s own work at this time displayed alongside the work his students were producing for him.

He emphasized the strength to express the spirit of life in his students and taught that to create real art, the artists must be wordlessly permeated by the influence of the thing that they sought to paint.

The works of modern Bomberg-inspired artists, Leslie Marr, Dennis Creffield and Frank Auerbach are displayed; contemplative, emotive, sometimes dark and passionate. Intense colours merge in large-scale portraits, expressionless, faceless bodies stare down from the walls.

Bomberg taught that the ‘integrity of vision depended on the total integrity of the individual’. This exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on the work of a great artist and teacher with some beautiful, colourful landscapes, sculpture and dark intense portraits that resonate with the legacy of Bomberg’s vision of art.

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