Art that stopped the traffic

David Bomberg is one of Britain's most important 20th Century artists.

David Bomberg is one of Britain's most important 20th Century artists. Alan Sykes reviews a new exhibition of his paintings in Cumbria.

Although largely neglected as an artist in his lifetime, the posthumous reputation of David Bomberg (1890 to 1957) continues to grow - indeed one of his paintings of Ronda sold for just shy of a million pounds at Christie's earlier this year.

This exhibition of some 50 works is based on 10 paintings loaned from the Tate, but with many unfamiliar works coming from private collections, including David Bowie's.

His influence as a teacher was also great - his classes at Borough Polytechnic in the 1940s were attended by the likes of Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and the Middlesbrough painter Miles Richmond.

David Bomberg was born in 1890 in Birmingham to a family of impoverished Polish immigrants. Thanks to support from the Jewish Education Aid Society, he was able to study at the Slade School of Art, where his contemporaries were the likes of Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer.

Bomberg's work comes in at least three forms, pre-First World War, when he can be compared to Walter Sickert, who taught him at evening classes, then his near abstract Vorticist phase, and finally post-First World War, when he produced a huge body of colourful impressionistic works, with occasional forays into more meticulous recording of the architecture of the Holy Land.

Of his earliest pictures, the Bedroom Picture of 1911-12 is a revelation. Only ever previously seen as a black and white reproduction, here we have a scene reminiscent of Sickert, with muted colours enlivened by a texture that looks like satin, and with a flash of warm pink in a looking glass brightening up the whole work. During a 1913 visit to Paris with Jacob Epstein, he met Picasso and Modigliani, but I would argue that the encounter with André Derain was probably the one that had the most lasting effect on his art. There are frequent works in this show which appear to show a fauvist approach to colouration, for example The Red Hat of 1931, Bomb Store of 1942 and Sunset, Mount Hilarion, Cyprus of 1948.

It is in his Vorticist phase that we see Bomberg at his most original. The human form is used as a starting point, but twisted into patterns that make the results like geometric studies, as in The Vision of Ezekiel. When The Mud Bath was first exhibited in 1914 it was shown on an outside wall in Chelsea and apparently literally frightened the horses. Bomberg wrote that "the horses drawing the 29 bus used to shy at it as they came round the corner of King's Road".

As he matured, his opposition to figuration fell away. The works from the 20s are hung together in a beautifully lit, low-ceilinged room that appears to glow with the warmth of the Mediterranean. Some lovely impressionistic views of Petra sit alongside Roof Tops, Jerusalem, 1927, a bright, largely monochrome work where the cubist forms of most of the buildings are broken by the rotundity of a mosque and the wispy clouds.

It was in Spain that Bomberg produced many of his finest paintings. He worked there in the 1930s until the Civil War forced him to leave and returned there for his last two years in the 1950s.

The highlight of this show is the range of works he painted in the hilltop town of Ronda in Andalucia. The Tajo river cuts a gorge through the town and this is crossed by a spectacular arched bridge dating from the 18th Century, while whitewashed houses cling to the clifftops.

Bomberg painted the bridge several times, capturing it from different angles, and at different times of the day and year. In that extraordinary bridge you could argue that the painter found a real expression of the "pure form" he was looking for.

Once again Abbot Hall has produced a catalogue that will be an invaluable reference book.

* David Bomberg: Spirit in the Mass is at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, until October 28. Tel (01539) 722464 or visit www.abbothall.co.uk

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