Pallant House Gallery, 9th January 2017
Best British painter of the twentieth century? The mighty triumvirate of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney from the second half of the century certainly would be in with a shout, though Bacon is easy to admire though sometimes hard to like, and Hockney spectacularly drops the ball sometimes. Of these three Freud would get my personal vote. Then again the oddball Stanley Spencer gives me more pleasure though, where he is concerned, you can have too much of a good thing. At the beginning of the century, and assuming his birthplace doesn’t disqualify him, Walter Sickert surely must be near the top of the list, for his own work and for his profound influence on others.
I would also put in a shout for some personal favourites, Gwen John, Michael Andrews, Richard Hamilton, and, resolutely unfashionably, Graham Sutherland and John Piper. Right now Peter Doig might also get a nomination.
But, if it were just down to me, David Bomberg (1890-1957) would get the prize. Usual story. Feted at the beginning, ignored by most during his lifetime, only managed to scrape a living, died in poverty, reputation resurrected soon after his death, critical stock rising ever since. And, in the last decade or so, finally beginning to be recognised as the master he was.
Whilst this exhibition suffers a little from the absence of some of his most famous early modernist works, from the Tate’s collection notably, it is still, in my view, a stunning exposition of his work. The early experiments with cubism and vorticism, the moving evocations of inter war East End life, the failed war painting commissions despite being more talented than peers, the sun-bleached landscapes following the sojourns in Palestine and Spain and the free-flowing abstractions (thanks Cornwall) and expressionist portraits of the later years.
Line, light, angles, volume, draughtmanship. All plain to see. But what does it for me is the vast, and never ending, array of colour he employed. Take your time to soak in all the works displayed, (there is nothing duff here at all), then run around again and just seize on all that colour. Oh, and remind yourself just how clever Bomberg was at telling the story behind the painting. With many figurative painters the story takes time, and/or requires assistance, to crack. With Bomberg place, time, personality, drama are immediately apparent.
Whilst Bomberg may not have got justly rewarded in commissions for his brilliance, and was unable to secure a position at a premier artistic institution, there were some who appreciated what he might show them, notably his students at Borough Polytechnic. And fortunately there were enough enlightened souls there, and from the artistic groups based there, to secure his legacy, which informs this exhibition, and offers an insight into his artistic philosophy, “the Spirit in the Mass”. Not sure I completely grasped where he was coming from but I think I followed the gist. The remarkable people at the Ben Uri collection, with whom he worked, have also lent a hand in stewarding many of his key works over the years and co-curated this exhibition.
Hanging over much of the exhibition is a sense of detachment and disenchantment. This maybe reflects his struggles to get by financially from his work, the horrors he faced on the front in WW1 and the damage to London he documented in WW2, the observation of the struggles of working class life, and, most vividly, his position as an outsider thanks to his first generation immigrant status and his Jewish faith. The landscapes he chose to capture are harsh not verdant. Yet the paintings are never angry, dark or hectoring.
It would be really tricky to pick out the highlights but if you backed me into a corner I would say the Self-Portrait drawing from 1909, Ju-Jitsu from 1913, Barges from 1919, Ghetto Theatre from 1920, Pool of Hezekiah from 1925, Kitty from 1929, The Gorge at Ronda from 1935 and Cyprus from 1948. Look at these, and surely you will have to agree with me. If you don’t, well, as it happens, the Pallant House permanent collection is as good a place as any to view the alternative candidates for best British artist of the C20 (though not Bacon, Freud or Hockney – prohibitively expensive).
If the genteel surroundings of Chichester are not accessible, (remember the Cathedral round the corner itself has much for the artistic eye to feast upon), then this will travel to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle and then the Ben Uri itself in London. Do not miss this.