Head over to Swiss Cottage tube station and after what seems like weeks of uninterrupted sunny blue skies, during which time I’ve been stuck in the study reading, writing and researching, when I do finally decide to temporarily interrupt these sedentary sessions of alliterative activity, get off my ‘r’s and take to the streets, the weather abruptly decides to change course. So it is that today the skies are a sturdy slate gray and the rain impressive in the intensity of its sheer unremitting incessance. Which is, frankly, all a bit annoying since it’s a good fifteen minute walk from the station, along the Finchley Road then down the hill at Boundary Road, crossing over the famous Abbey Road to finally get to the Ben Uri gallery. My small collapsible umbrella does its best but, outflanked by the persistence of the precipitation, I arrive in a somewhat soggy state and it takes a little time before I can fully focus my faculties and start to get to grips with the mid-sized retrospective of works by David Bomberg that’s currently on display here.
After the past few blogs which seem to have been devoted to the supposedly cerebral diversions of Conceptual Art, it’s a welcome change to get back to taking a look at some of the more visceral attractions offered by those who choose to investigate the possibilities available when placing paints on canvas. Which isn’t to say that early British Modernists like Bomberg didn’t spend a lot of time and effort analysing theories, experimenting with practicalities and generally thinking about how to find new ways to represent the fast-changing contemporary world in which they found themselves immersed. And while Duchamp may have rather sniffily referred to the output of those who concerned themselves with figurative representations as mere ‘retinal’ art – as opposed to the more deliberately contrived philosophical gamesplaying and arcane symbolistic constructions that he chose to create – this was something of a deliberate misunderstanding or simplistic misrepresentation of the situation as it really was. After all, even the prettiest works of the Impressionists weren’t just ornamental decorations but had their origins in the tangled explorations of colour theory and ideas about the nature of light and shade, and the curious effects of different tonal combinations. And taking a broader perspective, it’s also possible to see in their transient, sketchier works not just a reaction against the highly artificial and stagey studio tableaux of their Salon artist contemporaries but also a reasoned response to the colder, frozen frames resulting from the recent developments in photography that were similarly evolving during the second half of the 19th century.
Anyway, before I go meandering off too far into a generalised rumination around the art historical backwaters, I’ll now try to drag things back on course by noting that the start of the formalist experimentations that were such a characteristic of Bomberg’s artistic career can be traced back to the time when he attended evening classes under the tutelage of Walter Sickert – who, in turn, had been hugely influenced by his friend, the great Impressionist Edgar Degas. And indeed, Woman Looking Through a Window, one of the earliest works in this quick chronological canter through the Bomberg biography, definitely shows a strong Sickertian influence, not just in the wistful atmospheric subject matter but in the distinctively downbeat tonal colouring.
It’s a style that seems well suited to Bomberg’s accomplished technical facility but, evidently, he felt that it wasn’t quite up to the task of capturing the spirit of the new technological society that was arising during the course of the early years of the 20th century. As a result, he changed stylistic course rather dramatically. And subsequent works from this period are striking in their pared down geometric rigour whereby both people and surroundings are reduced to simplified abstracted blocks that could be neatly plotted onto graph paper before being scaled up, coloured in and presented as full-size oil paintings. It’s a radical approach to figuration that seems to want to reshape everything from the natural world and recast it into some kind of dehumanised mechanical schemata. But while it results in works that are undoubtedly vibrant and still quite shockingly novel, in retrospect there are obvious problems in packaging up people as if they were just mere mechanical mannequins. And what must have initially appeared as an excitingly Modernistic metaphor to show how dynamically well the world was progressing was soon horribly reframed when politicians and military men started echoing similar ways of thinking and then applying them to the insane fighting strategies that defined the great battles plans of the First World War. Ironically, for a while, Bomberg himself ended up stuck in the dreadful unforgiving mud of the trenches as just another anonymous disposable cog helping to propel the unthinking war machine along its merciless path. Although, eventually, he did manage to get himself transferred away from the front line to work in relative safety as an official war artist, not that the authorities ever showed much appreciation of his output which was still considered to be far too radically modern for the establishment tastes of the day. Finally Bomberg himself seems to have accepted that there were problems with the machine age aesthetic that he’d once so fervently promoted and by the time the armistice came along he’d already started to develop a less rigidly stylised and more sympathetically realist form of figurative design.
It’s a change exemplified by the revised version of the Woman Looking Through a Window that he painted seven or eight years after the original. The main character continues to gaze out into an uncertain future but while she and her surroundings are still simplified, the really ferocious reductionism that he was championing only a few years earlier has clearly been tempered.
Again, it seems to me to be a distinctive and workable format that Bomberg might well have continued with and successfully gone on the develop but it’s clear that he still wasn’t happy with the results. And so for the next couple of decades (at least according to this presentation) he seems to have given up on all forms of portraiture and concentrated instead wrestling with the problem of producing convincing landscapes and cityscapes. Since his palette had always tended to veer away from the greener end of the spectrum and favoured the redder shades, it’s perhaps not too surprising then that he turned away from the cool verdant swards of the English countryside and preferred to seek more suitable subject sites by travelling around the hotter drier brighter destinations of the Holy Lands and Southern Spain.
What start out as fairly realistic studies gradually evolve into dramatic expressionistic abstractions where it’s hard to find many features recognisable from the traditional guidebooks or tourist postcards. And, once again, Bomberg seems unable to resist his urge for radically refashioning the world as he saw it or perhaps as he imagined it should be seen.
While admiring his uncompromising determination to keep striving for some kind of unreachable format that would satisfy his inner demons – and his whole body of work strongly suggests an artist who was not entirely happy with life nor content with his station in it – I find the results of his final experimental period somewhat hit and miss. While it’s hard to believe that his vision of Lapithos is a very precise rendering of Cypriot geography and topography, the composition is undoubtedly impressive and is perhaps designed to convey a sense of how Bomberg himself felt when confronted with this Mediterranean idyll. On the other hand, I’m not sure that either of the late pair of self-portraits reveal anything very much about either what the artist actually looked like or his state of mind other than maybe he felt a sense of impotence as raged against the dying of the light. Nevertheless, the show as a whole is an interesting look at an interesting artist and one whose works – even those that don’t seem to be very successfully resolved – always deserve a considered inspection.
After which it’s time for something completely different, at least it is after another dismal watery expedition crossing London to get to the Zabludowicz Collection. On arrival it turns out that I’ve misread the notes in my vade mecum and the main exhibition space is temporarily closed. Fortunately, however, the small 360 Virtual Reality Room is open and, since I’m the only person around, I don’t have to wait in any queue before jamming on the headset and entering into a whole new convincingly bizarre computer-generated 3-D world. I’ve had a couple of tries with VR equipment before and not been all that impressed but now the technology is definitely getting a whole lot smoother and more sophisticated and this time the experience really is utterly immersive and the sensation of having landed myself in the middle of some kind of crazy video game scenario is perversely persuasive. I’m not sure what the correct terminology is for the designers of these new cyberware platforms but The Founders of Daytona Beach Also Founded Daytona, Ohio 2018 was created, coded, hacked, programmed or whatever by Jeremy Couillard who, I think it’s fair to say, is not a fan of subtle sensibilities or minimalistic inputs. Indeed, his tastes, at least as judged by this particular work, are situated right at the extreme end of the ghoulish, garish, psychedelic, crazy cartoon spectrum of animated extravagances. As a result, his brave new world seems to consist of a labyrinth of chambers, stairways and cul de sacs in which reside all kinds of scary monsters, comic rock bands, shark infested pools and other scenes of a manic nature all too numerous to mention. Well, not exactly. I know there was an awful lot going on, all completely interesting at the time, but once the headset comes off the spell of the reverie is instantly shattered and, much like good old fashioned organic dreaming, all the details fade into a near instant forgetability. Which perhaps suggests that this format is still at the level of a faddish diversion and yet to achieve the status of true artistic endeavor.