Catalogue entry

T04166 Nude 1943

Oil on canvas 915 × 715 (36 × 28 1/4)
Inscribed ‘Bomberg '43’ b.r.
Presented by Juliet Lamont, the artist's step-granddaughter 1986
Prov: Lilian Bomberg, the artist's widow (d.1983); bequeathed to Dinora Davies-Rees, the artist's step-daughter, and her daughter Juliet Lamont by whom presented to the Tate Gallery as the gift of Juliet Lamont
Exh: David Bomberg, Lilian Holt, Leslie Marr, Campbell and Franks Fine Arts, June–July 1980 (42, repr. on cover); David Bomberg: A Tribute to Lilian Bomberg, Fischer Fine Art, March–April 1985 (75); David Bomberg, Tate Gallery, Feb.–May 1988 (157, pl.49 in col.)
Lit: Richard Cork, untitled text, David Bomberg, Lilian Holt, Leslie Marr, exh. cat., Campbell and Franks 1980, repr. on front cover; Terence Mullaly, ‘The Satisfaction in Oil Painting’, Daily Telegraph, 17 June 1980, p.15; Richard Cork, David Bomberg, 1987, p.251, pl.316

T04166 shows a female nude lying back on what might be a sheet-covered bed. The painter's viewpoint is unusual: the model's pubic region is at the centre of the composition, and of her head only the chin can be seen beyond the hill-like curves of her body. The nature of the scene implies a receding pictorial space, but the artist has created a strongly vertical composition. The weight of the model's torso appears supported not by the bed but by a single leg, which is scarcely bent. The top and side of the bed are painted as if they were one continuous surface. Above and beneath it are bands of colour, red/purple and blue/green respectively, which indicate little about the depth of the scene. These colour combinations extend over the entire composition. The body is painted in pinks and blues, with emphatic outlines of purple and deep red. The bed is painted in soft pinks and blues.

In 1943 Bomberg and his family were living in 41 Queen's Gate Mews, Gloucester Road, London. In the previous year he had received a commission from the War Artists' Advisory Committee to record a bomb store, but the Committee's cool reception of his works and his failure to secure further commissions or any form of paid employment meant that his prospects were bleak. In 1943 he began a series of flower paintings, painted with a fluidity and an abandon that led a reviewer to describe them as ‘veritable explosions in oil colours’, going off with ‘an almost audible bang’ (quoted by Cork 1987, p.251). It is not known why Bomberg chose to paint a nude in this year. Apart from his student days, he had executed very few life studies, either as paintings or drawings. ‘Woman in Sunlight (Lilian)’, 1931 (repr. William Lipke, David Bomberg, 1967, col.pl.VI) and ‘Lilian’, 1932 (T00318, repr. Cork 1987, col.pl.34), were half-length portraits of his companion and future wife. Lilian Holt, as a seated nude. Later, in 1951, he painted a nude in collaboration with Roy Oxlade, and in 1953 he painted with Richard Michelmore ‘Reclining Nude’, T 03600 (repr. Roy Oxlade, ‘David Bomberg: Notre Dames of the Mind’, Modern Painters, vol.1, no.1, Spring 1988, p.18).

In 1981 Bomberg's wife told Richard Cork that the model for this picture was a girl named Anne who was working on a farm and who had agreed to pose (Cork 1987, p.251). In conversation with the compiler on 11 May 1994 Dinora Davies-Rees, the artist's step-daughter, said that she knew nothing of the identity of the sitter, but thought it likely that she was an art school model. She added that, as the artist worked with such speed, it was probable that the painting was completed in one sitting. Cork (ibid.) writes:

The openly declared broken brushwork, especially on the girl's right leg, is tactile enough to signify the act of touching. But there is nothing straightforwardly delectable about this image. Compared with the sensual nudes of Matthew Smith, whose handling sometimes seems related to Bomberg's, she is a disconcerting presence. Flung back on the bed so that her face is no longer visible, this anonymous body looks marooned and awkward. No nude could be more alone, and Bomberg has surely used her to project his own desolating sense of isolation. She is also a war nude, in the sense that a prescience of mortality pervades the painting.

As Cork goes on to point out, the pose of the model in T04166 recalls that of the woman, representing a murdered prostitute, in ‘The Camden Town Affair’, 1909, by Walter Richard Sickert (private collection, repr. ibid.). In fact, Sickert painted a number of works showing models reclining on beds. One, in particular, shows a similar pose (‘Conversations’, 1903–4, private collection, repr. Sickert: Paintings, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts 1992, p.147 in col.). Here the naked model is lying on a bed, with just one leg on the ground. The viewpoint of the artist is low, though the model's pubic region is partly obscured by the curve of her thigh. Sweeping curves define her stomach, ribcage and breasts, while her face is a blurred image. Bomberg had studied life drawing under Sickert at the Westminster School of Art between 1908–10, and for a period was influenced by him. It is certainly possible that T04165 was a homage to the grand master who died only a year before. Bomberg may even have seen the Sickert painting, which was exhibited twice in 1942, in London as part of the touring show organised by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, and in Leeds, in an exhibition held at Temple Newsam House entitled Life Work of Walter Richard Sickert (as ‘Conversation’).

Regardless of the sources of the model's pose, it seems likely that Bomberg was concerned in T04166 to emphasise the massy qualities of the body through colour and a tactile handling of paint. Bomberg had long been interested in Bishop Berkeley's New Sense of Vision, 1709, and his argument that knowledge of tactile qualities informs our understanding of the optical information we receive. Cork (1987, p.266) writes:

Bomberg, who felt that the cultivation of tactile values was crucial in helping him to disengage from ordinary perception and discover a more intuitive way of grasping reality, naturally warmed to Berkeley's emphasis on touch. It coincided with his own conviction that ‘in sensing the magnitude & scope of mass & finding the purposeful entities to contain it in the flat surface (this is the mystery) is cultivated its rehabilitation’.

T04166 was not shown to anyone outside the immediate circle before its exhibition in 1980. Dinora Davies-Rees said that the painting was never hung in the family home but was kept in a painting rack, unseen for many years. In a text in the exhibition broadsheet Richard Cork wrote, ‘The magnificent, recently discovered “Nude” of 1943 shows how well [Bomberg] succeeded in making his painting a powerful vehicle for an outlook which, embracing the full ambiguity of human experience, rejoiced in the material substance of life and explored its tragic underlying transience’. In his review of the exhibition Terence Mullaly (1980, p.15) singled out this work, writing, ‘It is not just splendidly voluptuous for it should be used in every art school to demonstrate how oil paint can, quite apart from the images forged with it, be in itself satisfying’.

On acquisition a X-ray revealed that T04166 had been painted over a quite different composition of three clowns. This earlier image is not thought to have been painted by Bomberg, as the style is unfamiliar and the subject is unrecorded in his work.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996