The Mud Bath is one of the great paintings of 20th-century British art.

David Bomberg, 'The Mud Bath' 1914

David Bomberg
The Mud Bath 1914
Oil on canvas
support: 1524 x 2242 mm frame: 1718 x 2427 x 70 mm
Purchased 1964© Tate

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Bomberg, in the context of Vorticism, is problematic, however, because he never saw himself as a Vorticist. Being a instinctive contrarian and a very singular figure, he resisted being labelled or corralled into a group. Nevertheless, he was associated with the Vorticists and accepted an invitation to show his work alongside them in 1915 in the first Vorticist exhibition.

For our exhibition The Mud Bath is placed in a section that explores the period around 1913–14 when abstract painting was developing in a variety of ways. Much of it was still referencing its original figurative sources. So, in this picture – which is said to have been based on Schevzik’s Steam Baths in London’s Whitechapel – we see human figures – like mechanised bodies – reduced to simple planes and sharp angles. Bomberg obviously recognised it as his major work of that period and for his one-man exhibition in London in 1914 it was not only the major work in the catalogue but was also hung on the outside of the Chenil Galleries, as one critic observed, ‘rained upon, baked by the sun and garlanded with flags’.

David Bomberg, 'Study for 'The Mud Bath'' 1914

David Bomberg
Study for 'The Mud Bath' 1914
Watercolour and pencil on paper
support: 286 x 349 mm
Purchased 1975© Tate

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At the time this picture was made, Whitechapel was a predominantly Jewish area, and for Bomberg Jewish identity was a very important part of his identity as an artist. In 1914 he curated, with Jacob Epstein, an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery of 20th Century British art, which included a Jewish section. He therefore seems to have positioned himself explicitly as a Jewish British artist and to have proposed a distinctively Jewish form of modern art.

Chris Stephens is co-curator of The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World and Curator (Modern British Art) and Head of Displays at Tate Britain. 

Comments

d.mcardle

Bomberg was a communist until the 30's and, it is "mud"bath.

JimJ

Can I just ask (and no offense intended), what's the point? I mean, if this is one of the great paintings of the 20th Century, shouldn't we just start praying for Armageddon?

d.mcardle

unlike Matisse 'Dancers..' say, which leap on a grassy hillock ! these referenced figures seem to spring from underground,a red underground ,red the symbol of the left back to the French revolution I imagine .Jason's army sprang from dragons teeth planted in the mud. Considering how many died in the mud of WW1 an horrifically prophetic motif too. The black totem spine a symbol of human aspiration and progress onwards and upward,blimey if that were only true. The difference between this and Stanley Spencer say,is ,there's no judgement,that's modern

s.kerbel

The red, white and blue of Bomberg's "bathers" (favourite impressionist subject), while radically modern and shocking also seem to be patriotically associated with the flags of both Britain and France,(and of the Star of Israel motif)and emerging from a mikveh(ritual bath) seem also to be undergoing a rite of passage out of his East End ghetto into a new and Modernist world.