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