David Bomberg

Vision of Ezekiel


In Tate Britain

David Bomberg 1890–1957
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1143 × 1372 mm
frame: 1203 × 1435 × 68 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Morton Bequest through the Contemporary Art Society 1970

Display caption

The subject is taken from the Hebrew Bible. God guided the prophet Ezekiel to a valley full of bones and commanded him to speak: ‘There was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together.’ Skeletal yet animated, the figures appear to emerge from the platform. Bomberg’s painting style is often associated with vorticism. However, he did not sign its manifesto. He distrusted the group’s leader, Wyndham Lewis, and wanted to retain his independence.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

David Bomberg 1890–1957

T01197 Vision of Ezekiel 1912

Inscribed ‘Bomberg 12’ b.r.
Canvas, 45 x 54 (114 x 137).
Purchased from the d’Offay Couper Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) with the aid of the Morton Bequest made through the Contemporary Art Society 1970.
Coll: Purchased by the d’Offay Couper Gallery from the artist’s widow through Marlborough Fine Art.
Exh: The Camden Town Group and Others, Brighton Art Gallery, December 1913–January 1914 (not in catalogue); Friday Club, Alpine Club Gallery, February–March 1914 (19); Twentieth Century Art (Jewish Section), Whitechapel Art Gallery, May–June 1914 (255); London Group Retrospective, April–May 1928 (27); Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, September i960 (3); Marlborough Fine Art, March 1964 (4); Tate Gallery, March–April 1967 and subsequent tour to Hull, Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham (8, repr. pl. 1a).
Lit: Times, 20 February 1914, p. 10; Athenaeum, 21 February 1914, p.281; Sir Claude Phillips, ‘Art in Whitechapel’ in Daily Telegraph, July 1914; William Lipke, David Bömberg, 1967, p.40, repr. pl.6, with the incorrect date 1913.

The artist painted this picture in 1912 while he was still at the Slade School. His sister, Mrs Kathy Newmark, remembers him working on it at his parents’ home in St Mark’s Street, Aldgate, London, where he lived until January 1913.

It is not known whether the ‘Vision of Ezekiel’ was a subject suggested by the School or by the Slade Sketch Club: no painting of this subject or an obviously related theme by any of Bomberg’s contemporaries at the Slade has been traced. Also it is unclear to which particular vision of Ezekiel the title refers. Mrs Lilian Bomberg, the artist’s widow, has suggested the vision of the Valley of the Dried Bones (Ezekiel, chapter 37), where bones are miraculously revived to life. Bomberg may well have chosen the subject himself, as he was deeply interested in the Old Testament and Jewish history.

According to Miss Alice Mayes, Bomberg’s first wife (letter of 15 January 1972), the artist said that he based this work on a picture called ‘Island of Joy’ which was painted for the summer competition of the Slade Sketch Club in 1912, when the theme ‘Joy’ had been set as the competition subject. ‘The Island of Joy’ was thought at one time to have disappeared, but Miss Mayes confirms that it is the painting formerly in Mrs Lilian Bomberg’s collection sold at Sotheby’s on 5 July 1972 (79, repr.) and usually known in recent years as ‘Primeval Decoration’. This shows a number of people embracing one another on a shore, with other figures clambering out of boats; the costumes of the foreground figures and the presence of two centaurs suggest a pagan or mythological scene. Stylistically it is clearly a transitional work, as the foreground figures are drawn in a relatively traditional neo-classical manner whereas those in the middle distance and background are much more schematic and angular (and therefore lead on to those in T01197). Isaac Rosenberg, one of Bomberg’s Slade contemporaries, was still painting his picture ‘Joy’ for the summer competition in mid-August 1912, as is proved by one of his published letters; Bomberg was presumably working on his own painting at the same time. The ‘Vision of Ezekiel’, which followed it, was therefore probably painted during the last four months of 1912.

There still exist at least three large charcoal drawings for T01197. A signed drawing, 19 x 26¿ in., now in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows figures struggling, gesturing and rising from the floor of a deep pit. There is a large animal, possibly an elephant, in the background, on the right-hand side. In the middle of the area a figure lifts up a child. Some of the people are wearing tall, cylindrical hats. The figures are more softly modelled than the schematic figures in the ‘Island of Joy’ (probably because this is a detailed preparatory drawing). However, the angularity of the drawing style is pronounced. The figures are grouped and ordered regularly to the front plane of the drawing and are drawn as if seen from above.

A second drawing, 22 x 27 in., signed and dated 1912 (collection Mrs Lilian Bomberg), is less precisely modelled and the figures are more angular and block-like. Their positions are strongly articulated to horizontal or vertical planes, or to diagonal planes relating to the front plane of the drawing. The figures now struggle on a platform which rises from the centre of a pit: several men are walking around the platform inside the pit; others are sitting or resting on a ledge outside the pit.

The third drawing, 22 x 27 in., is signed and dated 1913 (collection Mrs Norman Bentwich). It has been squared up, presumably in preparation for the painting. The positions of the figures are almost the same as those in the picture although some faces still retain expressive features. There are also traces of precise and delicate modelling in the figures. It is not known why Bomberg dated this drawing 1913, though the chalk marks of the signature and date are less worn than the rest of the drawing. The drawing was bought for the present owner from Bomberg in 1914, when he was living in Robert Street, and it may be that he signed and wrongly dated it when he sold it.

Lipke (op. cit.) wrote of preparatory pencil drawings and watercolours for this work, but the compiler has been unable to trace any of these.

On the back of the canvas (now covered by a relining canvas) was the inscription ‘Decoration’ and the address of Bomberg’s home: 20 Tenter Buildings, St Mark’s Street, Aldgate. According to Miss Alice Mayes (letter to the compiler from her son, Denis Richardson, 20 January 1972), Bomberg when once asked to what genre this type of painting belonged, replied ‘Pure Decoration’ and wrote the word ‘Decoration’ on the back of the picture. Peter Richmond (letter of 8 February 1972) added that ‘While Bomberg felt he belonged to the “Cubist” school, yet he was alert to the dangers of such literary and oratic elaborations which Lewis in particular was creating in the public mind around the word “cubist”.’

Bomberg probably exhibited this painting for the first time in the ‘Cubist Room’ at the Camden Town Group and Others exhibition, with six other pictures. Miss Alice Mayes and Peter Richmond both confirmed the story that Wyndham Lewis nor only hung the painting behind a door so that it could scarcely be seen, but also did not include it in the catalogue (actions which they attributed to jealousy). Miss Mayes said that in return Bomberg refused to allow Lewis to reproduce any of his drawings in Blast. Mrs Bomberg told the compiler that she believes the artist told her that he took the picture away on the top of a taxi during the course of the exhibition.

Although Lewis did not list the picture in the catalogue, he wrote a description in the Introduction to the catalogue which might refer to this painting (it does not seem to relate directly to any of the listed pictures): ‘David Bomberg’s painting of a platform announces a colourist’s temperament, something between the cold blond of Severini’s earlier paintings and Vallotton. The form and subject matter are academic, but the structure of thé criss-cross pattern new and extremely interesting.’

According to Mrs Bomberg, the picture hung over the bedroom mantelpiece in the artist’s house. Bomberg referred to it jokingly as ‘Dream of Hezekiah’. She does not think the picture was exhibited between 1928 and 1960. In 1948 the artist wrote to Mr Harry Manheim (10 May 1943):

‘In your studio front room, the wall that comes halfway down from the ceiling gives sufficient depth that would take a mural. I have one about 4 ft. by 5 ft. painted many years ago. It is a figure composition in three dimensional forms, light delicate colour—the subject is “The Dream of Ezekiel”.’

‘Another work suitable for the wall opposite the window to the mural, 5 ft. height, 7 ft. breadth, light in tones, a figure composition—the subject “Joy”.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.

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